Video marketers can learn from the team at Pixar, the storytelling masters
Sure, you’re probably not producing the next Finding Nemo, but whether it’s developing online videos for your brand or blockbuster films for a movie studio, both involve navigating the creative process and communicating with creative teams to make your story come together.

That said, marketers are now entering increasingly creative territory with online video. Visual storytelling can be tricky business, and if you’re thinking of hiring a videographer, a director of video strategy, or other rolls devoted to video production – heck, even if you’re outsourcing with an agency – it’s best to look at how storytelling pros have been handling the creative process for years (and what they’ve learned along the way).

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 2.13.44 PMFrom the groundbreaking Toy Story trilogy to Monsters Inc. and Up!, Pixar has pumped out fourteen number one box office hits in a row, and has been a leader in the film industry for almost two decades – so who best to learn from?

Ed Catmull, Pixar co-founder and president, recently co-wrote a book titled Creativity, Inc. and in this post I’ll outline some of the insight he shares on how to better manage any creative team and foster the creative process.

As you can imagine, it all starts with improving your storytelling abilities.

1. Guide your creative vision with candor

One of the coolest behind-the-scenes parts of the Pixar process is what’s known as the “Braintrust”. This is a group of individuals the director of any film meets with on a regular basis – usually comprised of successful directors, story artists and writers – who will candidly critique the story reels of upcoming films. The Braintrust’s job is to uncover improvements and, while they can provide notes, the director isn’t required to take their advice. The whole point is to ensure the company is always creating outstanding work, and collaboration has proven to be a key way to do this.

As the team has found in the past, a creative might work on something for ages independently, but they’re “polishing a brick in secret”.

The lesson for your marketing team?

Be candid with video feedbackFrom the brainstorming process to the final edits of a video, be collaborative and candid with your feedback. Whether it’s after scripting a piece, or after a first cut, leave some room for feedback. If you encourage honesty, you’ll likely be called out on cheesy jokes, insincere lines that “sound like lines”, poor quality audio, or content that doesn’t actually appeal to your target audience like you thought; but all of these aspects, when improved, make for a better video.

Overall, run your content by key stakeholders or your very own internal “Braintrust” as a commitment to quality. If you select Braintrust members based on their knowledge of or experience with video and story, your videographer and creative team will respect rather than resent their opinions.

2. Acknowledge and learn from failure (don’t make it the worst)

While everyone has a favourite Pixar movie, Catmull is quick to point out that the studio is more familiar with failure than you might think. The trick is how they handle when something bombs.

Don't foster fearWhen working on Toy Story 2, for example, Pixar had to take the two original directors off the project. This difficult decision was after multiple revisions of the near-complete film, and after a significant amount of spending. Nonetheless, it was necessary for creating a sequel that would solidify the studio’s reputation.

Although taking directors off a film is pretty soul crushing, the original story wasn’t going anywhere even after revisions and Catmull insists that you have to treat failure as a way to learn. Instead of shaming the directors or the team, Pixar came up with a way to ensure new directors with limited experience had a mentorship program in place to learn from those who had made major Pixar films before. This way Pixar could maintain innovation by taking chances on newbies and ensure their team felt trust rather than fear.

There’s two lessons here. First, even if you’ve spent money or time on a piece of content, it’s important to consider whether it’s successfully communicating your brand message, if you’re offering any real value, and if it’s “worthy” of your logo. If there’s no real point, if it’s lacking the magic, or if your team is unhappy in general, it might be best to rework your vision and develop something worthwhile. Secondly, use failures as a way to learn. Creativity never thrives in an environment of fear – It’s built in an environment of trust, so make sure your creatives know it’s “safe” to fail. As Catmull points out, it’s management’s job to make sure your team is supported with adequate failsafes and the mentorship program is a key example.

3. Work, then re-work your story

We all know Pixar stories, but they usually transform in development before they hit the silver screen. For example, Monsters, Inc. was originally about a middle-aged guy who receives a book of monsters he drew as a kid (each representing his childhood fears). These monsters start appearing in his life, but nobody can see them. This concept is obviously way different than what we know to be true of the film, but Catmull says it’s critical to have your team review and improve upon your ideas.

When you create a script or idea, consider if there are better ways to convey your message. Add a sidekick, play around with genre, experiment with different scenarios. Don’t churn out another average brand video, or your very first idea; stand out with an original concept (one that usually takes a few iterations).

4. Balance the Beast and the Baby

balance the beast and the baby

After the release of The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Catmull notes that Disney had accumulated a massive animation team and was feeling the pressure to produce a lot of content quickly to avoid wasting resources or leaving money on the table. This unrelenting demand for content was known as “Feeding the beast” (something a lot of content marketers can certainly relate to).

However, as the demand for quantity sometimes trumps quality, Ed suggests that most people forget about caring for “the baby”. As he says, new movie ideas at Pixar are undeveloped. They begin as messy, tiny, unrefined ideas that require protection; essentially, babies. While these ideas are new, there’s a lot of potential (even if you don’t see it at first), and as creatives there’s a constant struggle to protect the babies despite the demands of the content beast.

The lesson?

Marketers should find a way to balance both the baby and the beast in their organizations. If you have a terrific idea for a video, don’t rush it out the door without considering how to make it better. Consequently, if you’ve got a timely, highly-relevant video that applies to the consciousness of the day, don’t hold on to it too long before setting it free.

While the management of your company may impose deadlines (the beast), management should work with creatives and compromise to ensure there’s a fine balance between relevance, quality, and truly inspired, helpful content. Time constraints are obviously necessary, but each side needs to pick its battles.

Overall, Catmull’s book is full of great examples video marketers, B2B managers, and content folks alike will enjoy. Which piece of advice for managing creative teams do you think is best? Have you tried any of these approaches before? Let us know with a comment below!

Jennifer Pepper