summer / 2017

The magazine of branded content
Injecting comedy into content
Juliet Stott
Why a joke can capture an audience and keep them hooked
Juliet Stott
Oct 5, 2017

Tim Washer says he’s a comedian first, marketer second. The comedy writer, performer and producer created his first comedic video for IBM back in 2006. He said it was a huge risk, and thought he might even be fired for posting it. Yet the video, which was the first ever B2B comedy series on YouTube, went on to win Washer a Comedy Central award and earn him a promotion. Now, as the Creative Director at Cisco’s SP Marketing Group, he regularly injects humor into his content. Here he talks to Content Magazine about why humor can be weaved into even the driest or most difficult topics, and how it can humanize a brand and change the way people feel about it, instantly.

Content: You have said that every corporate brand has an opportunity to incorporate humor into its content. Can you give an example of a B2B brand that has done this successfully? What can we learn from this approach?
Tim Washer: At Cisco, a few years back, we were launching one of our large routers, which is only used by large carriers such as an AT&T and costs between $100,000 US to quarter million dollars, depending on how it is configured, so it was not a consumer product at all. Since we were launching it so close to Valentine’s Day we thought it would be funny if we pitched it as a ‘perfect gift for your lover on Valentines’. It was just totally absurd, but because it was so outlandish it got a lot more play (it received 1000x more views than our average video), and it also got exposure in the New York Times. The video was humorous, and it showed that we don’t always take ourselves so seriously, which I believe helped to humanize the Cisco brand. It also helped us build a better and stronger relationship with analysts and influencers we were trying to reach. If you can make someone laugh, instead of just trying to sell to them in a short video, you’re creating a bit of joy, and I think that is a gift.

It has been said that successful content needs to grab an audience’s attention within the first 20 seconds of engagement; what role does/can comedy play in achieving this goal?
I think actually people bail out much earlier [than 20 seconds] – people will click on a video, and if they are not engaged in 10 seconds they may bail. So, a lot of times you can use visual humor to get a point across very quickly, even in a few seconds. If you can introduce a joke up front, just as stand-up comedians do, to get people to a laugh right away, they will think what they’re about to watch is going to be worth their while, and they will stay a little longer.

A lot of your presentations focus on making fun of the way ‘marketing is done’ in large enterprises. How and why do corporate policies sap creativity in their culture? What can be done to combat this?
When you work for a large corporation, that is trying to manage offices across 30-40 countries all with different cultures, to make that work they do have to put these bureaucratic policies in place to protect the brand. Unfortunately, that creates a risk adverse culture and people regress to the mean and say, here’s what we did in the last video that was approved and nobody got fired for it, so let’s just do that again. The way to get around that is to start small. My first proposal for comedy at IBM was for an internal sales meeting for the mainframe division. It was just a small group of people. It wasn’t going to be online. It was to be showed at a sales event, so I was mitigating some of the risk. Once you say ‘let’s do a funny video for YouTube’, everyone gets nervous.

So, start small, show it at one team meeting, and if it goes well, and people think it is funny, and nobody gets offended, then put it on the internal site where others can see it, and if it is well received, then consider putting it on YouTube.

How can marketers persuade their C-level colleagues (with the budget) to experiment and be a bit more daring with their approach to reaching audiences?
As I just mentioned I produced my first comedy for an internal sales meeting at IBM. So, a meeting like that is going to have some budget for entertainment, as they need to keep the sales people engaged, and give them some fun on the training. I persuaded IBM to give me a small budget so I could create something funny for that meeting, which is one way to do it. Another way to do it is to ask employees to experiment with writing captions for images – it could be photos of their own, or they could license some inexpensive stock photos and then just write some funny captions that they post on Twitter or the company Instagram account. Also, a good way to start off is to go to a film school or local university and talk to one of the communications professors and offer an internship to a group of students, where you set the parameters and let them come up with a creative idea.

You talk about following the fear, and doing it anyway. Can you give an example of when this approach hasn’t worked—what were the repercussions for you?
Back in 2010 we thought it would be funny to do a parody of an Old Spice advert. It was a very silly no-budget tech version of it. We had a video team, but we didn’t hire an agency. There was nothing sexy about it. It only cost us a few thousand dollars to make. Our aim was to get responses from five of our top analysts, and we hit that goal. One of the analysts said he laughed so hard he wet his pants (I’m pretty sure he was exaggerating, but I’ve never gotten that confirmed). The problem was that a lot of other people saw the skit, who weren’t in our industry, and criticized us for copying the idea and doing a lame job of it. Although our target market got the joke, and my executives in our group loved it, the problem was that people outside our industry wrote a lot of negative reviews and our company’s sentiment rating dropped dramatically. So that was a painful lesson to learn.

Can you give an example of a brand that you admire, why is their content a cut above the rest?
I love the Volvo Series with John Claude Van Dame, which came out a few years ago, and had something like 86 million views, and is still getting press. It was a brilliant, absurd idea and beautiful to watch. It wasn’t funny—it was just brilliant because it was so different. I love that someone came up with that idea and Volvo was willing to say, you know what, this is crazy, but let’s try it out. I am sure that no one clicked on that 50 second video and then went on to buy a truck, but Volvo Trucks got so much wonderful press, and a lot of respect, in addition to connecting with their customers.