Branded content review: Nike’s web series ‘Margot vs Lily’
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, the old content giants were dying and new unicorns were spinning yarns both incredible and strange…
Whether brands are lurking quietly in the background or right out in front, they are finding new ways to communicate and sell that truly challenge more traditional media platforms and publishers.
Writing in The Guardian, Andrew Marr described this all as a “wave of creative destruction overturning all traditional media”. And its true, today’s leading brands not only come armed with money and power, but also with creativity. Whether in-house or agency, brands have access to some of the most creative people in the world, enabling them to disrupt traditional media as much as traditional industries.
So, in the same month that both The Independent and BBC3 packed up their analogue and broadcast bags to go online-only, Nike launched an eight-part original web series called Margot vs Lily. It’s no low-key thing — the creative team behind it have legit TV credentials (Glee and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and it has all the gloss and style of New Girl or Rookie Mag. It’s not perfect — in fact it’s a little uncanny valley — but it represents such a holistic fusion of creative ideas and approaches that it’s worth noticing.
But let’s go back to the uncanny bit. Margot vs Lily has everything going for it and yet… it’s like watching a PowerPoint for a branded content idea in film form. I get the feeling that they brought in this epic creative team of storytelling experts, and then feedback-ed their way to something very odd. I asked a screenwriter (my Mum) for her view on the first episode. Here’s what she said:
Script gurus talk a lot about jeopardy and conflict and what’s at stake, but, if nothing meaningful to the audience is at stake, there’s no story. It can be tiny, but it has to feel authentic. And it has to be felt: show, don’t tell.
Why should the audience care enough about Margot and Lily to invest in their story? (And by ‘invest’ I don’t mean purchasing opportunities.) If an audience is to feel enough for Margot and Lily to care what happens to them, their ‘struggle’ has to feel authentic. Authentic, ‘deep character’ struggles around women and exercise lie in the fear of exposure, embarrassment, failure and uncertainty — painful subjects for a brand identified with being the best.
And so, Nike Women’s messages are ticked off at such an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ rate that it’s clear that, whatever larks are to be had along the way, both young women are going to win — and not merely the bet but also a ‘sweatspiration’ lesson about life.
Good drama taps into our worst fears. The nightmare of someone who wants to win is not to lose but to come second forever. A brand narrative committed to a simple linear outcome cannot hope to embrace the messy but essential ‘what-happens-next?’ uncertainty that drives a good story. Margot v. Lily is no Chariots of Fire. Either Nike Women should instead have gone to the team behind Friday Night Lights, or not confused brand story with drama.
Mum’s are so wise aren’t they? Seriously, though, she’s right. Margot vs Lily is failing to pass as content by committing to the brand story, not the human story. As consumer, we’re able to see past all the Nike gear and oh-so-subtle calls-to-action, but are going to want to watch past episode 1 when Just Do It just isn’t doing it for us as a narrative?