Have you heard? Advertising isn’t about … y’know, advertising anymore–it’s about telling stories, man. Keith “Keef” Ehrlich, a director and producer who’s done plenty of time in the advertising trenches, has heard it, too. “I spent years doing traditional ads, always hearing that word ‘content‘ thrown around a lot. But it never seemed to apply to the filmmaking part,” he tells Co.Design. “Whatever they’re calling it, ad agencies aren’t making content. They’re making work to win awards. It’s not the same thing.”
Ehrlich was interested in making content and telling stories. So in his spare time, he started making a series of online documentaries called “Made By Hand,” focusing on creative people making honest-to-god stuff with their own two hands. Then he started getting inquiries from brands and companies asking him to do the same thing, but for them. Soon, The Bureau of Common Goods–Ehrlich’s new production company–was born.
“These clients usually aren’t asking me for ads or spots,” Ehrlich says. That’s not to say he’s opposed to making those–the Bureau’s first piece of work, above, is unapologetically labeled a “promo.” The difference, says Ehrlich, is that’s the exception, not the rule. “They want content. I’m working with a client right now who approached me and said, ‘Make us a film.’ And then kept saying, ‘No, really. We actually want a film. We’re not just saying that.'”
It helps that the Bureau’s current clientele is mostly smaller startups and brands who “can’t afford to talk to a Radical Media, or don’t even know they exist,” Ehrlich says. “What they do know is that whether they’re making baseball bats or iPhone apps, they want to tell a story that engages people. That’s content, not advertising. That’s what Made By Hand was all about, and that’s what the Bureau lets me do by working with these kinds of clients directly. We can get to know each other, become partners, create the film together. It’s not just about executing a brief.”
Sidestepping the traditional ad world is also a way, Ehrlich says, to take back control of his creative career. “Advertising is extremely competitive, there’s a ton of talent in the pool. It’s very hard to develop your work,” he says. “I kind of decided that I was tired of waiting for other people to help me out. With the Bureau, I can be the agency, the producer, the creative director, and the filmmaker. I felt it might give me the ability to do better work–less compromised. And maybe a better way of working, too.”
That said, Ehrlich isn’t planning on dropping his agent anytime soon. “Look, if GE wants me to direct a spot, that’s great. I’m not turning my back on that,” he says. Rather, he sees his work through the Bureau as a way of growing his creative career more sustainably. Call it “middle class media-making.” “I just want to do what I do well,” he says. “It’s not enough to just be a creative person. You have to be an entrepreneur as well. That puts you in charge.” But like many of the clients he partners with, Ehrlich doesn’t want to grow his company into a behemoth. Like the artisanal knife-maker whose story helped launch the Bureau’s business model, Ehrlich would rather keep things at a scale that lets him create his work by hand.