Ahead of the second annual Branded Entertainment Forum in New York City this Thursday, realscreen continues its series of exec profiles with Mike Duffy (pictured), Electus’ MD of branded content, discussing the challenges and opportunities facing the Ben Silverman-led indie.
With Electus’ ambitious brand-backed competition series Fashion Star — with Saks Fifth Avenue, H&M and Macy’s on board — set to premiere on NBC in February next year, seasoned reality exec Mike Duffy couldn’t have chosen a more interesting time to join the Ben Silverman-led transmedia indie.
Duffy left LA-based producer-distributor Zodiak USA, where he had most recently served as executive VP and head of development, earlier this year after four years with the firm, taking up the new role of MD of branded content at Electus, as first revealed by realscreen.
Since then, he has been getting to grips with the markedly different world of branded entertainment. “I was hired because I bring a lot of TV experience, mostly in the non-scripted space,” Duffy explains. “My role here is to bring some of the relationships that I have in the TV industry to the table, but also to speak the language of the producers and of the TV executives, in order to have a more efficient relationship with the brands.”
Duffy admits that there is a learning curve in terms of understanding the different ways in which brands work, compared with traditional production companies. “From the get-go I’ve noticed that the brands have great research,” he says.
“They know who their consumers are, they’re very targeted in what the messages are that they’re trying to get out, and their research tends to influence the content in a much bigger way than the research of the television networks, who tend to make decisions more based on gut [instinct], and what they like.
“So there’s a real opportunity to understand the demographics of our viewership, and specifically what they love and don’t love.”
In addition to flagship series Fashion Star, which is being made in coproduction with Magical Elves and 5×5 Media, and features talent in the form of host Elle Macpherson and mentor Jessica Simpson, other brand-backed projects on the Electus slate include Ready, Set, Dance!, an original branded entertainment title for web giant Yahoo!, sponsored by State Farm; and Pedro & Maria, an interactive scripted telenovela for MTV, starring America Ferrera (Ugly Betty).
Despite having a busy slate, Duffy – who is primarily focused on development in his new role – says the overall involvement of more people in the creative cycle does “slow down the process a bit.”
“It adds a layer of development in the middle that I’m not used to, but ultimately I think that it’s to the benefit of the product and the shows that we are creating, as we take these projects out in the market, to have a big brand associated that says, ‘Hey, we already support this – in some cases we’ll come in and help co-finance the project or commit to an ad spend around the show.’ That’s really compelling, especially for broadcasters.”
Looking at future development, the company – which last month named former Shine International president Chris Grant as its new CEO – has a number of projects in the reality and non-fiction space emerging on the horizon. “One of the things we’ve discussed is bringing back TGIF, the old Friday night programming block, which was a great co-viewing experience for parents and their kids,” Duffy explains.
“Elsewhere, we’ve got a project we’re developing in the jobs space, and we’ve got a project that we’re developing around great citizens; kind of feel-good, non-scripted shows. At my previous company, we re-sold Secret Millionaire to ABC after it didn’t work on Fox, and that’s a show that falls into that feel-good, wish-fulfillment category, just like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
“But the show itself has an entertainment agenda at its heart,” he adds, “and that’s something that really matters to us as storytellers – that, first and foremost, we’ve always got a really compelling story to tell. Ultimately our job is to entertain viewers, and Ben really gets that everything needs to be creative-led first – everything else comes in secondary.”