Soledad O’Brien Brilliantly Explains How Brands Should Work With Elite Storytellers

Modern media companies want brands to underwrite the stories they can’t necessarily afford to tell, and brands want to be a part of great stories. But very often, that partnership doesn’t work because brands are reluctant to do the things that go into truly great storytelling: namely, taking a leap of faith and relinquishing control.

One person who’s been able to bridge that gap is Soledad O’Brien, famed broadcast journalist and founder of Starfish Media Group, who has worked with brands such as CoverGirl to great incredibly compelling viral content.

This afternoon, at OPA’s excellent “Content All-Stars” conference, O’Brien spoke about the incredible power of storytelling and how brands can get in on the action. But the best part may have come during the Q&A, when she revealed the dead-honest truth about how brands and elite storytellers can best work together.

A member of the audience asked this question:

“An issue, which I think is in the room for a lot of people here who will be producing content, producing content here, they can’t say, ‘I don’t care [I’m just going to go where the story takes me], I’m creating content for a brand.'”

This was O’Brien’s response:

“They can, they can. I work with lots of brands. You have to four-wall. I’ve had meetings where I had to say, ‘Why are you coming to me?’ You’re coming to me because I ask questions. Because I am not afraid to push people. If you want to do a commercial, you should get someone who does commercials. But here you are, in my conference room. You must be coming to me. That means you must want that documentary I’ve done, or that one, or that.

“You want something that emotionally connects. And then you have to do an agreement that blocks it off. That says: You are not allowed—I’ll sit around and B.S. and talk stories with anyone—but the editorial, I run it. And it has to be clear. And if anyone doesn’t want to work like that, you have to say, ‘Good luck. Go with god. It was wonderful to meet with you.’ And you find the next person.

“But it’s been my experience that when you turn out something authentic—and I get it, marketing departments are terrified because authentic people are scary people—you have to say, ‘Trust me to turn this out.’ You have to say, ‘I get it.’ You want that story that will make people cry. But you cannot feed them lines. You cannot put them under great lighting. You can’t have 34 people in the room all being shot in a studio, and they look really pretty. You can’t.

“So if you want me, if you’ve come here, this is what we will do. And once we’ve had that conversation, and that’s really clear, there has been no problem at all.”

Image by Shannon Sturgis

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