Brand Storytelling with Brand Films with Rick Parkhill and Dr. Stephen Marshall

An innovative new film-making certification that’s designed to equip storytellers with the skills they need to meet the growing demand for branded media. The program is the brainchild of our two guests this week: Rick Parkhill of Brand Storytelling and Dr. Stephen Marshall of East Tennessee State University. Learn how course students are briefed directly by industry partners including Discovery, Univision, Southwest Airlines, and Intel, plus hear feedback from the first cohort.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS: 

Rick Parkhill: People are learning about brand storytelling on the job. They come from journalism, from the entertainment business, and from marketing. This is a collision of industries. 

Dr. Stephen Marshall: Today, we have to skill up people. We have to embed these kinds of micro certifications into their journey so that those are signals back to people like you, who hire people.

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye, a strategy lead, full service, creative agency, growing brands for clients globally. Hello. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer at Bigeye. Thank you for joining us. At the start of this month, we spoke with Miri Rodriguez, the author of the book, Brand Storytelling. Last week, we focused on audio branding and how sonic identities can trigger consumers’ emotional brand associations. Today’s episode continues the theme of using storytelling techniques to elevate branded content. We’re going to learn about an innovative new educational program that’s designed to equip storytellers with the skills they need to meet the growing demand for branded media. The program is the brainchild of our two guests this week. Rick Parkhill is a successful business-to-business media entrepreneur, the founder of Infotext, Digitrends, and iMedia. A self-confessed media junkie, Rick is a keen observer of the impact of media and technology on culture and society. He’s produced over 100 advertising and media events, and is currently the director of Brand Storytelling, a business-to-business media company, serving the brand storytelling industry, which includes brand marketers, agencies, media and production companies, platforms, and content studios. Dr. Stephen Marshall is a professor in the department of media and communications at East Tennessee State University, as well as a brand strategist. Focusing on branding media and multicultural advertising, he’s consulted for Adobe, Coca-Cola, and The Birthplace of Country Music Museum among many others. Today, Stephen is the chief marketing officer for the E.T.S.U. Research Corporation, leading the new program that we’ll be discussing. Rick and Stephen, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Rick Parkhill: Thank you, happy to be here, Adrian. Thanks for having us.

Dr. Stephen Marshall: Yeah, thanks, Adrian. This is awesome. 

Adrian Tennant: Let’s start with you, Rick. Could you tell us about your professional background and what prompted you to create Brand Storytelling?

Rick Parkhill: Well, first of all, I’ve been infatuated with the media environment for decades. And now I launched a magazine back in the late eighties called Infotext that was the first publication for interactive media and marketing before the internet existed. It was audio text technology and video texts and things like CompuServe. I’ve been really infatuated with interactive media and the evolution of media over the years. About seven years ago a number of friends of mine came to me that had been attending the Sundance Film Festival and taking brand clients with them. They wanted to be together with these independent filmmakers and the creative community but didn’t have a place to belong to, you know, where discussions could happen around branded content. And I didn’t really understand it at first, but as I got further into the business of content, it really excited me because I could see the shift in the media world that was being fed by advancements in technology. YouTube was really coming on at that time and brands were self-publishing content, and it just opened up a whole new world, for brands to be storytellers. Sort of the perfect storm that was brewing was sort of migration away from analog TB and money that’s been poured into television being re-evaluated. So that got me really excited. We started our first event in 2016 and haven’t looked back. 

Adrian Tennant: Can you tell us more about the kind of content you screen at the Brand Storytelling event? 

Rick Parkhill: Sure. So this year we opened up submissions for brand films. We received nearly 200 submissions, from brands like The North Face, PNG, Red Bull, Apple, Whirlpool, United States Postal Service, HP, Hawaiian Airlines, Pepsi – some brands you’ve heard of! We put together a selection committee that consisted of about 16 people, brands, agencies, directors. They poured through the films and selected 15 films that we would screen over a four-day period at Sundance. The film would screen for our audience afterward, we’d have panels and Q&A with the brands and directors and producers, and even sometimes talent involved in the films. The films range from a three-minute film to a 90-minute feature. Some great films, ones that you’ll see on streaming platforms, like A Woman’s Place by Whirlpool, Dear Santa by the United States Postal Service, Generation Impact by HP, The Beauty of Blackness is a new film by Sephora, Black Boys is an impactful film by Procter and Gamble. So, we’re very proud of the content that was selected and we’re anxious to screen it in front of a live audience in Park City in January but unfortunately, that was unable to happen.

Adrian Tennant: How has the content evolved over the years that you’ve been running the event? 

Rick Parkhill: Well, I’ll tell you, five years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to run the Brand Storytelling theater as we did this year. Had we opened two submissions just five years ago, the quality and quantity of content would have been far less. This is a fairly new phenomenon going on, where brands are redirecting investment away from interruptive advertising to engaging content. Brands are finding their ways onto the streaming platform. When television audiences are migrating to Hulu and Netflix and Amazon plus and Disney plus and Paramount Plus, you go on and on, brands need to follow the audience. So how are they going to do that on a streaming platform that doesn’t provide 30-second spot commercials plus it’s a generation of people that are used to just watching what they want to watch when they want to watch it. So, interrupting, immediate choice is really annoying to most people these days, especially the younger audience that’s so important to brands. They have to compete for eyeballs and interest in engagement. They have to compete with Hollywood. They have to compete with the best creators on the planet, and they’re doing that. And they’re investing money in top-notch creators in great productions. 

Dr. Stephen Marshall: I’ll jump in just real quick and say, I think another part of that change would be companies and brands really understanding that they need to lean into their corporate social responsibility, to stand for something more than just the experience that they’re able to deliver a product service idea and that’s even going to be amplified with environmental social governance and how that’s turning into part of the financial formula for evaluation. Brands are really understanding that need to stand for something more than just, whatever that experience is that they deliver. They need to be part of culture and part of somebody’s life as a signal of I do business with this company because this company believes in, it has this ethos and has this thing that they stand for in our world. Culturally, if you look back, serendipitously in the sense of how things have been changing, we have the pandemic, but we also have so much of a cultural shift, a political shift, all these different things happening. It’s a great opportunity. And I would say that, Rick got 200 films because the brands are starting to really understand that we need to be more than just this thing that we deliver to a customer.

Adrian Tennant: So Stephen, could you explain your career journey and what led you to your current position as CMO of the E.T.S.U. Research Corporation?

Dr. Stephen Marshall: Yeah. How long has this podcast? I was working for Nielsen – this is in the nineties. I was handling clients in Chicago, in New York, and so there was BBDO, DDB, Leo Burnett, and those folks. I got really interested in what my clients were doing with the data. So I wanted to reposition myself as an account planner, be the voice of the customer. In everything that I do, even today, is all customer first, kind of what’s the empathy of the customer and how can we create a great experience? I had a great ride at the University of Florida where I did a master’s degree and I had great mentors there that said, you should do a PhD. I’m not that smart and I thought, what the heck? I’ll try it. Got a free ride to teach media planning, which is something that they also needed somebody to do. and so I took that opportunity And just fell in love with the classroom, fell in love with the opportunity to be part of somebody else’s journey and the excitement of learning. That led to East Tennessee State University when I graduated. I love mountain biking and the mountains in Florida aren’t so great. So I’ve been here since 2006, I’ve been a department chair for seven of those years. I have always been somebody who has a foot in industry. I’ve worked for an agency here in town that landed a nice opportunity with Coca-Cola. It was part of their redesign of their coke, which is their B2B flagship. I helped drive the data that was really helping them understand how people were using it or the opportunities that they were missing out on. We actually worked with a couple of other agencies and redesign the whole Coca-Cola website introduced me to Adobe and Adobe Experience business. 

Adrian Tennant: Stephen, you initiated the first Digital Marketing Graduate Degree in the state of Tennessee. You’re also responsible for creating Adobe’s first-ever University Alliance focused on teaching students with Adobe’s digital marketing cloud. 

Dr. Stephen Marshall: That’s really where the heartbeat of what I do is really in two places, it’s in experiential learning and in micro certifications. I strongly believe that higher education should have these signals. Your degree is a certification, right? Your BA, your MA, your doctorate, whatever. That’s a certification that comes from the university. But in our world today, we have to skill up people, and skilling up means that we have to embed these kinds of micro certifications into their journey so that those are signals back to people like you, who hire people, I’ve got this certification and this and this and this I’m skilled up and I’m current, right? because when I was doing my Adobe gig as a higher education person, I would be at the American Marketing Association and I’d have folks coming up to me and going, “What’s Adobe doing here. I don’t know what they’re doing here?” It’s like, well I guess it’s because you don’t know that the experience platform is the largest global enterprise digital marketing platform in the world. So thanks for sharing your ignorance with me, and by the way, you’re still teaching students in marketing. That’s a scary thing. Right. And that troubled me in a big way.

Adrian Tennant: So, Stephen, how did you meet Rick? 

Dr. Stephen Marshall: Yeah. I had a great mutual colleague, David Stokes-Piercey I teach with. He’s a filmmaker and he was starting to explore the brand film space. And so he said, “Hey, I’m talking to this guy, Rick Parkhill from Brand Storytelling. I want him to do a guest speaking thing in my class. Do you want to join?” And he knows how much I’m interested in what’s happening in the industry world. Right. So making sure that we’re bringing that current knowledge and applicability to students there. So I said, absolutely, I’ll meet him. And then I did a lot of homework on Rick and his network and the people, and the content, you know, if you look at, and then you look at not only the advisory board and the community, but you look at the YouTube channel, you look at this amazing content that is so current, that’s so relevant, with the voices that are at the top of the chain on all this stuff, both in film and in brand and marketing media. When I met him, I said, “Dude, we have to have some kind of an education product here. this is something.” Ricky can tell you, we were, drug behind the car for a little bit trying to figure out what it was going to be. We thought maybe this is a graduate program, maybe this is some kind of undergraduate thing. And where we landed is in a really great place.

Adrian Tennant: So let’s talk about the new Brand Storytelling Brand Film Certification. How is the course structured? 

Dr. Stephen Marshall: So it’s very similar to what you would take from Google or from Coursera or some other kind of vendor. But I like to think of it more like, concentrated OJ, right? So it’s really condensed content. It may be a five-minute video lecture, a lesson on something, but you’re probably going to watch it two or three times because there’s a whole bunch packed into it in terms of quality. Then we wanted to really make sure, again, we’re sending those signals to the industry of why you should hire me and why I’m current. And then, the applicability. So the argument that I always make in experiential learning is, I’ve coached teams in the National Student Advertising Competition, that’s part of the American Advertising Federation, it’s an amazing experience for students, and we’ve done pretty well. I mean, in the last couple of years, we’ve been in the National Championships top eight out of 200 teams in the country. But the thing about that process is that those students never actually do the work. So the experience itself, interacting, there’s not a lot of interaction with the client that you get, so I had this lens on all these different ways that we could really make a great experiential kind of thing. What we’ve done with the Brand Storytelling Certification and Brand Film is we’ve taken a lot of those elements and said, okay, let’s pack in these really chunky, but yet small knowledge nuggets. And then let’s bring in real brands and have real brands engaging with students, pitching RFPs to students, and the students earn their certificate by answering a real brand film RFP. And then to bring all these guest speakers that you see on the YouTube channel for Brand Storytelling, we have so much exclusive content with interviews with just some of the best and brightest in the industry that students are able to digest. And then we have engagement with our faculty. So we have these office hours where students get to ask the faculty questions. I mean, 50 plus hours of content over four weeks. It’s pretty, bad-ass quite honestly. 

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after these messages.

Adrian Tennant: Each month, in partnership with our friends at Kogan Page, The Bigeye Book Club features interviews with authors who are experts in specific areas of marketing. February’s featured book is Brand Storytelling by Miri Rodriguez. IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners can save 20 percent on a print or electronic version of the book with exclusive promo code BIGEYE20. This code is valid for all products and pre-orders and applies to Kogan Page’s free e-book offer. To order your copy of Brand Storytelling, go to

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m here with Rick Parkhill and Dr. Stephen Marshall talking about the new Brand Storytelling Brand Film Certification Program. Well, Rick, you’ve attracted some really impressive industry partners already. Could you tell us a bit more about them and how they’re involved in the program?

Rick Parkhill: Sure. So our industry partners include companies like Intel, Southwest Airlines, Discovery, Univision, Body Armor, the energy drink that was just bought by Coca-Cola. So we have these amazing brands that are behind each one of the cohorts that will produce in 22. There’ll be six of them. In each cohort, we have a single brand who issues an RFP to the students. So they have a one-to-one connection with these students and an opportunity to present their RFP, then, all of the responses become the ownership of the brand. So, they could stumble on a great idea. We have students that range from Emmy award-winning filmmakers to grad students. Anybody can come up with a great idea. We see that all over the place with crowdsourcing these days. There’s a couple of motivational factors that are attracting our brand sponsors. One is that opportunity to interact directly with the students, the other, is that a big part of our mission is a DEI element here. Our industry of brand filmmaking is really imbalanced when it comes to diversity and inclusion, it’s reflective of the ad industry. We want to do our part to help fix that. So we’re working with various organizations to help recruit scholarship applicants, that are DEI students that are underrepresented folks, and bring them into an immersive program that allows them to work in teams with other students and have the opportunity to present their response to the RFP in person to the brand live. So we’re introducing these folks directly to Intel and Discovery and Univision and Southwest Airlines and mentoring them along the way, giving them opportunity and building their network. So that’s a big motivational factor from these great brands that are working with us that want to help us in that mission and embrace that. So a couple things, you know, opportunity to interact and meet students, recruitment, all of these companies are looking to build their internal teams of brand storytellers, content development. And look, Brand Storytelling has some history with these folks too, so it wasn’t coming to them cold. They know us, they trust us, and they got behind our mission 100%. 

Adrian Tennant: Rick, in what kinds of ways do you hope the certification will help both current and future brand marketers? 

Rick Parkhill: Well, look, this stuff isn’t taught at university. That’s why Stokes first approached me from E.T.S.U. with this idea. I’ve learned a lot about learning over the last year and a half, and developing the certification program. We know that this stuff isn’t taught at university. Hey, I have a daughter who is 22 years old that just graduated from University of Missouri’s journalism school and strategic communications. She’s learned more about brand storytelling in our house than she did at college. You know, they’re not learning it in school. People are learning about brand storytelling on the job. Nobody comes into this business of brand storytelling knowing everything. They come from different walks of life. They come from journalism, from the entertainment business, and from marketing. This is a collision of industries. So, a brand storyteller needs to understand how Hollywood operates. If brands are going to be creating content that’s good enough to be purchased, to be distributed on the streaming platforms, they need to know entertainment law. They need to know how to avoid the pitfalls, how not to get sued. Brands are risk averse, and there’s a lot of risks in developing and distributing content. There’s just a lot of things they need to know and this course is going to help them figure it out.

Adrian Tennant: Stephen, you mentioned the program officially launched at the end of January, the first of six Brand Storytelling Brand Film Certification cohorts this year. Have you received any feedback from this first cohort? What are you hearing?

Dr. Stephen Marshall: Oh man. Yeah. We’re so excited with the feedback, because it’s just been unbelievably positive, which we hope that that would be the case. This is an entrepreneurial endeavor. We’re doing something that nobody’s ever done before. The thing is that there’s so much content that we have in one place. That’s the first thing is that, even the amazing experts that we have in these exclusive interviews that we do, they all have a good bit of humility to them to say, I’m not coming in here that I have all this figured out, you know, because every brand is going to be different. Every brand is going to have a different approach and strategy and everything that they’re doing. And then understanding how do we communicate the value of a long play of a brand film, to the C-suite. It’s not going to sell more chicken sandwiches tomorrow, right? And that’s not what it’s supposed to do. But a lot of it is a validation for the folks who were in it, especially the folks that are really upper echelon kinds of pros who are in our certification, that are in there because they wanted to be part of the community. That’s a big part of what we’re doing as well, where we’re setting up a really amazing alumni community. We have an amazing Slack channel that’s part of our experience where we were having engaging conversations around things, and folks are sharing other work that they’re doing, or that they know of, or that they’re in. There’s a great peer mentoring kind of thing that’s happening, that should happen in any kind of an education experience, right? As somebody that’s taught in higher ed for more than two decades, you don’t see that as much in undergrad as you do in grad. But in grad studies, that’s so much of what that experience is about, is really deep diving into stuff and then having that peer mentoring. So the community, the access to the brands, to be able to hear from brands, especially if you haven’t done official RFP pitches, or maybe you have done some, but you didn’t really just know how to do it. When you have someone like Brian Newman, Mark Bataglia, Marcus Peter Zelle, Don Reese, I mean, you have these instructors who have so much amazing experience and they’re basically just doing a very sophisticated data dump of their brains. And some of the feedback is just like, if this is just great to have validation that this is what we were thinking, and we weren’t sure. I mean, we have folks who are actually over all of the world in our program right now. But some of the folks that aren’t in markets like LA or New York, but that are doing this, they’re just like, we’re kind of out here, we didn’t know if this was the right approach because we’re not kind of submerged in that culture. And it’s good to have that validation. So some of it’s validation around just approaches. Some of it’s validation around terms and language. And really understanding how do you think about things? And then a lot of it is the nut that everybody wants to crack is how do you think about distribution and how do you tell the ROI story to the C-suite? Because that’s where when you’ve got two minutes with a CEO and you have to explain why you’re going to spend X amount of dollars on a brand film that doesn’t necessarily have a call to action at the end of it that says buy more chicken sandwiches. What does this do for the company? So a lot of the feedback that we’ve gotten, I have a better understanding of how I positioned that idea, or how do I do my story finding, for that brand and helping people understand the resources and the sources that you would look to to really try to understand what is the brand ethos, what’s the brand care about, and why is this story gonna resonate with the brand? 

Rick Parkhill: I’ll jump in on the feedback here a little bit. A good example is, we have a woman in the program, her name’s Faith Briggs. She’s an award-winning director. She directed a film that was funded by the Brooks Shoe Company that made it into our brand storytelling selection this year. She’s an accomplished director who’s a student in the course. And I get an email from her like every other day, it’s like, I’m so glad I found this. She knows how to make films. She knows how to tell stories, but she doesn’t fully understand the nuance of brand filmmaking. And this is helping her so much. And she’s so grateful that it’s there. I’m getting the same thing from grad students that are saying, gosh, this opens a whole new world for me in a career path, there’s so much opportunity here. The world is bending right now in the media world. And these young people are so excited to be a part of this content thing, that is just an exciting element of marketing. So the feedback’s been amazing.

Adrian Tennant: Rick, I know it’s very early days, but how do you see the certification evolving? Are you thinking about designing complementary courses or maybe creating in-person industry workshops or events?

Rick Parkhill: Oh, yeah. Well, look, I’m an event producer, so I haven’t been able to do an in-person event for two years now. The major thing in my career is producing, bringing people together, is what I’ve done, nurturing communities. And that’s what we’re doing with this group. Once they graduate from this cohort, they’ll be in a private LinkedIn group, we’re going to have a strong alumni factor here, this is such a collaborative industry of writers, directors, filmmakers, brands, producers, media companies, they all need to work together. So it all lends itself to workshops on ongoing ways to collaborate. So there’s that, and then there’s additional courses. Of course. We started with brand film, but brand storytelling takes on a lot of different forms. You know, we’re on a podcast right now. Brands are big into podcasting. Audio storytelling, that’s a whole nother course. Social video, very short form, video storytelling for social distribution. There’s this crazy thing around the corner called the metaverse, you know, we hear more and more about it every day. It’s the shiny new thing that’s out there in the marketing media world, and there’s going to be rich storytelling to do in the metaverse. That’s going to require a lot of education. So we see all sorts of opportunities to expand on our course offerings because we’ve got to follow what the industry needs and what marketers and students need is these forms of education and these courses where there’s a need we’ll look to fill it.

Adrian Tennant: Stephen, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about the brand storytelling brand film certification, what’s the best resource to start with?

Dr. Stephen Marshall: Just go to Or if you just get to brain, you will find that link in the nav and click on that. And you can find me on LinkedIn very easily, Stephen Marshall, if you want to have more engagement with me. But brand is where you’ll find pretty much all the information you might want to know about this.

Adrian Tennant: Rick and Stephen, thank you both very much for being our guests this week on, IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Rick Parkhill: Thanks very much.

Dr. Stephen Marshall: Yeah. Thanks for having us. This has been great.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks to my guests this week, Rick Parkhill of Brand Storytelling and Dr. Stephen Marshall of East Tennessee State University. You’ll find a transcript with links to the resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at under “Insights” – just select “Podcast.” If you enjoyed this episode, please consider following us wherever you listen to podcasts and contributing a rating or a review. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer at Bigeye. Until next week, goodbye.

And More