Q&A with jury chair: AT&T’s Sandra Howard

VP of corporate branding discusses what makes the “Best of the Best”

What were the criteria for judging the entries and selecting the “Best of the Best”?

The biggest filter and criteria for who ultimately was selected were how the particular brand chose to integrate its specific story, how that story relates to a greater meaning, and how it connects to who these brands are and what their proposition is for consumers in the marketplace.


What separates the winners from the rest?

When you know what you are about, what is at the heart of your company, what the proposition of your company is, it leads you to very interesting places. Without knowing these things, it becomes more difficult to deliver on branded content in a way that is compelling. You want your customers to quietly associate your brand in a way that is not in your face and does not hit you between the eyes but is still impactful. You really can’t do that unless you understand the essence of your company and what you want to pursue along the way.


Which entries best represented that?

One of the selections for the final winner was Tim Hortons. Because they are not prevalent in my region, I just know Tim Hortons to be food. I didn’t understand the roots of who they were, the connection the brand has to hockey and why, and their ability to find the most interesting way to bring that to life. Finding someone in Africa that has built a hockey team just from watching the sport on TV and all they’ve done to bring hockey to Africa, it’s amazing. That, to me, was really powerful and done in a way that uniquely ties into what that company is about.


Any other particular favorites among the winners?

“Honest Yearbook” by the Ad Council. It was about these individuals in high school who showed up for their yearbook photo shoot and were surprised by others that they impacted in a positive way, and were able to hear messages from these individuals. You can literally see these people transform on camera, fill with joy and pride and emotion and human connection brought about by spreading goodwill and understanding. It showed that one small act of kindness in a world where meanness and bullying are so prevalent can literally make someone’s day. Equally compelling was it wasn’t masked with throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars in production. It was just these kids showing up in a room watching videos. The message was absolutely on point, and the ability to tell a story very simply didn’t take a way from its impact.


The other piece that stood out to me was “Pip.” It was a dynamic story about this young puppy that wanted to be his best self in order to help others. He wasn’t the right dog — he was smaller, not quick to get the skills in the training — he was a bit of the underdog. His determination to become his best self in order to help others was so joyful. This idea of being your best self — not for self-serving purposes but to help others — was a pretty awesome message that really stayed with me.


Did you observe any commonalities among the winners?

One thing they all had in common, whether they were winners or not, is that all the films worked very hard to translate the brands’ values and the impact they or their customers are making in the world. Creating human connection in surprising ways was the key underlying theme of all of them. In the end, we’re about making the world a better place, in ways that are appropriate for each of the participating brands.


How do you approach branded content at AT&T?

We think about how we bring our story to life through two primary pillars. One is how we transcend all the promotional activity and validate the innovation story of the company that some know but many don’t. The second piece is around our values. For AT&T, the meaningful distinction relates to our scale. We have more than 300,000 employees that live all over the country. Our employees are literally in every city and neighborhood in which our customers also live.


One example of showing who we are and the values we serve is our AT&T “Believes” initiative, which we support through advertising and branded content. It’s an initiative created by employees in various cities based on the needs of those communities. Using Chicago as an example, the focus is gun violence. AT&T has an entire program there that contributes to and helps be part of the solution.


There are many “Believes” cities across the country. It’s very important for us to shine a light on the face and heart of the company in these places.