Daniel Frei

May 13, 2015

Daniel Frei is an award-winning producer, director and filmmaker. Four years ago he founded The Frei Group, a creative agency specializing in cutting-edge content for businesses and individuals. He’s worked with a variety of Fortune 500 companies, including Mercedes-Benz, Sony Records, Citibank and Intel. His approach to standout content is to focus on the story, and to use all the narrative tricks and tools at his disposal. He says, “You should always try to make something that means something, as silly as it might be. But it’s easier said than done.” Why? Read on!


Let’s talk a little bit about what you do. You make video content that’s designed to be consumed in the digital space.

That’s right. But I didn’t come from that angle. I came from television, although I always did video and documentary. At some point I decided that the documentaries that I did were interesting, but it was such a hit-and-run style, you just had to get the story, and I wanted a little bit more time to do things nicely. It was right around the time that branded content started becoming more relevant, and it was something that people didn’t really understand in terms of video. This was about 2010, 2011.


People didn’t understand, meaning that they didn’t know what to do with it, or they didn’t get why you were doing it the way you were doing it?

For video it was still kind of new. People didn’t really know what kinds of things to make. Branded content—the way I see it—you want to kind of distance yourself from the brand. You have to ask what interests the brand, or you have to ask what interests the brand’s customers. Or you need to do a combination of the two. People realized that they had to stay current, and they realized that video was the most powerful means of engaging people online, but they thought that doing video meant creating infomercials for the Web. You need text and pictures and video to attract people, but video comes first. Brands started to realize that, but they didn’t know what kind of video they should put out. To me, branded content was very attractive, even more attractive than doing television. Of course, plenty of people would love to move from branded content to television, but in my case it was the other way around. In branded content you still use a reality or documentary approach. You interview people, you go behind the scenes, but you still have the freedom of fiction. It’s stylized, and it is, after all, of a commercial nature.


Why are people so attracted to interviews? 

People are interested in interviews because they like to know what to do. In an interview, you hope to reveal some kind of knowledge, preferably some kind of insider knowledge. Presumably you interview a person because that person has something to say in a specific field. People are very interested in discovering something new, and that comes out in interviews. Tips, tricks, discoveries—all of that is very important and relevant in branded content. But branded content has taken two shapes. On the one hand, it’s very elaborate and can involve major Hollywood talent. And then another thing people always ask me to do is to create viral videos. And nobody can really make a viral video.


That’s interesting that you say that. Because it seems to me that there’s no way to predict how to do that. It seems to me that to make a video with the intention of having it go viral is to fail.

It is to fail. Clients always ask me to do it, and I can’t. There are two ways of working in branded content. Either you go through an agency, or you go through the client directly. Whenever the agency says something about making a viral video, my thought is always, “Well, that’s your job.” Because that’s positioning. You have to get something in the right place at the right time—that’s when it goes viral. Of course it’s the content itself, as well. I always advise my clients to do longer and shorter pieces. That way you train your audience to expect both. Longer pieces are a way for the brand to explain its philosophy.


What kinds of things have you noticed about content that goes viral?

If you really are passionate about what you do, even your little cellphone video of your friend going out and making fun of her own makeup while she’s running out the door, if it’s genuine and it’s funny and you put it online and people watch it, that kind of genuineness seems to transcend.


I agree with you, which is why I’ve been disappointed to discover that people don’t always seem to care about quality. It’s more a question of curation.

That can be a problem. Curating has become the key to our society—everything needs to be curated. You need to curate yourself at this point. We are overwhelmed with content. So people just want a selection of a few things.


Personally, I like smaller things. Smaller shops, restaurants. That’s what interests me.

That’s what interests most people, actually. People want to know about the small things. Yesterday I went to a Mexican restaurant that was really great. And I sat there, and there was this couple that started to talk to my wife and me, and I gave them the name of a Japanese restaurant that I’d discovered by accident. It has ten seats, and you have to reserve way in advance, but it’s not like one of these fancy places where you have to pay $200 and put yourself on a list. You just call up. It’s $65, and at the end they’ll make sure that you’re full—they actually ask. You get a lot of top-notch food. And this couple was ecstatic about it, because it’s a bit off the beaten path. Those are the kinds of things that people want to hear about in terms of branded content.


What three things separate the men from the boys in terms of branded content? 

  1. With video, you’re using a very established form of content. You have to remember that you’re using film, which has been around for 100 years. You have to realize that you’re actually making a film.
  2. The second thing is that you have to use all the tools available in film. Music, sound effects, storytelling, camera position, camera movement. Video is motion. It’s the moving image, and a lot of people seem to forget that, particularly people who came from photography and are now doing video.
  3. The third thing is editing. You have to bring the content down to a few key elements. But you can’t make it feel like you’ve used all the tools. Tarkovsky said something that is so amazingly true: “The art of filmmaking is capturing, in the frame, what was before the frame and what’s after.” You have to distill. What people see is only the tip of the iceberg. But the iceberg is implied in the choices you make. And then I think you have a great product.
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