How GoDaddy Turned a CSR Initiative Into a Festival Film: Q&A with Adam Palmer and Sophie Harris
Jordan P. Kelley, Content Director, Brand Storytelling
Big Water Summer: A Creation Story recently screened at SXSW as part of its Documentary Shorts Competition Presented by IMDbPro. The film tells the story of Cherilyn Yazzie, a social worker-turned-farmer on a mission to bring healthy crops to her childhood home on the Navajo Nation. The film finds its roots in a brand-funded series produced by web hosting company and business platform GoDaddy. The series spotlights participants in GoDaddy's 'Empower' program, a corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative equipping entrepreneurs in underserved communities with training, tools, and peer networks to accelerate their business journeys. Brand Storytelling caught up with GoDaddy's Director of Creative Production Ops Adam Palmer and the film's director Sophie Harris to learn more about how Cherilyn Yazzie went from Empower program participant to the subject of a festival doc:
What are the origins of Big Water Summer?
Adam Palmer: When I started at GoDaddy in 2019, this project was the first of its kind to be undertaken by the company. In my first week, I met with the leader of our Corporate Sustainability program, Stacy Cline, and heard first-hand how GoDaddy’s philanthropic arm, Empower by GoDaddy, was ramping up the growth of its partnerships across the U.S. Stacy and her team’s goal is to ensure small business opportunity is available to all, no matter an individual’s circumstance or means, and to approach these issues beyond the digital presence GoDaddy had already established. Hearing about this team and the program’s ability to partner with local CDFIs (Community Development Financial Institutions) to create a sense of hope for small businesses truly inspired me. GoDaddy was providing tools and resources to underserved entrepreneurs who were in critical need of support. As an example, some of the businesses we worked with on this project lacked access to broadband connectivity and access to traditional financing to scale their businesses and further foster business growth. The work being done through GoDaddy’s CSR programs were making an enormous impact on businesses, and I knew immediately that this was something that my team and I needed to leverage through storytelling.
The documentary Big Water Summer: A Creation Story was a byproduct of our long-form series initiative called Made in America, A GoDaddy Series. In the most recent installment of Made in America, we met with and documented Cherilyn Yazzie as part of the larger series which takes place in Phoenix, Arizona. There were so many aspects of Cherilyn's personal story that we found profoundly touching. We captured amazing and heart-breaking moments that continued to inspire us as a team, as we captured her story in real-time. When Sophie Harris, the series director, approached me about releasing Cherilyn's story as a short film, and I immediately saw it as an opportunity to bring additional audiences together over a narrative that we had such an emotional connection with.
What did kicking off a series like Made in America look like internally? What set it apart from other media driven initiatives within the company?
AP: This began internally with GoDaddy's in-house studio. We started small in identifying the scope of this initiative. We knew that we had the opportunity to capture compelling content that had the potential to draw in an audience to be captivated by the subject's stories. We knew, however, that developing the technique of casting these individuals—real people starting and growing their businesses—was going to take special care. These individuals are not “talent,” after all, and their comfort level and on-camera presence were something that we understood would take time and care to evolve.
Sophie Harris: This project is unique because it was produced in-house, and our goal was to document real-life graduates of GoDaddy’s Empower program, a social impact program which offers tools, training and support to entrepreneurs in underserved communities. Allowing for the space in production for those relationships and real-life stories to develop and unfold organically was crucial to this project.
What did the balance of input and influence look like between director and brand?
SH: From the onset, there was a core connection between the storytelling and the brand. We cast the project from within the Empower by GoDaddy program, reaching out to small business owners who were genuinely enrolled in the program.
AP: Our goals and objectives were clearly identified from the beginning and helped us to guide the project from its very onset. We briefed our in-house studio on the opportunity to create compelling, audience-first content. We knew from the start that this documentary was translating GoDaddy's vision of democratizing opportunities for entrepreneurs, and it was our responsibility to tell the story of small business owners and operators who had overcome obstacles and who had the potential to inspire other individuals who wanted to start their own businesses. Our Brand team worked closely with us in the casting process. Sophie took the lead in casting the individuals we met on the ground.
Knowing these business owners would fuel the narrative, it was a painstaking process to understand what the next several months might entail for these businesses, as well as the owners, that were starting or growing their ventures, plus we had to factor in their chemistry and charisma on-camera. Once Sophie landed on Cherilyn Yazzie, a farmer on the Navajo Nation reservation, who was providing much needed fresh produce to the community via her business, Coffee Pot Farms, production could begin. Our team was dispatched to capture as much of her story as we could—with the added challenge of being in the middle a pandemic.
Under Sophie's direction, we were able to capture an intimate view of Cherilyn’s business. The trials of operating a small business during COVID-19 lockdowns were no small task, and the perils for the business itself were equally difficult to manage. What we were able to document was incredible and inspiring: a Navajo woman with a mission to support her community during an economic and environmental crisis.
What other challenges did you face in the making of this film?
SH: The remote location of this project presented challenges, but also opportunities. Cherilyn’s farm is off the grid—with no running water or electricity—over an hour’s drive from the border town where the closest hotel is located. Early mornings that far into the desert are so beautiful. We always wanted to arrive before dawn so we could film as the sun came up, which in the summer was around 5:30 a.m. Taking into account the 1-hour time change between the state of Arizona (which does not follow daylight savings) and the reservation, we had to get up at 3 a.m. to get the shot. It was a tough turnaround for our crew. But, once we’d had our gas station coffee, the incredible vistas of Dilkon made it completely worthwhile.
Narratively, those long-distance drives play a huge role in Cherilyn’s life, her business and the economy of the reservation. The average Navajo Nation resident has to drive three hours to reach a grocery store. The challenge of accessing commerce, the long timelines of rural life and the quiet, thoughtful, dusty drives to meet customers, informed the film’s tone and are an undercurrent to the pacing and presentation of information in the piece.
Having leveraged the work being done as part of GoDaddy's Empower initiative to tell this story, what values do you hope to communicate about the brand?
AP: Big Water Summer: A Creation Story ties back to our mission of making independent business success an opportunity that is inclusive to everyone. GoDaddy wants to see these hard-working small business owners reach whatever level of success the entrepreneur sets their sights to achieve. When opportunity is not equally inclusive, we have to find ways to do better. And in this story, doing better affects an entire community.
What are your thoughts on brands making films?
SH: As a filmmaker, I’m thrilled at the opportunity presented by brands investing in the power of storytelling, but there is a responsibility to craft projects that organically align with brand values so that that connection is inherent and not adjacent. The beauty of this project is that because Cherilyn was genuinely enrolled in and supported by GoDaddy’s Empower program, the messaging was woven into the foundation of her story, so we were able to honestly document her experiences and tie them back to that core messaging. That authenticity is what makes for a great brand storytelling opportunity.
Will GoDaddy continue to produce series, create films, and bring filmmakers in-house? If so, what is the common thread those projects might share with this one?
AP: GoDaddy will continue to leverage storytelling, in many formats, to connect with and bring a strong value proposition to audiences and customers across our owned and operated channels, distribution partnerships and earned media. We know that a brand's identity is an amalgamation of potential factors; from the care and services the customer receives to the initiatives a brand supports. I feel that audiences (both customers and potential customers) want and need to see more from brands than the transactional, surface layer. Consumers today want a window into what these perspective brands are doing to improve the conditions for the customers they serve. Projects like Big Water Summer highlight just how deeply a brand can, and should, be involved in the journey of their customers; not just understanding the challenges and the struggles, but specifically and pro-actively putting themselves in the driver’s seat to affect the social and economic environment of their customers. It's no longer enough to highlight the upside of your product in your marketing message. A strong brand needs to identify how and where it can make substantial change. GoDaddy will continue these efforts to celebrate and advocate for the everyday entrepreneurs out there, and we feel strongly that narrative content and films like this are strongly effective because they connect to universal truths and experiences that audiences are drawn to.
About Adam Palmer
Adam Palmer is an award-winning commercial and media production type specializing in creative management and development. His work with GoDaddy can be seen across the brand's YouTube page.
About Sophie Harris
Sophie Harris is an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker from Portland, OR. The projects she has worked on have received an Academy Award Nomination, a Sundance Grand Jury Prize, Critics Choice Nominations, Emmy Awards, a screening before Congress and other accolades. Her goal is to illuminate larger truths through intimate verité moments.