Disney Trusts Annie Leibovitz

'Why do we need the castle in this picture?' she asks

CANNES, France—Artists need to trust themselves, and brands need to trust artists.

That, at least, was the message when photographer Annie Leibovitz, mcgarrybowen co-founder and chief creative officer Gordon Bowen, and Disney Parks and Resorts evp of global marketing and sales Leslie Ferraro took the stage at Cannes Lions to discuss their seven-years-and-running pop-stars-as-fairy-tale-characters campaign for the brand. 

Leaving aside celebrity name dropping (Scarlett Johansson as Cinderella, Queen Latifah as Ursula, Tina Fey as Tinkerbelle, Russell Brand as Captain Hook, Jeff Bridges as the Beast), the discussion touched on Leibovitz's advice for young creatives.

"It's just about trusting what you feel and what you think," said Leibovitz. "It is hard—which is why I don't do that many advertising campaigns—really, to listen to anyone else. If you start to splinter yourself while you're working and try to please everyone, you can't. And you have to sort of stay the course … I don't think I would've lasted so long if I listened to anybody."

Added Ferraro, to clients: "Choosing your partners wisely is really important. There's a reason you brought them in. You have to trust them. It's certainly a collaboration, but when it comes to the creative vision and pushing that creative envelope, you really have to believe in who you're working with."

That concession wouldn't seem to come easily to a brand like Disney, given its own rich imagery. "Poor Leslie and Gordon," said Leibovitz. "They want the castle in every picture. You know, 'Can you put the castle in this picture?' And I go, 'Why do we need the castle in this picture?' And that's the kind of exchange we have."

The real challenge is in framing a classic narrative in a single shot, Leibovitz said. "When I prepare for a shoot, I'll go back and read all the stories, not just Disney's stories. I'll read the Grimm stories. I'll read everything that led up to how Disney interpreted the story, and I try to find a way into it. So I'm actually compiling a lot of things."

"The hardest part is how do you distill this down to one picture. What is the moment in that story that's a photograph?"

Leibovitz also said the campaign makes old stories relevant by using contemporary icons. "I don't even think of it as advertising. I think of it, really, as storytelling," she said.

Does that sound a bit like a fairy tale? "It's not meant to be a business driver, per se," said Ferraro. "This is meant to be elevated, elevate the brand, maintain that relevancy." 

@GabrielBeltrone gabriel.beltrone@gmail.com Gabriel Beltrone is a frequent contributor to Adweek.