Sowing the SEEyDs of doom?
The December Brother opened at Downstage last weekend to generally positive reviews. With SEEyD, Tim Spite has carved a niche creating work that speaks to and about contemporary New Zealand society, with a thought-provoking directness that is all but Brechtian.
But, for the purposes of this blog, what interests me is not the main bill presentation itself, but the short advertisement beforehand. John Smythe calls it a community service announcement but it is a commissioned advertisement according to NZTA and their Advertising Manager. It’s allied with the huge ongoing Road Safety campaign for the NZ Transport Agency that Clemenger BBDO has managed for many years. The campaign has been no stranger to controversy in the past, usually for the use of graphic content to drive the safety message home. It’s unequivocally a positive societal message, though, rather than a commercial one, and this tends to give NZTA a public mandate to push boundaries. Now, however, they have pushed through a boundary of another kind and into the theatre space.
This initiative came about through ClemengerBBDO seeking alternative effective channels for their client’s message. Perhaps it was literally one of those ‘staring out the window’ revelations, as the ClemengerBBDO Wellington office is directly across the road from Downstage! Those of us in the theatre should take it as a compliment that our ancient industry is seen as a viable and unique communication format by people whose focus these days in increasingly on the new technology-dependent media.
Tim Spite’s working relationship with ClemengerBBDO dates back to the days of the famous National Bank Cricket campaign where Tim played the apprentice groundskeeper. In the years since he’s voiced innumerable radio and TV work for the agency. As such, when the idea came to move into the theatrical arena, Tim was a natural choice as go-to-guy.
My understanding is the process was collaborative between agency creatives and Tim and SEEyD actors. The agency arrived with a concept which was the developed theatrically by the SEEyD team. The illusory style of the piece, which plays the magic of theatre against its tangible presence in the space offered new opportunities for the talented Clems team, as well as affording them a messaging time of several minutes to work with, rather than 30, 45, 60 seconds. This creative work actually pre-dated work on The December Brother itself.
When word got out that this experiment was going to take place, there were some raised eyebrows in the theatre community, perhaps some muttered discontent and almost certainly some unspoken ‘now-why-didn’t-we-think-of-that?’s. This is because what SEEyD is doing seems to stray awfully close to a commercial intrusion into the artistic space. It’s not – but it’s close, and could be seen as the thin end of a wedge.
In many ways it’s a great deal for all parties:
SEEyD gets an awful lot out of the deal:
- Money. It’s tough out there and this short addition will make a significant difference to the production’s bottom line.
- Media that the show may not otherwise have got. As well as an additional mainstream angle, there’ll be coverage in both ad industry channels and NZTA-related outlets.
- Connections and contacts with a couple of important local organisations, namely NZTA & ClemengerBBDO. This is an investment in the future of the company.
- Another talking point about the production (another publicity narrative in addition to the ‘Bain’ angle).
- Some community goodwill, perhaps – it is a public service message after all.
- Credit for a groundbreaking approach to theatrical production that extends beyond the work and encompasses the whole enterprise in the search for innovation.
As far as downsides go, I suppose CNZ might have some questions the next time SEEyD applies for funding. Perhaps they need less if they’re sourcing such great sponsorship – that’s the kind of growth-retardant thinking WINZ used to go in for, so hopefully not.
Then there’s the backlash from some theatre practitioners and self-appointed guardians of the industry. The sticking points will be:
- First this – what next? Infomercials at interval?
- This is a betrayal of the audience contract. They come to the theatre in part to get away from the ubiquity of ads.
- This is also one of our points of difference to tv/film – a aspirational high-culture status which is compromised by such naked commercialism, even for a socially responsible client.
- Suspension of disbelief. How can we invest in these actors as characters in a story after they have been out front in service of an unrelated message?
Some of these concerns are legitimate. I’m sure no one wants to sit in the theatre watching actors endorse cutlery brands before the curtain goes up on the Scottish play, (“is this a Ginsu I see before me?). But some points do need to be made:
Firstly the theatre is not a pristine, commercial-free environment. All programmes contain ads – generally the more expensive the production, the more sponsorship sought, the more bold the ads. Sponsor signage is also common both within and without the building. And let’s not pretend product placement has never occurred. I’ll put my hand up to being part of a co-op production where we worked with a beer company looking to promote a British beer brand in our market. We prominently displayed their product on stage (as well as giving away samples to the audience). I’ve got no regrets – they gave us 30 doz. – far more than we needed for the season!
Secondly, there’s a danger in overestimating the degree to which the audience will feel alienated or put off by the presence of such a message up front. In part this is due to the successful ‘theatricalisation’ of the message can successfully disguise the fact it’s an ad. In other words, it’s such a good looking piece of theatre in it’s own right, that the audience enjoys it on it’s merits and the message comes along for the ride. It may well actually add to their enjoyment of the evening rather than detract.
Thirdly, the fact is meeting the costs of theatre is hard and will only get harder unless new revenue streams are found. We in the theatre cannot offset inflating costs of production by increasing production levels (as every other industry does), we can only increase prices. And if audiences are unwilling to pay (as in times of recession), and funding bodies are reluctant to meet the shortfall, (as in times of recession!) then we must consider all possibilities to survive. Remember: all your favourite free-to-air television content is free-to-you not because of NZ on Air, but because of commercial advertisers.
The other question that remains is: what value do the NZTA get for their money?
From Clemenger’s point of view this collaboration is both a useful experience for the creatives and a exemplar of out-of-the-box thinking. ClemengerBBDO can add this New Zealand- (possibly world-) first approach to its diverse portfolio of communication channels. It may well be a contender in awards season, although categorising it may be a trick!
Most importantly, though, for both the agency and NZTA is, again, the earned media component, which is directly linked to the first-of-its-kind nature of the ad. While the bottom-line cost of the ad is insignificant in the context of NZTA’s media budget, the return on investment in terms of eyeballs reached per dollar is not likely to be spectacular. Factor in the additional media time – a two minute network news item for example – then it starts to look like money very well spent.
For those who worry about the potential of more commercial variations on this theme, this should be a comfort. Any additional media component; any ‘buzz’ is so tied to the innovation aspect that copycats are likely to find these returns significantly diminished. Just as no one is going to be trying to produce fast-turnaround video responses to Twitter questions despite the phenomenal success of the Old Spice campaign , I don’t expect to see repeats of the SEEyD/ClemengerBBDO collaboration any time soon.
Finally, and most satisfyingly for me, the concept is so successful because it suits SEEyD’s brand. As I said at the top of the post, Tim’s company has created an identity based on theatricalising real social issues in a thought provoking manner. I don’t know of another producer better placed philosophically – artistically – to break this ground, nor of a client whose message is a better match.
Comments, as always, very welcome.