(Or, How Fatherhood Taught Me To Stop Explaining and Love the Brand)
Parents are a greedy lot.
And us newbies can be the worst offenders. By the time he was six months old, nearly every aspect of my son Charlie had been spoken for.
His chin? Mine.
Eyes? My wife’s.
We claimed his laugh to have once belonged to my mother and that a certain restlessness was all Maria’s dad. Even the name we’d chosen wasn’t truly his, but a derivative of his great grandfather.
On the surface, this seemed normal and harmless. But somewhere in that six-month delirium of cortisol and dopamine, Maria and I lost our grip. Charlie became not so much a baby, but a blank screen on which his parents could project a lifetime of family pride, doubt, vanity and loss. At every stage of development, each new wrinkle he showed was an invitation to fire up that projector and retrieve an old slide carousel from the hall closet of our memories.
It was heartwarming. And self-indulgent. And more than a little ridiculous. Fortunately, I had something to keep my sappy, sleep-deprived mind from completely scattering to the winds of nostalgia.
For months I’d been working on a client project that was finally coming to fruition. It had begun as a purely theoretical effort — an exercise to show a non-profit, community hospital how broadly their brand might define itself. The goal was to prove to them just how unique they were. In today’s healthcare climate of corporate consolidation, their independent, indigenous spirit made for something bigger than a series of loosely connected service lines. They were doing more than mending injury or fighting disease. They were providing a real, omnipresent sense of support and security for a close-knit community.
Hokey as that may sound, it’s the God’s honest truth. Which always increases the pressure on a creative team to do that truth justice. As such, scripts were written with great care. A subtle, symbolic story arc emerged that blurred the line between caregivers and community members, showing how this place and its hospital are inextricably linked.
Preparing the presentation, I realized how attached we’d gotten to the concept and, for the first time, regretted that it was only an exercise to show our partners what could be. A shame that it would never be produced, I thought.
Enter the first link in a chain of surprises.
“We love this,” the marketing director said. “More importantly, we need this. Let’s go.”
So we went.
Locations were scouted, shooting boards prepared; FAA airspace was granted and a helicopter commissioned. The creative team’s vision was set to become reality.
Then reality decided it had something to say about the creative team’s vision.
Prior to the shoot, our client began to question the amputee athlete we’d centered the narrative around. They acknowledged this was more exception than rule where their patient population was concerned and felt more comfortable casting a weekend warrior who’d recently received physical therapy for hip pain. They then decided against using professional talent for other key scenes, opting for real patients instead.
Soon after, Hurricane Matthew buzz-sawed the Carolina coasts and chewed through the largest autumn watermelon farm on the eastern seaboard — nixing one of our most anticipated setups.
And on day one of production, a shrimp boat we were to film ran afoul of the tides and was prevented from entering the harbor.
I phoned my wife late one evening, midway through the shoot. She picked up on the third ring.
“Charlie’s a lefty,” she offered in place of ‘hello.’
“Huh?,” I said.
“I think he’s left-handed. Every time I give him a Cheerio he switches it to his left hand before lifting it to his mouth.”
“Yeah. Crazy, right? So how’s it going down there?”
“Eh. Okay I guess.”
“Real convincing,” she offered sarcastically.
“I dunno. It’s not exactly what I imagined.”
“That’s normal though, right? Organic approach and all that?”
“Yeah. But the scripting was pretty intentional on this one. I knew how the dots connected on paper. I could explain it. What we’re shooting — I just don’t know.
“Could be a good thing.”
We started to see in the edit suite a few weeks later. Yes, some of the beats had morphed. And several of the scenarios had to be adjusted to accommodate a cast with no acting experience. But all in all, the spot began to hang together.
It’s been running for a couple weeks now. The audience response has been overwhelming. And I’d be lying if I claimed the concept’s evolution wasn’t a big reason why.
The truth is, allowing the vision to evolve and finding ways to make the changes work produced a more telling reflection of the community. The audience responded because we had offered it a mirror, not a projector.
In a song for his young son Sean, John Lennon famously wrote that “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” The experience on this spot leads me to think the same can be said for brands. Brands arise organically. Advertising doesn’t create them, it simply amplifies them in the direction of an audience. Marketing is a means, not an end.
As creatives, we can (and should) research and strategize and concept and script and explain until we’re convinced we’re offering clients the most insightful, dynamic work possible. But it's all for naught if we don’t recognize when to get out of the way and let the essence of a hospital, or a community, or a 6-month-old shine through.
Two months later, Charlie’s still fielding his Cheerios on the left. And while Maria and I tried to find precedent for this on both sides of our families, we could not. He is the only southpaw for at least three generations. Which makes it damn near my favorite thing about him. On Saturday mornings, I like to grab a cup of coffee and pull his highchair into the living room where I can watch him eat. And wave. And conduct imaginary orchestras like only a baby can.
I know the more time passes, the more ways he’ll find to defy our explanations. “Who will he be?” I wonder. At six? Or 16? Or 22? What other wonderful things will he show us that we can’t account for or lay claim to?
As Lennon said, “I can hardly wait.”
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Special thanks to Greyhawk Films, our production partner on this spot.