Common Ground Studios: Bringing Positive Realities to Life with Founder Sarah Yourgrau
Jordan P. Kelley, Content Director, Brand Storytelling
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It's important to be intentional when crafting your brand story. The brand that understands the outcomes it seeks will always find less resistance at every stage of the production process, from storyfinding to distribution to post-production calls-to-action. If the idea of beginning with intention poses a problem for you or your brand, here's a solution: partner with creatives who specialize in intention. Sarah Yourgrau, founder of Common Ground Studios, is one such creative. The anthropologist and Emmy Winning producer has more than a few great takes of her own on how to manifest great outcomes with the power of story. Brand Storytelling caught up with Yourgrau to learn more about her principled approach to production and her newly founded company upholding those principles, Common Ground Studios:
Great to talk to you Sarah. Please tell us more about how you got your start and your background in brand storytelling.
Growing up as a theater kid, in a multi-cultural family, I’ve always appreciated the reality that life is full of so many simultaneous stories and realities, all swirling in and around each other at every given moment. My father was a playwright and documentary filmmaker and my mother a social worker, so it was enculturated in me from a very early age to look at any opportunity to experience a different world as the chance to broaden my own. As an adult, this curiosity and ease in other cultures (both mainstream and sub-) led me to continue on to get my Masters degree in Social Anthropology - but it was my deep love of theater that helped me infuse these passions into a larger arena through storytelling.
For the past 12 years, I have been traveling the world, cultivating a roster of authentic relationships and unique access into the worlds of individuals, communities and organizations across nearly every walk of life. And while I’ve produced everything from commercials to feature-length, I made the choice early on in my career to spend most of my time telling stories that helped to illuminate the possibility and creative-solutions to life’s challenges. For example, from 2016-2021, during what was deemed one of the “most divided periods in modern American history”, I Executive-Produced and Co-Hosted a series for Facebook Watch called “Returning the Favor”. This series, which went on to win an Emmy for the brand, was focused on celebrating and rewarding the light-workers, the tactfully-optimistic individuals and organizations endeavoring solutions in even the darkest of shadows. Over those years, I built lasting relationships with communities in over 150 different inner-cities, rural hamlets, suburbs and indigenous reservations, on the ground tackling subjects from the opioid-crisis to prison reform, and veteran and environmental solutions. This rare understanding and connection to our different subcultures, has enabled me to provide more comprehensive support for brands wanting to create content that will connect with their current or target demographics.
How does the name Common Ground align with your agency's core values?
The name Common Ground was born out of our belief that virtually everyone has a story that interconnects, in some way, with each other. In fact, this ethos has become a bit of a game-ifying challenge at the company: Identify the opportunity for authentic connection and access, then build the narrative bridges to get there. Extra points for connecting pathways between two (seemingly) disparate groups! And while some “bridge-work” may require more creativity than others, the most reliable framework we’ve found to support the weight of truly reciprocal storytelling, comes in the form of uplifting media - narratives of our brighter possibilities. Because, like a kind of cognitive magic, the more we view our subjects from a place of “where is there commonality?” the more that commonality reveals itself.
However, this “ethos of interconnectivity” isn’t just the filter we use for our stories, but also our approach to how we tell those stories. At Common Ground Studios, we understand that storytelling is a fundamentally collaborative process, both between the subject and audience… as well as between our partners and creators who bring these stories to life! This is why the bespoke teams we assemble and the empowered production culture we create to house that process, is of equal importance and value to us as the final product.
What exactly do you mean by “uplifting media”?
“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”
This quote by Noam Chomsky hangs framed in the Common Ground Studios office as both a battle-cry and reminder of the profound influence in which hope and belief have on our willingness to actually get up and contribute to the making of a brighter future.
Uplifting media is any narrative-framing and/or storytelling-style that highlights the strengths and possibilities of a subject, along with its challenges. This strengths-focused approach helps audiences feel more inspired and activated to engage with a subject, with a greater sense of agency, openness and playful creative-problem-solving, as opposed to the paralysis from the standard deficit-framed or fear-based narratives around our social or environmental challenges.
How is uplifting media an effective tool for mass cultural change?
In simple terms: “Life imitates art”. We’ve seen time and time again, that when we bring a reality or possibility to life in a story, we increase its likelihood of existing in the real-world. Our human brains are hard-wired for the analogical and relational reasoning of storytelling. The language we use and the images we associate with those words deeply influence the way we perceive or engage with a subject, both individually and as a collective. Over the years, we’ve seen the direct impact that more authentic and fully-human representations of race, gender, socio-economic status and sexual orientation has had on the real-world experience. It’s shifted the zeitgeist, broken down barriers, inspired new role models and broadened conversations.
Uplifting media is a strategic tool for inspiring authentic representation of our greater possibilities. Stories that illuminate our commonalities, as well as our capacity to more effectively collaborate and communicate with each other through and across our differences. Even just giving each other a bit more intimate access and opportunities to explore each other's worlds can help to rewire a more generative relationship with each other. Storytelling paints a path forward and uplifting media is a tactic of storytelling to keep our cups full and batteries charged along the long path of change-making.
How does uplifting media and storytelling give an edge to brands?
In our capitalist society, brands are amongst the most influential co-authors of our societal narratives, including our possible futures. A brand’s story has the ability to drive-cultural change and lead us towards new ways of engaging with the world and each other. But, with more and more options available to consumers and an increased desire for transparency across the board, the brands that will remain relevant (or even survive) are the ones who understand how to keep people assured that their time and/or money is being used towards a greater purpose than just a single product or service. That’s where uplifting media and storytelling comes in.
Uplifting media helps make complex and daunting ideas feel more approachable, relevant and most importantly, actionable. When brands can stay dynamic and relatable enough to merge with their audience or consumers' stories, they can spur an activation loop that helps inspire more “hands on deck” to engage more sustainably towards a solution. 1% shift, by 1% shift can change our entire direction.
What more can brands do in their content creation to motivate action from their community of viewers and consumers?
On a primal level, viewers and consumers are all seeking more opportunities to affirm the reality that life has a bigger meaning, purpose and impact than just ours alone. And while we all may be seeking that spirit-nourishing desire for service towards the planet and each other… we’re also very lazy. In a post-pandemic, newly “mortality-acknowledging-culture”, we need more assurance than ever that any effort we yield will be rewarded with at least a small sense of accomplishment towards a higher goal. Thus, it’s more important than ever that brands create content that provides more on-ramps for people to see they can engage with the solution to this problem in many different ways. With its strong cross-cultural relationships and insights, Common Ground Studios works with brands to help identify and then portray the storytelling approach that will best support their mission. Through a lens of uplifting media, CGS collaborates with mission-driven brands to create narratives that lead with solutions and possibilities, directly increasing the participation of their viewers and consumers across both passive and activated engagement. We need all hands on deck, in all the different ways, to create meaningful change and brands are uniquely suited to lead that charge.
What’s next for Common Ground?
I hope every generation feels this way, but now, more than ever, is a really exciting time to be in storytelling. With the wake of the Pandemic growing further and further behind us, we’re observing a whole new affinity for more collaboration in the storytelling process – one that acknowledges that we’re humans and not machines. This past year we’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate in these more intimate ways with so many amazing brand partners, ranging from Instagram, Youtube Music, Kiss The Ground and so many in between. For 2023, we’re looking forward to growing our team and broadening our storytelling-web even more through film, content creator and narrative consulting across different languages, cultures and communities.
Visit the Common Ground Studios Website here.
About Sarah Yourgrau
Sarah Yourgrau is a Social Anthropologist, 2x Emmy Award Winning Producer and Founder of Common Ground Studios – a storytelling agency harnessing the power of uplifting media to help us keep our batteries charged and cups full along the long path of change-making. Sarah spends most of her time filming throughout the country, collaborating with other bridge-builders and speaking on the power of uplifting media as a tool for a more collaborative and curious culture.