MBPT Spotlight: MEC Entertainment Exec Says Brands Need To Think Like Programmers

Chet Fenster joined GroupM media agency MEC in January 2006 to launch its entertainment division. Back then he recalls, “Most marketers might have been happy having their brand mentioned on a TV show.” Today, Fenster believes consumers have an appetite for way more than that. They don’t just want to know about a brand but want ways to interact with it on assorted media platforms.

Fenster, now managing partner and director of content creation and MEC Entertainment, is at the forefront of helping brands navigate the entertainment space, developing and producing original, multiplatform branded content, including TV programming, webisodes and mobile video.

At MEC Entertainment his clients have included AT&T, Citi, IKEA and Macy’s, among others. Prior to joining MEC, Fenster was head of program development for music network Fuse. He worked with ESPN to help launch the network’s first original movie, A Season on the Brink. And he founded and was president of Kinetic Productions, where he worked on content for Fox, Disney, CBS and Universal.

MBPT talked with Fenster about the evolution of MEC Entertainment and about the importance of media agency entertainment units in general for brands in the current marketing environment.

How do marketer attitudes about branded content differ today from when you first came on board to launch the MEC Entertainment unit in 2006?

In 2006, creating branded content across platforms was a new frontier. When I started at MEC, it was just myself and an intern who I inherited. Then I added a temp assistant. It was a bare-bones operation back then but it was a great adventure from the start.

Who was the first client you worked with on a branded content campaign?
Cingular Wireless, which is now AT&T. Cingular was one of the marketers who understood back then about the importance of using branded content across platforms. It was a client who had a thirst to be innovative and still does. For many other clients, it was an education process explaining to them what we could do and why it was important. The walls broke down over the years and the digital transformation accelerated things quickly over the past few years.

What are some examples of early campaigns?
We did a campaign for Cingular with NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Back in about 2007 we met with SNL producer Lorne Michaels and told him viewers would watch short-form content from their cellphones and watch comedy skits in particular. We created a Saturday Night Live mobile feature on Cingular phones. It showed recent clips from the show, had ring tones from music from the show and commercials with the Saturday Night Live cast promoting it. Another early campaign was a live Red Carpet and Golden Globe show we produced online sponsored by Citi. It was a second-screen telecast on MSN and ran during the NBC telecast of the Golden Globes. We had our own correspondents, our own interview room backstage. We did it only one time, but it was one of the early examples of second-screen telecasts online, which has become fairly common now. At that time, it was a new format. In addition to the live telecast, content from the telecast was made available online for several weeks after it aired and that was also sponsored by Citi.

How has branded content across platforms evolved since then?
Today, there is so much more sophisticated technology and the viewers are also more sophisticated in what they want to watch. There are many more tentacles to campaigns and projects like that today. There is no such thing as a simple product integration anymore. There’s content creation on a network’s website. That content also runs on the brand’s website. The campaign also has to include social media elements. And there has to be a level of participation enabled for the consumers beyond just watching it.

What would a current example be?
We have been working on behalf of our client, AT&T, with the CW network and its series Vampire Diaries. AT&T is integrated into the weekly story lines of the series. Each week, the characters use AT&T products and services. AT&T also enables an entire digital experience surrounding the show online. And it sponsors The Vampire Diaries Lair on the CWTV.com site, which offers fans an entire digital experience around the show. We also launched a show called Vampire Diaries Rehash hosted by characters from the series, which recaps the show each week and sets it up for next week. And AT&T also offers mobile apps where fans can browse and share photos from the show and watch clips. It’s an all-encompassing experience.

How cooperative have the networks, studios and series producers been when it comes to integrating brands and content across screens?
With few exceptions, the networks, studios, producers, show creators, showrunners have all been phenomenal. Most producers want to be in business with brands. That will help promote their shows in more places and help fund the cost of building the tools needed for viewer engagement across platforms. It all helps build audience and it’s the client, not the show, that pays for it.

Who approaches who on branded content deals?
It’s always a collaboration of good ideas that come from everywhere. The client, agency creative, producers, studio execs, network marketing execs. The challenge is to get the idea to work to the liking of everyone involved.

What about the frequency of branded content deals? Are they long-term or one and done?
Our goal is to build a long-term relationship with a network or a show. We’re not looking to do a one-shot campaign. We like to develop sustainable programs and campaigns for our clients—particularly since so much work goes into creating and developing these campaigns.

Is there a danger that branded content could draw a backlash from consumers?

Yes, there is. One of my sayings is, “over-branding devalues content.” The challenge for any brand is to do enough branded content but not too much. You also need to give the consumer some utility from your branded content, something they use. Branded content can’t just be a story about the brand.

How closely do you work with the other media agencies’ entertainment unit under the GroupM umbrella?

The nice thing about GroupM is that we can share our best practices and other key learnings and we can share our outside talent. But at MEC Entertainment we are fully integrated with our buying and planning and digital sales teams. We are all involved together on a regular basis on behalf of clients. There is no monopoly on good ideas. And sometimes we can even turn an outlandish idea into reality.

Will branded content eventually eclipse the traditional 30-second TV commercial?
TV commercials still drive the ad marketplace system. TV commercials are not going away. But as the consumer migrates to other media forms, brands have to adjust on how to reach them.

What types of backgrounds do the folks on your staff have?

We bring a combined skill set that very few people have and it enables us to provide a service that delivers great value to our clients. We have former studio execs on our staff, as well as music composers and people with storytelling backgrounds.

What is the future for media agency branded entertainment units?
With the proliferation of social media and the race to accumulate “likes” and “fans,” brands woke up and realized that they had regular followers and those followers need to be reached and addressed. Brands need to work more with media partners that can help them reach consumers in more ways. Brands need to think more like programmers. It will be an evolution. Right now, some brands are picking up on it more than others. It is our job to help them do that