Wednesday, July 18, 2018
  • Friday, Jun. 9, 2017
American Brand Stand At PromaxBDA: Consumers Expect Companies To Help Drive Social Change
In this Oct. 10, 2016 file photo, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi poses for a photo during the premiere of his film, "The Salesman," in Paris. Farhadi was the impetus for United Talent Agency's (UTA) decision to cancel its Oscars party and hold a rally on immigration, according to PromaxBDA session panelist Peter Benedek of UTA. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)
Panelists from UTA, Civic Entertainment Group, Funny Or Die, "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" discuss brands/clients developing a voice on issues, causes
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Though there are pitfalls--as evidenced by Pepsi’s widely panned and then pulled Kendall Jenner commercial, and Starbucks’ attempt to spark conversations about race relations via its “Race Together” campaign--brands are increasingly taking stands on causes and issues, and in the process helping to drive social change. Consumers expect them to, according to a Havas study, and it’s a responsibility that was embraced by panelists during a discussion session on the wrap day of the PromaxBDA Conference (6/5-8) in Los Angeles.

As people lose faith in government and institutions, brands are stepping into the breach, according to panelist Rajiv Menon, director of cultural strategy, Civic Entertainment Group. Fellow panelist, Peter Benedek, founding partner and board member of United Talent Agency, noted that the biggest companies in America are taking stands on issues ranging from healthcare to climate change. He observed that in today’s world, for example, Exxon cares about renewable energy while the head of the EPA doesn’t.

UTA itself took a stand on immigration policy, canceling its annual Oscar party this year when its client, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, decided not to attend the Academy Awards ceremony even though his The Salesman was nominated (and wound up winning) the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Farhadi boycotted the ceremony over President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban on people from several majority-Muslim countries, including Iran.

Benedek noted that it didn’t seem right to hold an Oscars party in light of what was happening. He described the party as “a form of branding” which wouldn’t have been appropriate. So instead UTA opted to hold a rally in support of immigration, a fundraising event which too became “a form of branding exercise” for the talent agency, giving it a voice on a key social issue. Asked by session moderator Katy Steinmetz, San Francisco bureau chief of Time Magazine, if UTA was afraid it might alienate Trump supporters it does business with, Benedek said the agency did “what we thought was right” and didn’t “throw a feather up in the air” to see which way the wind was blowing. He added that UTA has its share of conservative clients, including former Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly.

Joining Benedek, Menon and Steinmetz at the PromaxBDA session--titled “When Brands Take A Stand: Activism or Capitalism?”--were panelists Kim Burdges, director of marketing & digital production, TBS’ Full Frontal with Samantha Bee; and Brad Jenkins, managing director and executive producer, Funny or Die.

Jenkins made a tongue-in-cheek bid for Pepsi business, sharing that when he first saw the Pepsi/Kendall Jenner ad depicting a public protest demonstration with beautiful people, he thought it was “a comedy tone deaf can you possibly be.” At the same time, he said in a perverse way the Pepsi spot was “brilliant” by being “so bad” that we’re still talking about it today. The lesson learned, said Jenkins, is that when jumping into politics and issues, “you can’t B.S. it. Americans sniff that out.” Jenkins’ message for Pepsi--”we would love to work with you” to “turn things around.” He added that Funny or Die is well equipped to take on corporate branded entertainment because today especially “the biggest voices of resistance are comedians...Comedy is the voice of truth, the last refuge of calling out” those who deserve to be called out.

In that vein, Burdges noted that Full Frontal with Samantha Bee has come out strong on women’s rights which are being challenged on several fronts, among the notable being the move to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a resource turned to by many women for a wide range of healthcare issues, including diagnostic and preventative treatment.  When the third Trump-Clinton debate had the former call the latter “a nasty woman,” Bee came up with a “Nasty Woman” t-shirt, which her show merchandised, with 100 percent of the net proceeds going to Planned Parenthood.

Also cited during the session was a Havas poll in which 70 percent of consumers said they expected brands to drive social change. And despite the Pepsi debacle, there are many examples of brands branding themselves successfully by taking stands and launching initiatives relative to social causes and issues. Menon noted, for example, that Chobani has upped its brand and stature with its initiative to hire refugees, and Nike too has resonated with audiences through its “Equality” campaign which taps into fairness, sportsmanship and mutual respect as hallmarks of sports. “Equality” affirms that the world would be a better place if we extended those values beyond the playing field. In an anthem “Equality” commercial directed by Melina Matsoukas of production house PRETTYBIRD, we see the painted lines of the field lengthened to go past the schoolyards, the basketball courts, the arenas and stadiums to reach into and impact everyday life. “Equality” features LeBron James, Serena Williams, Kevin Durant, Megan Rapinoe, Dalilah Muhammad, Gabby Douglas, and Victor Cruz, amplifying their voices in an effort to uplift, open eyes and bring the positive values that sport can represent into wider focus. “Equality” also features actor Michael B. Jordan, who voices the film, and a new performance by Alicia Keys, singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

The Black List
In a PromaxBDA keynote session earlier in the day, Franklin Leonard discussed The Black List, which he started in 2005, surveying film industry development executives about their favorite recent feature scripts that had not been produced. Rather than single these properties out based on their box office potential, he simply asked execs to identify which unproduced scripts they loved. Since then, 300-plus screenplays from the annual Black List have been made as feature films, earning more than $26 billion in global box office business, nominated for 264 Academy Awards, and winning 48--including Best Picture for Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, Argo and Spotlight, and 10 of the last 20 screenwriting Oscars.

Additionally, since 2012 The Black List has conducted a screenplay marketplace that has yielded hundreds of major agency signings and sales, as well as a number of features, including Golden Globe nominee The Nightingale and Eddie the Eagle. The Black List now encompasses screenwriter labs, live script readings in NY and L.A. and 20 screenwriter happy hours worldwide.

In a back and forth conversation with writer/producer/actress Lena Waithe, Leonard said The Black List is looking to simply “identify and celebrate great voices--and to see their work made.” He suggested that individuals and the industry at large do the same, increasing diversity. Leonard asked each PromaxBDA session attendee to “think of three people you work with most closely.” He then asked if one of them was of a different race than you. If not, he then posed a pair of questions: “What perspectives are you not seeing because your team looks like you? What opportunities to make money are you missing because your team looks like you?”

Both Leonard and Waithe affirmed that diversity is not just morally the right thing to do but also the prudent course financially. To gain access to the homes--and buying decisions--of people of color, she noted, you need their perspectives. A series like Atlanta, she related, works because “we know he [series creator Donald Glover] knows us.” Similarly this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight resonates, generating empathy from people from all walks of life because it came from auteurs who had authentic perspectives.

Waithe is a writer/actress on the series Masters of None, was a producer of the feature Dear White People, a writer on the show Bones, an actress on The Comeback and Transparent, and has developed a show soon to debut on Showtime centered on life on the southside of Chicago.

Waithe added that a key to promoting diversity is to open up more opportunities for executives of color.

Leonard then asked PromaxBDA marketers and promotion people to do their part by thinking “seriously” about the intent of series/movie creators. Marketing and promotional content, he said, should ideally “tell the story that people who are telling the stories are telling.”

Jay Curtis
The PromaxBDA confab schedule perennially wraps with the State of Our Art presentation which celebrates and screens the year’s best in promotional content creation. And while that showcase was inspiring, even more so was the appearance of Jay Curtis, a veteran network promotions creator who was instrumental in launching and maintaining State of Our Art for PromaxBDA and its predecessor organizations.

Curtis is now coping with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). His speech has been a bit slowed but he is as witty and insightful as ever, at one point even deploying voiceover artist Joe Cipriano to speak for him. Cipriano read a passage from Curtis’ new book of poetry, "In and Out of Dreaming" (Lexingford 2017), which describes from the inside the experience of his battle with ALS, mixing humor, inspiration, sorrow and love--but never self-pity.

Curtis has committed a portion of royalties from every sale of the book to the ALS Association ( “In and Out of Dreaming” can be purchased at,,, or directly from the publisher at