We are fortunate to work with many incredibly talented people. Our preference and possibly one thing that makes us different from other agencies is to work with people that possess experiences that are deep and wide. Meet John Sherman, Partner and CEO of Storyfarm, a video production agency in Baltimore. John has a wonderful story to tell. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as we did.
I’m John Sherman. I’m the CEO of Storyfarm. We are a video agency making content for brands. Little bit about myself. I’ve been in Baltimore for close to 20 years. Grew up in DC, went to Wisconsin, and today we have 13 full-time employees at our agency making live action and animated content for all kinds of brands.
Being from Baltimore, what brought you to Madison?
It’s funny. I’m actually from DC so I grew up in northwest DC and then Bethesda and then back to northwest. And one of my really good friend’s sister went to Madison and I went and visited when I was 17 for a weekend in Madison. And the story was written, and I often refer to it as one of the absolute best decisions I ever made.
When you click on your team’s photos on the About Us section on the Storyfarm website, each lead to a different mural artist page. What is the story behind that?
It’s so funny that you raised this as a question because we have been meaning to needing to replace those photos for three or four years now. You know how agencies’ own websites can get. So three or four years ago when we did those, it’s always like we’re a creative agency, we want to do something fun with our bio photos, what can we do? Somebody brought up the idea of all the beautiful murals around Baltimore and that really resonated with everybody. So everybody went and picked their own mural and then we went and shot the bio photos of everyone at their own mural site. And that was really cool. Now we have to go do it again because we have some new people. And so we have a beautiful new office space in Fell’s Point. So I think we are just going to use that as our backdrop this time for our new photos that will replace the beautiful mural photos that you see currently.
You have been with Storyfarm for over 14 years. What keeps you motivated to continue to do things differently?
I think part of it’s just sort of being an entrepreneur at heart. I’m always all day long thinking of new business ideas and new business ideas for Storyfarm and new business ideas for other people’s businesses and other, just always thinking of new stuff to be doing. So that’s one part of it. It’s just sort of internally, we’re always wanting to be changing, thinking of cool new stuff. The other part is the client side where they’re always wanting new and different things. So we view the videos, products we make sort as snowflakes where we’re trying to make something unique for everybody. So I’d say it’s both natural, internal driven, and also the external client world wants different too.
When you are creating and producing videos, how do you approach telling a different story than other potential award recipients?
So, kind of the same thing in the sort of vein of making snowflakes, but every story is different. There’s a story at the heart of every video we’re making and each of those stories are different. So it’s just a question of how can we visually interpret that story in a way that’s unique and arresting and compelling and emotionally engaging for people. So that’s a part of our challenge, I would say. Part of our challenge is making them all different. Another huge part of our challenge is distilling it all. Because our videos are 60, 90, 2 minutes, 30 seconds, 15 seconds, whatever it is, and the client’s message, it’s always way bigger than that. So it’s always an act of boiling it down to what’s sort of most essential for that video. And that’s always a fun process. Actually, we find many times it helps the client in their other marketing efforts just learning how to say their thing in 15 seconds or 30 seconds or 60 seconds, and having them be able to think about it in that sort of tight nutshell can be really useful to them.
Do you also offer media training or are there practice rounds prior to the actual shoot?
Yeah, that’s a great question. We don’t do media training, sell it as a service, but it’s certainly something we give away for free on the quick and the sly on set. All of our crews are really well versed in making people who are amateur interviewers sound professional and look and sound their best. But no, we don’t do media training as a service, it’s just something that we’re sort of versed in and walk people through the nickel media training tour and away they go. But we find usually that most people are great just being themselves with a little bit of help to bring them down and center them and get their best performance.
When you went to school was video production what you studied? How did you come to this role?
I decided when I was 15 years old that I was going to be a news reporter. And so I was a kid growing up in DC. Dad worked in government and I did a bunch of crazy internships starting in high school. When I was 16 I was an intern at WSA channel 9 in DC. And then when I was 17 I was an intern at ABC News Nightline. When I was 18 I was an intern at CBS News 48 Hours. And I only applied to two colleges. I applied to Northwestern Journalism early and Wisconsin, and the rest was rolling and I would’ve applied to other stuff after that, but I didn’t get into Northwestern, thank them. And I did get into Wisconsin and the rest was history. And so I spent a very impressionable summer at Nightline with Ted Koppel and the ABC news crew and Koppel’s big thing is that he did not want to hire journalism majors to come work for him.
He wanted history and English majors people. He said he thought people who could think and who could write, and he’ll teach you the nuts and bolts of journalism once you get there anyway. He doesn’t want to have to un-teach what some professor taught you. So I was a history major at Wisconsin knowing that I was going to be a TV reporter, got out of Wisconsin, went back to Channel 9, started ripping scripts in the morning show, making fake demo tapes, made a demo tape, got a job three months later in Charlottesville, Virginia. That was my first on-air job. And then after that went to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, and then to Baltimore.
Of all the campaigns that you’ve been a part of, which is the most memorable for you and why so?
This is a great question, there’s been so much. I was thinking about this the other day. I would probably just have to say, so we did a campaign for Uber’s safety division, and it’s a series of seven videos that every Uber driver on earth is required to watch as a part of their acceptance of their job. It gets into all sorts of inappropriate sexual situations that may happen in an Uber. If you can think between the people in the back, the people messing with the driver, the driver messing with the people, there’s all sorts of… Imagine if you owned Uber and you’ve got all those cars all over the world every day. Imagine what’s happening in those cars. Life is happening. And so this is instructional content for the drivers to advise them about what to do in different uncomfortable situations. So it was a mix of live action and animation.
And we actually made it… The shoot was March 13th through 16th, 2020. So the door of COVID is slamming shut. We’re about to shut the country down and like a Star Wars movie this project scootches through the door right as its closing. And really it was a big project for us and it was important to get shot. And we had six months of post-production to do right at the start of COVID. So it wasn’t like, oh my God, what are we going to shoot? So it was very fortunate for us in its timing and we’re really proud of the work. It’s important work.
Where was the shoot?
The shoot was in Baltimore. We had sort of an empty warehouse space. We brought in five real Uber drivers who were also actors, because you can imagine there actually are a lot of those people.
We were like listen, we need to take the Uber drivers, find who’s also an actual actor and then cast from that pool. And you’d be shocked at how deep that pool actually is. So we flew them all in and we had 35 people on set. We were doing sort of best practices at the time. A lot of Purell, box lunches, eating separate. It was an open-air warehouse so that it wasn’t like an enclosed in space. But we later found out that two of the 30 or so people on set had COVID and nobody else got it. So we just sort of made it in the nick of time with that thing.
When you look at industry trends in video production, what do you think we will see more of in Q4, approaching holiday, and 2023? Where do you see us going in terms of video production?
It’s a great question. I wish I had the answer. I wish we had a professor come in a third zoom here and tell us the answer. It seems like everything’s always getting shorter. We’ve not passed the point where things are not getting shorter. So there’s certainly a lot of 15 and 10 second and six second content that we’re making. And that’s kind of fun because there’s a challenge to it and they’re just sort of little bite size things. But I would say something that we’re messing with going into next year, and that I think we’ll probably see a little more of industry wide is an approach that we’re calling problem first, which is basically… So my sort of typical construction, classic construction of a video, I always refer to us as a double funnel. So it starts out wide at the top.
There’s something interesting and vague. It sounds interesting, it looks cool, what is it? It gets your attention and you’re like, what is that? And then you get down into the problem right in the middle of the funnel, it’s like what’s actually going wrong? The nuts and bolts. And then it widens back out at the end to say why this is important, why should I care, what’s happening next, something broader. So broad, tight, broad is generally my own personal perspective of the classic construction of a video.
I think something we’re looking into for this year is really getting to sort a problem first structure where you take the most interesting part of the middle of the funnel, that nut or that bolt that’s really interesting, that’s really just going to grab you right away and you hit them right with the problem first. Just in the mindset that if we’re going to lose people in three to five seconds, we may not have as much time to do this beautiful cinematic build that we’d like to do, that you see in sort of your classic video where it’s here we are and here’s the problem. But it’s sort of like, here’s the problem and then we get into the other stuff. So that’s just something we’re toying with a little bit.
Thank you, John.
It is a pleasure to talk with experienced professionals like John. We are energized by his drive to learn and do new things in the pursuit of providing the best for his clients and team. At Draper DNA, we believe it is experience that drives innovation. The compounding of successes and failures mitigate risk and lead to progress.
If you would like to watch our conversation with John on the Draper DNA YouTube by clicking HERE.