Gen Z Wants Storytellers, Not Ads: Q&A with Filmmaker Ben Proudfoot

Jordan Kelley, Content Director,

Youth culture and buying power are wrapped up with one another. And although it is well documented that the youngest purchasing generation, Gen Z, will consume more advertising material targeted at them than any previous generation, ultimately brand marketers continue to try and use the same old ad models to reach the highly savvy and even more highly critical group.

Part of the problem stems from the huge cultural and age gap between those with the power to make major campaign decisions and those with the power to invoke "cancel culture" from the palm of their hand. If only the decision makers had a go-between; a proven, trusted professional still connected enough to youth culture all while being able to maintain a brand's bottom line. Enter Ben Proudfoot.

Proudfoot, Founder and CEO of Breakwater Studios, was recently named one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 for his leadership and innovation in the brand-funded documentary space. Ben has directed and produced over 50 noteworthy short documentaries for some of the world’s most admired brands, including Charles Schwab and Annapurna Pictures. Breakwater’s work has been recognized by The Webby Awards, Raindance Web Fest, the Atlantic Film Festival, and the Idyllwild Cinemafest, among others.

Brand Storytelling caught up with Proudfoot in order to talk about the generational disconnect in advertising and to discuss the ways in which brands can adjust their positioning and perspective as it relates to using filmmaking to reach Gen Z:

In your work as a documentarian and brand filmmaker, you’ve had the opportunity to experience firsthand both a brand’s perception of what makes for a great piece of content and audience reception of that very same content. Often, there’s a disconnect between the two. Where do you see brand perception and audience reception overlap? Where don’t they overlap?

To be completely honest, the failure that is commonly occurring is that bosses think branded content is advertising, the day-to-day brand person is a frustrated filmmaker or only focused on pleasing their boss, and the folks that are actually making the content are only focused on getting the next job from the brand. And then there may be an agency in there trying to milk the entire cow for all it's worth. This chain of insanity is what produces half-hearted, corporately-steeped "branded content" that audiences ignore. Unfortunately, that is the rule, not the exception.

When things work well, in my experience, you have a boss (often a CMO) that starts with the understanding that branded content is meaningful entertainment that a brand can take credit for, the day-to-day person tasked with making the film and executing the strategy is eager to enable a talented filmmaker, execute ingenious distribution strategies and cajole management outside of their comfort zone, and the filmmaker, understanding the brand's big goals, is laser focused on telling a great story and capturing something true the best they can. That usually is a good recipe.

What is it about Gen Z that makes them so discerning when it comes to advertising and branded content?

I think the common misconception is that Gen Z has short attention spans. You know who else has short attention spans? Experts. And I think that's what Gen Z is — an entire generation of media experts. They are so literate in digital content, that they can tell in a blink of an eye what the intent and quality of what they are watching is. Look at the hours and hours Gen Z spends binging tv series they love. They can pay attention for long periods of time — it just has to be good. And not sell anything.

What are the hallmarks of a piece of branded content that is not only acceptable but enticing to Gen Z?

The vast majority of Gen Z is hungry to transform the narrative of America. They want social progress and they see businesses like people and want them to be authentic and consistent. And they don't trust ones who just want to make money. They also have a thirst for deep knowledge and context as the most educated generation we've ever produced.

Where and how can brands execute on that?