The Story Behind Those Ads Everyone's Talking About

Audible’s creative team had three weeks to put together a series of ads for the biggest awards night in Hollywood. Senior Creative Director Kari Niles' tale of the rip-roaring journey to get there is one for the storybooks.

Most of us at Audible are culture mavens — we love books, obviously, but also take in our fair share of bingeworthy shows, live performances, and, of course, movies. You could say we are hungry for “story” in all its formats. That’s why, when our paid media team came to us and said, “We’ve been offered air time on the Oscars this year,” we jumped at the opportunity. 

“It was like putting a giant, moving, three-dimensional puzzle together.”

If this year’s SAG Awards were any indication, the 2017 Oscars promised to be “vocal” — something we at Audible know all about. In recent years, awards shows have become platforms for myriad voices to be heard, and Audible celebrates the power of the human voice every day. Our entire brand experience is built around the love for well-composed words, performed beautifully. A chance to inspire so many people to think about the power of our words through our brand’s voice felt like a peanut-butter-and-jelly moment: an iconic, irresistibly delicious combination. 

In How Many Days?!

The meeting where the opportunity was presented was Friday, February 3rd, according to my calendar. The Oscars were slated for Sunday, February 26th, giving us a scant three weeks. For those unfamiliar with the advertising world, it typically takes at least three weeks to write a creative brief, let alone produce and deploy national spots. Commercials typically take months to concept, storyboard, cast, produce, edit, and deliver. So who to turn to? 

Friends Of Audible

A cornerstone of the Audible business is the creative community in which we work and play: the writers, actors, and performers who bring stories to life. We have longstanding relationships with some of the most memorable, talented voices on the planet. We celebrate the gravel in Victor Bevine’s delivery; savor Claire Danes’ emphatic, lingering tenor; revel in Alan Cumming’s crisp, character-riddled accent.

We celebrate the gravel in Victor Bevine’s delivery; savor Claire Danes’ emphatic, lingering tenor; revel in Alan Cumming’s crisp, character-riddled accent.

With a simple concept simultaneously being hammered out in Word documents and storyboards, and (more than) a fistful of luck, our team reached out to friends of Audible with a simple ask: Would you lend your voice to deliver a poignant passage? 

Radical Solutions Required

While our talent team reached out to performers, our head of Creative and Brand Marketing, Barbara Ward Thall, reached out to the one friend she knew was up to the task of producing our spots: her ex-boss and mentor at RadicalMedia, Jon Kamen. RadicalMedia has long been known for producing flawless spots under extreme circumstances — crunched timelines, underwater extravaganzas, technical marvels. Barbara knew this because she worked there from 1995 to 1998, during which time she led their “New Media” division. If there was one studio that she knew could pull off a two-week, soup-to-nuts, award-worthy production, it was Jon’s team. 

Within hours, RadicalMedia got to work lining up studio space, a producer, crew, and most importantly, a director. We needed a director who was good with talent, one with a sensitive ear for intonation, and one willing to roll with our ambitious timeline. Our simple concept of timely passages delivered powerfully had ballooned into a labyrinthine matrix of quotes and narrators. A dozen performers raised their hand to participate. We had sourced hundreds of prescient quotes, from Edith Wharton to J.K. Rowling, from Walden to 1984. Whoever was going to direct our ads needed to be not only patient, but book nerds, like us. 

A Postcard From Oscar Wilde

“Barbara and Kari, we have director Morgan Neville on the line,” said RadicalMedia’s Partner/President, Frank Scherma. Nevermind the inherent awkwardness of bicoastal conference call introductions; I IMDb’d Neville and started to sweat. It turns out that he had directed two of my favorite documentaries in recent memory: Keith Richards: Under the Influence, which my husband and I had watched just a month earlier, and 20 Feet from Stardom, for which Neville won the Oscar for Best Documentary Film in 2014. I wasn’t sure if I was sweating out of nervousness or fear — at this point, our team was wed to the power of our concept; a pushy director might just wrangle it out of our hands. 

“The secret of life is in art.” - Oscar Wilde

“I love the concept,” Neville said. “I don’t suppose you know this, but I grew up in a bookstore.” He went on to describe a childhood home full of books — so many, in fact, that every room was lined in bookshelves except for one, the bathroom. Yet even there, hanging above the toilet was a framed postcard sent to Morgan’s grandfather and penned by Oscar Wilde: “The secret of life is in art.” We knew we were in the right hands.

Themes From The Zeitgeist

While pre-production and talent bookings were in full swing, the business of finding relevant quotes was at a fever pitch. “Not only did our selected quotes need to fit nicely within our 30- and 15-second commercial lengths, but we wanted to cover a range of relevant and timely themes, which also had to make sense for the specific talent delivering them,” says Barbara Ward Thall.

A glimpse of the complicated matrix of literary quotes that was used to organize the campaign.

“At the same time,” she continues, “we were simultaneously vetting the accuracy of the quotes and reaching out to publishers and the talent for their approval and input. It was like putting a giant, moving three-dimensional puzzle together.” Given the speed at which we were working, changes and updates on-set were inevitable — never an ideal situation. 

The Victor Hugo Snafu

Within five days of our first meeting with director Morgan Neville on the phone, we found ourselves on-set in Brooklyn with him, a cast of a dozen narrators, scores of quotes about topics ranging from immigration to women’s issues to environmentalism, and a crack production team. To say the cast and crew were on board with the concept would be an understatement — the enthusiasm was palpable.

One performance after another confirmed our belief that well-composed words, performed beautifully, can be transcendent; as for relevant, the quotes we chose might as well have been written that morning. When Kevin R. Free read from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, a hushed murmur spread across the set. When Jim Dale slipped into character and read from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a broad smile spread across everyone’s faces. The combination of riveting words and performance electrified the air. 

Claire Danes was on a tight schedule — she was due to be on the set of Homeland just 30 minutes after our allotted time with her. Her shoot had to run like clockwork. As with the other performers, Claire’s script was developing in real time. Armed with my laptop, I was following email threads about rights to quotes as we continued digging into the canon and finding gems from memoirs, novels, and poetry from across the ages.  

An email appeared in my inbox that made the hair on my neck stand up.

An email appeared in my inbox that made the hair on my neck stand up. The passage we had selected for Claire, from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, was incorrect. The translation I had been using included the word “culpable,” which was quite a mouthful, and the sentence structure was awkward. The approved translation I’d just received was much more fluid and had parallel sentence structure. Something had to be done. 

I spotted a young crew member in the pit who appeared to have access to a printer — and we needed to get the new, correct quote in front of Claire as soon as humanly possible.

“I have the wrong quote,” I told him. “I need to make a change in the script.”

“You sure do,” another crew member seated next to him said, “the one you have is from a crap translation.”

“How do you know?” I asked him.

“I’ve read Les Misérables twenty times. Ten times in English, ten times in French,” he boasted in a thick New York accent. “Now I’ve been vindicated.” He folded his arms and flashed a victorious smile.

Within seconds, the proper translation of a passage about public education was delivered to Claire Danes, who performed it with her signature passion and emphasis. High-fives all around — we had stayed true to the text. Book nerds, unite. 

Audible Senior Creative Director Kari Niles with beloved Harry Potter series narrator Jim Dale. An Orwellian Moment

Zachary Quinto is surprisingly soft-spoken. He slipped stealthlike onto the set, blending into the crew, dressed in all black and sporting a full beard. Behind the mic, however, the gifts that set him apart sprung to life. An actor’s actor, Quinto’s delivery is economical, his performance nuanced. He also reads quickly, we found, without sacrificing delivery, so we gave him some of the more challenging and wordy quotes we’d fallen in love with but had little hope of squeezing into a 30-second spot. 

With 1984 climbing the bestseller list on Amazon, we knew we had rich territory to mine. Dozens of passages jumped out as meaningful. The passage we chose — and the one which has received, to date, more than a million views on YouTube — Quinto read in an even, measured, and somewhat chilling manner. There were goosebumps on the set, goosebumps in the editing room, and, apparently, this would lead to goosebumps in millions of Oscar-viewing households across America. 

An Electric Night

Flash-forward to the night of the big event. The tweets and posts started flooding in first from the West Coast, where the spots aired a full hour before the East Coast. Audible fans, bloggers, and news outlets took note of the simplicity of the concept and the impact of the performances. A range of reactions as diverse as the quotes we chose and the talent we cast came in real-time:

"Tweet enter here"

"Tweet enter here"

Audible won the #Oscars

"Tweet enter here" I was delighted when one of my favorite contemporary writers, House of Cards writer and producer Beau Willimon, chimed in: "Tweet enter here"

I love my job. Not only do I get to work with fellow book nerds and audio geeks, but it’s literally my job to convey the power of well-composed words, performed beautifully. Our latest ad campaign is much more than a series of commercials, it’s a platform for capturing and sharing inspiring voices, designed to grow and be embraced by friends of Audible — writers and performers and fans of all creeds and colors who believe in the power of voice. 

See celebrities and narrators perform all the quotes we created for this campaign, including Zachary Quinto reading from George Orwell, here: 

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