Why Stars Like Carrie Brownstein and Zach Braff Are Jumping From Hollywood to Advertising’s A-List

Brands are tapping actors as they put an emphasis on storytelling

Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein’s film for Kenzo starred Mahershala Ali and Natasha Lyonne. - Credit by Kenzo
Headshot of Doug Zanger

Some years ago, it was hard to fathom a Hollywood actor doing more than standing in front of a camera for ads. Sure, it was easy money but, over time as the digital landscape continued to evolve, content in all forms continued (and continues) to fragment. While for some, it may be a daunting proposition for an actor to veer from what they know; others, as we’ve seen recently from stars like Carrie Brownstein and Zach Braff, see substantial opportunities.

Of course, in entertainment, the rise of streaming and the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have built new creative outlets that didn’t exist in the recent past. One area that has been around for decades, but showing particular promise today, is commercial work, but not necessarily in front of the camera. Acting talent is finding fertile ground to work from, not just financially, but creatively as well in the form of ads and branded content.

Fred Savage, for example, signed with Caviar in 2016 and has been quietly assembling a massive list of credits in the ad world as a director with work for agencies and brands including Farmers Insurance, Fitbit, T-Mobile and others. Super Troopers star Paul Soter found his creative groove at Omelet in Los Angeles, where he is the director of creative development. More recent examples include Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein, who recently inked a deal with Prettybird, and Zach Braff, who joined RSA’s roster last month.

“In terms of branded content, the playing field is very interesting because it’s very creative,” said Brownstein, who directed an enchanting short film for fashion brand Kenzo in 2016. “It feels like a ‘third space’ where there’s a huge allowance for risk-taking and experimentation.”

At present, brands continue to put a significant premium on storytelling. And while there is still a hefty amount of more traditional 30- and 60-second spots roaming the media landscape, the constraints of making an impact on consumers continue to loosen. Director Lauren Greenfield, best known in the ad world as one of the creative forces behind the wildly popular and empowering “Like a Girl” campaign for Always, noted that even just four years ago, one school of thought was that longer-form storytelling wouldn’t work.

“People said that no one would watch that long of a piece, and there was a lot of pressure to make [‘Like a Girl’] shorter,” said Greenfield, who launched Girl Culture Films in January. “I just judged the AICP awards, and everything was longer form. For me, that’s exciting because I think that storytelling has become a bigger part of advertising.”

One of the darlings of the awards circuit last year was Corazon, a gritty 43-minute film for Montefiore Health System based on a true story that follows the path of a Dominican sex worker with a failing heart who has an opportunity to get necessary surgery at the hospital. The film, done in partnership with JohnXHannes in New York, was at the far end of the spectrum of what is expected of brands.

“Brands are being bolder and taking more risks and allowing a lot more honesty in storytelling,” said Scott Donaton, global chief creative and content officer at Digitas. “You then have creators who then see the chance to tell stories that feel true to their integrity as storytellers with brands.”

While risk is one element, trust is another. In the past, talent and brands haven’t necessarily been on the same page, yet both understand that they have something unique to offer.

“We see brands that are interested in talent’s creative vision, and the advertising industry is looking for new ways to attract an audience,” said Rob Lambrechts, Pereira & O’Dell’s chief creative officer. “Artists can sense that there might be something more than just money and that they can actually tell a story and be part of something.”

As an agency sitting in between brands and talent and one of the key contributors in the creative process, Lambrechts has seen firsthand how the suspicion between the two can melt away quickly in a recent project that the agency worked on with Zach Braff and Adobe. The brand asked college students to create a poster for a nonexistent film that would become its new ad.

“I think [Braff and his team] were cautiously optimistic,” noted Lambrechts. “But we have a strong track record of doing interesting branded entertainment.”

The end result was a highly entertaining and compelling satirical short film that reimagines social media stardom, set in Victorian times, starring Florence Pugh and Alicia Silverstone.

“It was very much a creative collaboration,” said Lambrechts. “We all got something that we were very happy with.”

This story first appeared in the May 6, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@zanger doug.zanger@adweek.com Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.
Publish date: May 6, 2019 https://dev.adweek.com/agencies/why-stars-like-carrie-brownstein-and-zach-braff-are-jumping-from-hollywood-to-advertisings-a-list/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT