A new day breaks in branded entertainment

One of the best things about being at BBDO New York is the quality of people and ideas we encounter. You could be getting a drink from the vending machine and find the legendary Greg Hahn a few meters away. The result is, once every few months, someone in your office will do a piece of work that’s absolutely pathbreaking and redefines the whole world of marketing.

The most recent example of this is Daybreak, something BBDO and TV producer Tim Kring (Heroes, Touch) are doing for AT&T. It’s an ecosystem of content that’s loosely termed a web series, but there’s much more to it. There’s a whole mythology around it, almost like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Marvel Comics and the like. And of course, there’s an app for it. More about that later.

Without playing spoiler, Daybreak is about a set of mysterious objects called dodecahedrons (20-sided cubes) that have extraordinary powers, with both good and bad forces hunting for them, and inevitably clashing. With a good versus evil battle and a conspiracy theory providing fertile ground, the makers have cultivated enormous story value in every episode, and you absolutely need to keep watching till the end.

The good guys detect the dodecahedrons using an app called Jack Boxers, which has frequency recognition and picture recognition technology pioneered by AT&T. The dodecahedrons emit frequencies that enable the app to track them. Picture recognition helps the users make sense of pictorial clues they detect across the city. AT&T is pivotal to the story as the plot cannot move forward without its technology. This is a far cry from the product placement we’re used to. We don’t find anything out-of-place or in-your-face. There’s simply no story here without AT&T.

While a web series (albeit a very entertaining one) isn’t pathbreaking, it’s the ecosystem surrounding it that makes Daybreak first-of-a-kind.

Firstly, a series of web films seeded on YouTube show scientists a few decades ago performing mysterious experiments with dodecahedrons. You can find them here, here and here. It was never explicitly mentioned that these are part of Daybreak, and that only made them all the more viral.

Secondly, the Daybreak website has a whole series of images and videos revealing knowledge on dodecahedrons, physics, and the conspiracy. You get really drawn into the Daybreak culture through it.

Thirdly, the Jack Boxers app in the story is also a real app. In the story it’s a valuable tool used by a worldwide network of Jack Boxers to uncover dodecahedrons. In real life it’s a game in which you collaborate with thousands of worldwide players via Facebook to locate fictitious dodecahedrons. This blurring between fiction and reality is a beautiful way to fascinate people.

Following the same philosophy is this site that takes the Jack Boxers mythology to stratospheric levels. It reminds me of the mythology created around the movie Prometheus (such as this 2023 TED Talk). We’re increasingly entering an era in which a movie or a series is simply the core around which concentric circles of more content are created.

Finally, one stroke of brilliance connected Daybreak with a whole new audience. This film, completely outside of the five episodes, shows a juxtaposition between the hero of Daybreak and the hero of Touch, an iconic TV series produced by the same Tim Kring. Touch is about a mute 11-year-old boy who has extraordinary mathematical abilities and knows how everything in this universe is connected through mathematical patterns. Daybreak is another series about interconnections, so it’s brilliant to establish it in the same universe as Touch. I heard that in the last episode of this season of Touch, the concept of dodecahedrons was introduced to stimulate curiosity about Daybreak. Shortly after this season of Touch ended, Daybreak went live, and that was beautiful timing.

If you look at the different mediums and forms of content involved in Daybreak, you can tell that this is really the future of branded entertainment. Multiple mediums were involved not because someone was ticking boxes to ensure that film, web, mobile and social media were all covered. Multiple mediums were involved because that was simply the best way to tell this story. Great storytellers express themselves equally well in any medium, because their philosophy is to lead with great content.

I don’t believe creatives should start ripping off Daybreak. But I do believe they should deconstruct it to know the thought processes that went into it. A kind of “knowing where the rocks are so that you can walk on water”. So here’s my humble attempt. If the makers are reading this, they’d probably laugh at how ignorant I am. But that’s not going to prevent me from trying.

More than anything else, I believe that the starting point was when the makers asked, “What sort of story showcases the AT&T brand best?” and the answer was clearly “a story of interconnectedness”. A story of how people and objects in entirely different circles are woven together in the grand scheme of things. Just like AT&T facilitates this interconnectedness in real life, its technology enables the characters to piece together the interconnections in the story. The learning for all creatives working on all categories is to ask the question, “What sort of story showcases the brand/product the best?”. If you come up with the most amazing story that doesn’t showcase the brand/product powerfully, waste no time in consigning that story to the trash bin.

Once you think of stories that can build the brand, the next step is to ask yourself whether this story is entertaining, whether you would be interested in it. To evaluate its entertainment value, think about age-old techniques in storytelling – drama, tension, conflict, good versus evil, mystery, conspiracy, betrayal. This has nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with human nature. All these techniques were pioneered even before electricity was discovered.

The next step is to weave the brand seamlessly into the narrative. If you’ve done your homework in step one (asking the “what sort of story showcases the brand” question), then this step becomes easy. You’ll discover a multitude of ways in which the brand effortlessly fits into the story.

Once that is achieved, it’s time to have some fun with it, and build an entire subculture. Create stories peripheral to the main story. Create objects and concepts that deepen the narrative. And as you do that, you’ll naturally find different mediums to express yourself.

Of course, all these are easy to talk about, but rather difficult to do. That’s why the people who created Daybreak are truly the best in the business. There’s so much to learn from them. Even if we do half the things they are doing, we’ll become much better marketers and communicators.

I heard it took the team two years to develop the whole thing. I’m not surprised, because it’s a phenomenal attempt, and it would certainly take even the best brains two years to do it. There was a line in one of the episodes that said people don’t kill each other over quarks and gluons (the tiniest particles ever discovered, several orders tinier than electrons). But in the case of Daybreak, I’m sure the makers really killed each other over quarks and gluons to reach this level of creativity. One day we’ll look back at Daybreak and say that was an inflection point in the history of branded entertainment.

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