Why Improv Comedy Is the Next Big Marketing Trend
There’s a buzz in the air as people cram into hard-backed chairs, murmuring and sipping from plastic cups. The curtains open and five people run onto the stage and announce that they’re about to perform comedy scenes with no preparations: “Never seen before, never to be seen again.” They ask the audience for a suggestion, and two performers step forward searching for their first idea.
One performer mimes walking a dog, actually a trick dog designed to win her more friends, she explains to the stranger beside her.
“What do you do?” she says.
“I work at an ad agency,” he responds.
“Oh crap, that’s terrible,” she says. “Everyone works in advertising.”
Within seconds, the audience is in stitches.
Though this sounds like a night at a basement club or a black-box theater, it’s actually the atrium of a Manhattan ad agency. The comedians, senior performers and teachers from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, are turning improv comedy into lessons for professional development. And after the performance, they’re fielding questions from executives about public speaking, recovering from mistakes, and working as a team.
Brands and advertisers are increasingly finding value in improv comedy—both as a form of branded content and a business tool. And two famous comedy centers, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and the Second City, are writing the playbook on humor for marketers.
The Upright Citizens Brigade training center is a creative life force, with a comedy school that trains over 12,000 students per year, boasting scores of famous alumni and a bicoastal network of theaters. You can now add UCB Comedy, a digital production company, to that list.
Todd Bieber, former creative director of UCB Comedy, has directed over 200 funny videos for some of the word’s biggest brands. In an Advertising Week panel titled “How to be funny and filthy rich by making online branded videos,” Bieber told marketers that brand videos must prioritize creative content to be successful, rather than featuring a company or product. These tenets are apparent in the hilarious ad UCB created for Excedrin, which plays on the headache-inducing scenario of splitting the bill:
The calling card of UCB training is “the game of the scene,” a format that helps performers explore comedic possibilities within a fictional reality—created entirely on the spot. For example, after establishing characters, performers can ask themselves, “If this is true, then what else is true?” This methodology, used by Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, and Amy Poehler—the founders of UCB—shaped many renowned comedy writers and performers, according to Terry Withers, a performer and the director of sales at UCB.
Over the years, UCB has found that improv training also dramatically improves sales technique, public speaking, and communication skills—not to mention jumpstarting creativity.
In 2015, UCB Theater taught a workshop for sales executives at Advertising Week titled “The Art of the Pitch.” “That is a way we work in the branded content area,” Withers said. “Not as actual content creators, but trainers who are helping the staff of advertising agencies in the field of creativity or sales skills.”
UCB@Work, the company’s corporate training division, now runs successful improv workshops for media companies, financial institutions, agencies, and more, in which performers teach improv to build teamwork, creativity, and sales skills.
“Improv is another way to learn,” Withers said, “Part of that, though, is creating a space where people feel comfortable. Improv comedy requires openness, honesty, and a willingness to be vulnerable.”
HubSpot CMO Kipp Bodnar is one marketing employee who believes the unorthodox training has influenced him in the professional world. In a post on Medium, Bodnar writes that his improv training helped him advance his career: “What you learn from improv manifests into your daily habits. Whether you’re in a meeting or at a conference.”
The Second City
UCB Theater isn’t the only comedy institution working with brands. Improv comedy collective the Second City, which is based out of Chicago, now brings traditional creative briefs to life with anything-goes comedy shows.
A few years ago, The Second City started BrandStage, a collaborative research initiative that uses live performers and audience interaction. Brand marketers, compliance teams, and consumers typically fill the audience. During the show, performers capture concepts, scenes, characters, and insights that later become the fodder for entire ad campaigns, videos, and social content.
“Second City writers and improvisers are content creating machines,” said Andy Eninger, BrandStage director. “To apply that nuclear engine to a specific brand focus is a natural next step.”
Many hilarious, wacky projects have come from BrandStage productions, like The The Clorox Ick awards, an improvised, live-streamed social media event hosted by Saturday Night Live alum Rachel Dratch. As Second City actors responded live to viewers’ tweets, videos from The Ick Awards drove over 1.4 million views on YouTube and propelled the campaign to a Shorty Awards nomination.
BrandStage’s goal with these projects is to help build an entire story around a brand. “Our approach is that the humor should be used to empathize with an audience and amplify your brand.” said Steve Kakos, vice president of Second City Works.
A series of ads for The Hartford disability insurance perfectly embodies this sentiment. Four short videos riff on the consequences of risking a life without insurance, like having to watch your kids while dealing with injuries after hospital bills dry up your childcare budget.
[Full disclosure: The Hartford is a Contently client.]
This relatable story actually finds humor in the decidedly unfunny subject of disability insurance. And laughter has a deep impact on audiences. “The nature of humor is that it gets to the truth really quickly,” Kakos said. “If you’re laughing at something then there must be some kind of emotional register to it.”
Marketers also walk away from BrandStage with insights and a valuable perspective on their consumers. As Laura Marzi, The Hartford’s assistant VP of marketing, said, “We learned more through the improvisational exercise than we have in years worth of research.”
Turning the comedic corner
Improv comedy depends on taking risks, trying out new material without testing and research. But how do brands reconcile their need for positive press with a completely unscripted live comedy event?
“Every brand at some level knows that they have to take risks in order to stay competitive and fresh.” Eninger said. “A comedian has to get to something true and honest, and brands are always looking for content that’s authentic and true. They have similar missions.”
Branded content that makes us laugh—even risky, improvised content—is only getting more popular. In 2016, Squarespace sponsored the Emmy-nominated comedy duo Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key for a livestreamed and completely improvised high-stakes ad. “Real Talk,” which aired during the Super Bowl, featured the duo playing aspiring sports commentators. With special guests and live callers, Key and Peele skirted the NFL’s strict copyright laws and improvised their way through the biggest advertising day of the year. The result was hilarious—and widely watched—video content.
Mashable reported that at the height of the live stream, which ran for three and a half hours, “Real Talk” reached 25,000 concurrent viewers. According to Google, Key and Peele were searched three times more than Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, the actual Super Bowl announcers. Based on this engagement, it’s not surprising that “Real Talk” won Digiday’s 2016 Content Marketing Award for Best Use of Real-Time Streaming Video.
— Google (@google) February 7, 2016
At this point, even SNL is updating its marketing strategy to reflect the comedic content trend. According to Adweek, SNL recently announced plans to cut commercials by 30 percent and replace them with original content created with advertisers. SNL has been producing infamous ad parodies for decades, which could transition seamlessly into a built-in sponsored ad strategy. Now advertisers not only get to be part of the process, but laugh at themselves along the way.