What’s it like to discover—on Christmas Eve—that your 4 year old has brain cancer?
Take a second and go watch this video (if you haven’t seen it already), “Chloe’s Wedding Day.” In a straightforward, documentary style, it tells the moving story of a doctor at the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando who had to—on Christmas Eve, no less—tell Chloe Williams’ parents that their 4-year-old had brain cancer. Chloe, as Dr. Alex Levy tells the story, eventually recovered, and her family was so grateful that Chloe’s father asked Levy to walk his daughter down the aisle when the time comes.
It is absolutely heart wrenching.
More importantly, from Dustin Watkins ’10’s perspective, it’s not trying to sell you anything.
For the last few months, this video, produced by Strong Films, the Orlando-based agency Watkins cofounded in 2011, has been lighting up social media, as well as advertising awards. It was one of only three entries in the digital video category to be given a gold award by the American Advertising Federation, the largest advertising competition in the world (with more than 40,000 entries and just three-dozen gold awards each year). It was also shortlisted by the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, one of only a handful of digital media ads selected for this prestigious honor.
“Chloe’s Wedding Day” was “a pretty typical unusual one,” Watkins says with a laugh. That is, that ad wasn’t what the agency originally envisioned, but it did grow out of Strong Films’ process. “We know traditional advertising is not compelling,” he says. “It’s not anything anyone cares about. I do care about what these companies are doing.”
He views his type of advertising—brand advertising, to be specific—as a form of storytelling: “The people who work there, what brings them into the door every morning? What is the deeper reason for being? We help communicate that to everyone else.”
The original pitch to Arnold Palmer was different, a longer video that Strong Films is only now finishing up. But in the course of interviewing doctors and staff members at the hospital—“You can be really creative within the brand once you get to know it”—his team heard Levy’s story, and knew it could be powerful. They showed it to Arnold Palmer’s executives, who signed off.
“We took a lot of risks,” Watkins says. “The first minute of the video is almost just [Levy] talking. Just him telling the story. That’s really vulnerable. Most advertising is not willing to take that kind of risk.”
But it paid off. You might expect this type of ad to show up on your television in prime time. This one, however, went a different route, diffusing through social media such as Twitter and Facebook. It became a trending topic on Reddit. It’s reached nearly 100,000 views on YouTube.
As a relatively new agency in a business stacked with legacy players, Strong Films has gained an air of outside credibility thanks to the awards “Chloe’s Wedding Day” has garnered—a signal that it can compete with the biggest and best-known agencies, which in turn has led to conversations with new prospective clients.
But in the end, Watkins says, it all comes down to content—the stories they tell. “The work we do rises and falls based on whether people want to see it,” Watkins says. “We’re creating work that people actually want to hear.”
UPDATE: In February 2014 during the Orlando American Advertising Awards, Dustin Watkins ’10 won Best in Show and a Gold ADDY for the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children’s project “We Love Isaiah.” The 11-minute video tells the story of a toddler beating brain cancer. The team also won a Gold Addy for the video, “Arnold Palmer Saves Christmas,” which shows Santa visiting patients on Christmas. Watch the videos here.