Arun Chaudhary is a filmmaker working in politics. He was the first Official White House Videographer, a position created for him at the beginning of the Obama administration. Chaudhary traveled extensively with the President, capturing public events and behind-the-scenes moments as well as producing and packaging presidential tapings for the Internet and broadcast television. Here, he discusses his unconventional career path and the power of storytelling in the digital age.
If it's characters we care about, it doesn't matter how they're put together.
When we're so fixated on the latest new platform or trend, we miss the big questions.
We need more thoughtfulness in marketing. It's ok to slow down.
Kyle: Thank you everybody for joining us today. And we have another very special guest with us. We have Arun Chaudhary, which I am 99% sure I’ve pronounced correctly. Arun, thank you so much for joining us.
Arun: Oh, it’s great to be here.
Kyle: Cool. Just to get things kicked off a little bit, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your professional background?
Arun: Yeah. I mean, I’m a filmmaker who’s working in politics. So I’m kind of really lucky I’ve been able to make it work, but I’m someone who came out of a kind of typical indie, you know, NYU experience and became the first official White House videographer, which meant that I made videos especially digital content for Barack Obama during his campaign. And then following in, and have transitioned that into becoming a creative director in politics.
Kyle: Awesome. That’s really, really interesting and super exciting. And I mean, just for my own curiosity how did you kind of get into that role or transition from your indie background and…
Arun: I know. This is always the question, right?
Arun: And it’s like you’d like to say that there was like a Craigslist thing, it was expression necessary, personal videographer needed, leader of the free world. But it wasn’t like that. It was really just a kind of right place, right time thing, a series of events. So I think you had a situation in which you had some very smart people working for Barack Obama’s campaign. David Axelrod and David Plouffe especially who knew they wanted to have an internal video team even though they didn’t know what they wanted it to do, right?
Kyle: Okay. Got it.
Arun: ...which is sort of the most sage you can be in the internet age, right? It’s impressive that these kind of old fellows figured that out. They were like, you know, we want this thing we don’t, but it should just exist. And felt really privileged to be able to sort of be a part of that team. But for them to select me, it just was number one, Hillary Clinton had already hired everybody in town. And so their campaign had to reach out to professionals whether it was filmmakers or whatever, and so Kate Albright-Hanna, the person who hired me, was a documentary filmmaker from CNN, you know, again, working professional who I knew brought me on to make sort of short funny things on the internet. It was just really…I’d like to say that us young folks really like pioneered something new, but we were just really given that space and really given that resources by the senior staff of the Obama campaign.
Kyle: Oh, sweet. That’s awesome. And with that, you know, also you’re interested in video, what channels do you see being the powerhouses of digital these days moving forward?
Arun: What do you mean by channels?
Kyle: So I guess what sort of marketing approaches do you see especially, I guess even if you wanna just try and tie-in more of like a video perspective to it, like what sort of approach do you think marketers should be taking to really be able to tell their stories and get their messages out there?
Arun: The answer is in the question, which is actually tell their stories and not just bark information to people, you know, really like have an authentic sense of self. I think being able to make yourself vulnerable as a company, as a politician, as anything is also very important, people respect that. If people know what the mission is when you fall off of it, they’re willing to let you get back on the horse rather than punish you for it endlessly. But, you know, the one thing I wanna say along those lines because people aren’t doing it, and I think it should be, and I think it is…especially in digital what we should be doing is working with fiction more when it comes to advocacy and when it comes to advertising. And that sort of being whether it be a graphic novel, or webisodes, or whatever, we know we get information better when it’s attached to a story.
Arun: And yet, so many organizations whether it’s the corporate world trying to get their product placement in something, or the advocacy world desperately just hoping that the sitcom will have an abortion so people can realize that it’s a normal part of life, would be so much stickier and more effective if you didn’t just beg Hollywood or beg, you know, to do it but if you actually made your own stuff. And we’re at inflection point in terms of gear and stuff now where there are smart hungry young well-trained filmmakers much like myself was when I came in at NYU who I think would be instrumental in kind of creating a new genre of advocacy fiction.
Kyle: Cool. No, that’s super interesting. And one of the things I’m curious with, you know, if companies or brands that you wanna get started with that but they are a small team with limited resources, how would you kind of recommend they prioritize like their approach and how to get started with that?
Arun: You can start with a personal stick figure hand-drawn comic made by your CEO.
Arun: You know? It can start that simple. I think that is engaging. I think, you know, if it’s characters who we care about, it doesn’t matter if they’re four lines put together.
Kyle: Okay. No, I think that’d be super awesome to see, you know, especially with like with the resources available. If you actually see somebody put together a stick figure video like that, I actually think that would stand out a lot.
Arun: Like imagine like the President of Citibank. I’m just trying to pick something that seems big and faceless, you know what I mean? Like what had he made like a personal comic of his trip to like Davos where he like learned something he thought was interesting and wants to tell the shareholders. You know, “Here I am, I got on the plane. Oh my God, I met the [inaudible 00:04:27] this crazy guy.” Like, you could actually feel seeing it and especially the doodle of someone who you only see in this very poised way, could be incredible.
Kyle: Oh, absolutely. And then with that, I mean, you know, people would probably be able to draw inspiration from that to kind of like figure out like you know what they wanna do and what sort of course they wanna take. Where do you turn for your inspiration in your career if there’s anybody in particular that you look to?
Arun: I try to look…This is gonna sound so pretentious. And yet, I can’t think of a better way to say it. I’m trying to think in terms of decades and even centuries instead of years and months. I’m trying to slow down the information I take in. That doesn’t just mean, you know, not being on Twitter all day. It also means like going to source material that might be older when it comes to like political persuasion like, you know, looking at stuff from the American Revolution, looking at stuff from, you know, the Reformation, looking at like when mass mediums were introduced in other eras and other times, you know? You have things like the English Civil War in the 1600s, this is like one of your first, like, sort of mass marketing events looking back and forth.
And I think it’s important just to… there’s nothing new under the sun as we all say, but when we’re so fixated on the latest new platform or trend, we miss these really, really big questions, right? Like in my talk today, I was talking about sound and video and like, you know, how Facebook sort of decreases people watching videos that have audio. Well, so like, 2,000 years of art history or however many thousand years tell us that audio is the single most important part of anything when it comes to persuasion. And the only way that you could overturn these thousands of years of what we know as people, is through sort of really blindly examining the data of the last few years, last few months, last few days, and think that’s somehow importantly.
Kyle: Okay, got it. I mean, to me, that gets me thinking a little bit. Like, do you think that there’s kind of an issue or a problem with people trying to say like, you know, with all these new platforms and all these new technologies becoming available, they just like spread the resources too thin to try and be okay at all these things versus honing in and being good at one thing?
Arun: Yeah. And there’s a limited amount of staff especially digital because people don’t invest in it like they should. And so the situation in which, thank God, let’s say, the digital director is invited to the actual big meeting with the CEO, right, which always doesn’t happen. It maybe happens more now than it used to.
Arun: I want the CEO to look at them and say, “Hey, are we on Snapchat?” because then like their only contribution would be like, “Yes, we are on that platform,” or “No, we are not.” And there’s no point in being on a million platforms if you’re not planning on keeping up with it, if you’re not planning on doing anything with it, if you’re not getting anything out of it.
Kyle: Yeah. Do you think that a lot of people, I guess, if you wanna look at the CEO perspective, have a hard time trying to like tie the business value of something like that to the, like, bottom line of a company? Isn’t that kind of like why they might be left out of that sort of meeting, or do have a take on that?
Arun: I think if that same character you’re telling me who’s like, “Yeah, I don’t know,” was at this conference now, he or she would say, “Yes, yes” makes so much sense to every single thing that was said but then still not feel like there’s the right time to implement it, right? “Yeah, totally authentic storytelling. I think we need to do that next week. Right now, we really just got to explain why this car doesn’t work.” You know, like right now, is really like having kids or doing laundry. There’s never a good time to switch, you know, like, you know, the communication strategies of your company, so I feel like everybody gets it and yet no one wants to do it.
Kyle: Got it. Okay. So I guess with that then, if people wanna get started with it from the skills perspective, what do you think they should be focusing their time on just to…or like, how would they even try to get that conversation started to try and make it more of a priority?
Arun: Think more and do less.
Arun: I think, you know, this is probably attributed to a million people, Abraham Lincoln among them. But like, you know, I think he said, if I had five hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend four sharpening the axe. People aren’t sharpening the axe, people are just hacking blindly at things and hoping for the best.
Kyle: Hoping for the best. Got it.
Arun: And we need more thoughtfulness. It’s okay to slow down, it’s better to be second and be best than to be first all the time. You see that in the news more than anywhere where just being first it’s a race, but everyone’s always like, “We’re not out there on this. Everyone else is out there on this.”
Arun: Yeah. Well, unless you were first, what does it matter if you were fifth or tenth?
Kyle: Got it.
Arun: Nobody cares.
Kyle: This is a race to the top.
Arun: So actually, just make sure you have something to say. And when you don’t have something to say, don’t say it.
Kyle: Don’t say it. Okay. So a less is more approach. I think I can definitely get behind that. And then just as the last thing kind of wrap things up a little bit. What do you think is one thing marketers should do now to set themselves up for the rest of 2018 for success and beyond?
Arun: I think folks should take a long hard look at their organizational structures. I think it’s a good time to do that now. It’s a good time to finally make the decision, do I have a digital team or is my digital team dispersed amongst the other communications teams, actually giving their input all the time. And at the table is the question being asked, what’s the digital add on to this rather than having a digital person say, “Hey, I think this is, you know, a thing that we should do that then has non digital permutations to it.” But the idea, there was a digital add on to campaigns is I think an idea of 2017 and not 2018. And hopefully, we can make that stick and moving forward.
Kyle: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for the time really. I appreciated having you on here. And I look forward to having you back on again.
Arun: Thank you so much. Anytime.