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

Jordan Kelley, Content Director, Brandstorytelling.tv

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?


Honestly, it's about finding a young filmmaker who naturally makes compelling material to Gen Z and is willing to work with the brand to find a series or campaign concept that both serves the brand's overall story and also is something the filmmaker would make anyway. Then you hire that filmmaker, be there when asked/needed, and meanwhile, use resources you wisely reserved to build a really smart media campaign around a constellation of related content that the filmmaker is making.


What are the actionable components of this idea that brands can set in on immediately in order to maintain or improve their standing with one of the most discerning generations?


If the goal is to make Gen Z go wild, you have to be committed on a consistent basis for the long term. Get funding for a series that goes on for at least a year with intent for longer.

Set expectations with senior people for what this is and isn't. Be honest.

Find, hire and empower a talented young filmmaker to collaborate with who won't pander to you because they've had some success with audiences before. They will be the right filter.


About Ben Proudfoot

Ben Proudfoot is the creative force behind Breakwater Studios, an award-winning film production company based in Los Angeles. The studio is headquartered in the Los Feliz building where Walt Disney started his company in 1923. Proudfoot gets his inspiration from the master of dreamers and aims to build a new studio model that replicates the mastery and quality of Disney productions while incorporating the brand vision of companies looking to engage with forward-thinking consumers.


A leader in the short documentary space, Proudfoot 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 most recent project for The New York Times is Almost Famous, a series of short films for their Op Docs series featuring people who nearly made history.


Proudfoot was recently named one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 for his leadership and innovation in the brand-funded documentary space. Breakwater’s work has been recognized by The Webby Awards, Raindance Web Fest, the Atlantic Film Festival, and the Idyllwild Cinemafest, among others. During the pandemic, he has pioneered a remote method of filming subjects called SIP, which gives him the ability to get up close and personal with his interview subjects while never actually being in the same room.


Proudfoot hails from Halifax, Nova Scotia and is a graduate of University of Southern California. He is an accomplished sleight-of-hand magician and loves his pup. Learn more at Breakwater Studios.

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