Making it Work

As more client marketers and broadcasters turn to branded content to meet their marketing and programming needs, more production companies are devoting resources to dedicated branded content departments and projects. Here, three production company execs working in that space share their thoughts on what works, what doesn't and where the medium is heading.
September 27, 2011

Mike Duffy, MD, branded content, Electus

With Electus’ ambitious brand-backed competition series Fashion Star 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 in September 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.” Adam Benzine

Paul Day, VP branded content and digital media, Cineflix

Paul Day operates out of Cineflix’s London offices, and with the company producing brand-funded content for both the UK and North American markets, he gets to see first-hand the different approaches brands and television networks employ in bringing such content to the small screen.

“In North America, we’ve been asked by broadcasters about whether we have any brand relationships, or we’ll have shows or ideas and the broadcasters will ask if there’s any way we can bring a brand into it,” he says, by way of comparison. “That’s been happening in the UK and is now happening in North America a bit more. It’s something that’s relatively recent – in the past it was more about negotiating the ways to bring a brand in. Now we’re being positively asked for it.”

In the UK market, the company recently produced Family Food Fight with Flora for the Unilever spread, which goes by the brand name of Becel in North America. The competitive cooking show aired on Channel 5, “with a message of healthy eating running all the way through it,” says Day.

“That was something that we did through an agency – Mindshare, part of WPP – that came from an initial brief that emerged out of a marketing campaign and we created brand new content for,” he adds. “For me, that’s the Holy Grail – creating something from scratch for a brand that also fits in with the needs of a broadcaster and other distribution platforms.”

Projects on the way are still somewhat shrouded in secrecy, but include a property series in the UK that will combine real estate agents with interior designers and use brand input from both vocations. For Canada, Cineflix is teaming up with a “well-known restaurant chain” on a competition format focused on fresh food.

Day says that briefs are now coming from myriad sources – media agencies, creative agencies, digital shops, and PR firms – and more players are looking to get into the brand-funded content game. The deals may not be huge, he says, “but they’ll get bigger.” And Day maintains that factual programming is well placed to take advantage of brands looking to find the right stories to align themselves with.

“Generally, a brand wants to tell a story and there’s no better way of doing that than finding a similar story that can run alongside it,” says Day. “Having experience in telling those stories of real people in the real world, and linking those stories to brand messages, can create something very powerful.” BW

Tom Dunlap, EP, RSA Films and Mary Lisio, SVP non-fiction television and branded entertainment, Scott Free Productions

Scott Free Productions, the shingle from filmmaking brothers Tony and Ridley Scott, has been actively ramping up its non-fiction branded content. In mid-2010 Scott Free launched an online reality show for Budweiser based around the World Cup in South Africa, The Bud House, and also produced a short film series, The Character Project, for USA Network, which featured three docs, including one from RJ Cutler (The September Issue).

Scott Free, which works closely with Ridley Scott’s commercial prodco RSA Films, is currently developing a project for an as-yet-unnamed car brand, with director Amir Bar-Lev. The director of the acclaimed doc The Tillman Story will helm a feature film, while Scott Free will also produce music videos and online content. While other elements of the project, like interstitials, will directly link the auto maker to the content, RSA exec producer Tom Dunlap says the doc will be “pure.”

“That is one of the keys to the work that we do in the branded entertainment space, especially the documentary space,” he says. “We want to really give the brand a home and weave their marketing message into the fabric of the storytelling. The content that we explore has to be appropriate for the brand, not shilling it,” he says.

This methodology will also be applied to a new project with Activision, the makers of the massively popular video game franchise Call of Duty. Online portal Call of Duty Elite TV will feature Scott Free’s series Friday Night Fights, executive produced by Cutler. The eight-part short series will pit teams, which may include celebrities, of Call of Duty gamers against one another, in a studio environment with host and former professional wrestler Stacy Keibler.

“We’re finding that brands are really interested especially in the non-fiction space. It’s quick to market, fairly inexpensive to produce and they can put their product messaging in the hands of real people and that resonates,” he adds.

“We make sure we’re all on the same page about the upside of how we integrate those products into our content,” says Scott Free’s Lisio. “Sometimes it’s almost invisible. Sometimes it’s very prevalent, like in Bud House, [because] it made sense and was organic for the content of the show.”

“One thing we tell brands is you have to act like a network or a distributor,” explains Dunlap. “You have to treat it like Fox handles Glee or American Idol. You have to promote it properly and treat it like an entertainment property all the way through.” Kelly Anderson

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