Cannes Lions 2015: ‘The storyline has to earn the death’

What can brands learn from The Walking Dead? Highlights of the opening seminar from MediaCom

Jun 21, 2015 03:33:00 PM | Article | Gokul Krishnamoorthy

Highly consumerist societies correlated very well with The Walking Dead – this was among observations made by Jon Gittings, global business development strategy officer, MediaCom, as the first conference at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2015 kicked off on 21 June.

The session titled ‘How to survive a zombie attack (and harness cyltural trends to grow brands)’ witnessed Josh Sapan, president, chief executive officer, AMC Networks Inc.; David Alpert, executive producer, The Walking Dead; and actor from the show Steven Yeun reflecting on different aspects of the show, ranging from what makes it successful, obsessive fan involvement and what the learnings are for brands.

Reality check
While the show is fictional, it plays on the curiosity in another world. Yet, the guiding principles for its creators are in keeping it ‘real’.
Gittings pointed to the show’s approach to the storyline, where it is far from hesitant in killing characters, including the most popular.
Alpert explained the breaking of the narrative, noting that the intent was to create ‘fully rendered 360’ storyline. He said, “We always have an idea about where a character came from, where that character is, and that reality is critical. We have to treat storylines with (an equal amount of) respect. For it to be real, the storyline has to earn the death.”
He added that there had been several instances of strong and vitriolic feedback from fans when a popular character (like Beth from the show) was killed, and reasoned: “But it was the right place for her story to come to an end.”
The Talking Dead: Organic growth
 A new show that takes viewers behind the world of the highly successful The Walking Dead airs immediately after the Sunday appointment viewing date for millions. Sapan explained its genesis: “The Talking Dead is now a series in its own right. It is always fun to make sense of the show with one’s friends. It was occurring naturally and organically online. This (Talking Dead) gave it a place on television. Yes, it has been a great business success, but it is also gave credit and credentials to the process and brought people inside.”
How important is fan culture?  
Yeun revealed that the most weird ‘fan moment’ was one where a woman walked up to him over a distance of 200 meters in ‘zombie walk’. From people tattooing the show’s stars’ names to their bodies to creating memes, there’s no end to fan engagement for The Walking Dead. Fans also keep the feedback coming on what they would have done in a certain situation in the show, noted Alpert. But does this influence the narrative in any way?
Yeun said, “I can see that it (fan talk) has its own ecosystem. It’s (based on fan talk) not how we write the show. But it often dictates… it does sway people. I wonder what the future will be. Should we have fan feedback influencing a show? Or should it be a separate spin-off, like The Talking Dead?” The question remains.
Lessons for brands
MediaCom’s Gittings explained the agency’s analysis based on six cultural themes across the top 10 markets (by social and TV viewing), in the context of The Walking Dead. These were: Hierarchy, Individuality, Masculinity/Feminity, Uncertainty, Pragmatism and Indulgence.
There emerged two clusters of markets, he revealed. Cluster one, comprised of the US, Canada and UK; and cluster two, which included Spain, Turkey and Brazil.
While the first cluster showed high individual and indulgence scores, the second scored low on pragmatism, and high on uncertainty (highly resistant to uncertainty). The MediaCom executive explained that hence, while the first set of audiences would respond well to highly salacious and sensational content, cluster two would ‘relish simpler choices’ and ‘short-term absolutism’.
“While the highly competitive cluster one would respond well to ‘Who will survive’, in cluster two, a simple ‘Survive’ may be more compelling,” he noted.
Gittings surmised that looking at The Walking Dead as a brand could help brands identify what they should be doing in different markets, bringing the first seminar at the festival to a close.
For more news updates from Cannes follow Campaign@Cannes