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MBPT Spotlight: Turner's Speciale--In Starcom Deal, Every Original Series On Four Networks Is In Play For Brand Integrations

Integrating brands into scripted and reality TV programming may have been around for many years, but the captive-audience nature of the practice has a special appeal in these current days of DVR-viewing and ad skipping. And in its upfront-negotiated deal with media agency Starcom, announced two weeks ago, Turner Broadcasting seems to be attempting a much more all-in approach to the practice. Donna Speciale, president of Turner Entertainment and youth adult ad sales, suggests there’s now more of a company-wide mandate to attempt to integrate Starcom client brands into any scripted or unscripted TV show on TNT, TBS, truTV and Adult Swim.

Speciale says these will not be simply a random, sporadic integration into a show or two for each brand, but an ongoing, cooperative effort by the entertainment and sales executives of all four networks to work brands into as many shows as possible.

So far, the client list includes Burger King, Mars/Wrigley, Kellogg’s and Samsung, and any and all of their individual brands, but Speciale says the list can grow whenever Starcom wants to add a client. Speciale adds that Starcom has the right of first refusal on shows it wants its brands to be placed in, and there can’t be any competing brands placed in those same shows.

“The sales and entertainment units are all working together closely on this,” Speciale says. “The programming people have a list of all the clients and brands who want to participate, and when they get into the development process and start reading scripts, they will be looking for ways to work brands in, ideally into the story lines of episodes. Turner networks are putting original programming on year-round, so this will be a continuous, ongoing process.”

While everyone is aware that the brands will only be worked into shows where they can organically fit, the networks’ programming executives have all signed off on the practice.

The Turner-Starcom deal is meant to satisfy the ever-growing commerce needs of both parties. Speciale says the deal comes as a result of a desire to sell more holistically, but is also in response to the media agencies wanting to buy that way. Brand integrations—practiced by a large number of broadcast and cable networks—have traditionally been treated as one-off buys with little or no ongoing strategy other than to sandwich a brand into a show for exposure beyond the traditional 30-second ad. Many of those integrations have become more sophisticated and seamless. But the deal speaks to the increasing interest in an integration’s place in a strategy that counts multiplatform viewing and viewer attention through social media as viable tools in keeping brands front of mind with clients.

“This deal is an evolution of where marketers and their agencies want to go with the TV networks,” Speciale says. “With the diversity of our four networks, we can help them target whatever audience they want with these integrations—male, female, youth—and those shows are now also running across platforms.”

The Right Fit For the Job
Speciale, who spent most of her career on the media agency side before joining Turner in January 2012, believes this is the most comprehensive product integration deal ever done in terms of the number of shows being made available.

The deal comes on the heels of Turner’s spring integration agreement with MillerCoors that resulted in more than 40 placements in shows such as Rizzoli & Isles and Dallas on TNT and on Sullivan & Son on TBS. However, the Starcom deal can potentially involve dozens of agency’s client brands across many different shows over the next year. The ball is basically in Starcom’s court.

The deal is over a period of one year, Speciale says, because of the long lead time necessary to work brands into the story lines of shows, particularly scripted shows.

While the deal was finalized during the upfront, Speciale says discussions had been going on well before that. Turner won't do any other similar deals and, as part of the agreement, Time Warner’s Medialab will conduct ongoing research and put together a study aimed at determining the overall effectiveness and brand lift that each of the integrations brings.

“We wanted to do one deal of this size and then determine how effective it was,” Speciale says, adding that Turner let the industry know it wanted an initial partner, and Starcom stepped forward. After the first year, the results will be analyzed and Turner will determine how to move forward.

Speciale says that from the time she joined Turner in early 2012, the company was undergoing a restructuring to create a much more holistic sales organization where agencies could buy advertising for their clients across all four of the Turner entertainment networks. That process has continued to strengthen, particularly after David Levy was promoted to president of Turner Broadcasting in August. Levy had been overseeing ad sales, all sports programming and affiliate relations, but in his new role added oversight of the four domestic entertainment networks, as well as other business side responsibilities to his portfolio. So that makes it easier to do deals across the entertainment networks and to get the cooperation of both programming and sales with both reporting to Levy.

The first brand integration under the deal will be for Kellogg’s Pop Tarts. The integration comes in an early January episode of the new TBS sitcom Ground Floor which premieres Nov. 14. The integration will be blended into the story line: One of the characters is temporarily left in charge as manager and decides to create a contest around distributing new phones; in the plot, Pop Tarts will be used as prizes.

How successful will this deal turn out to be? Speciale calls it a work in progress. “We have to see how well it works out,” she says. “If it becomes too cumbersome, it might not be worth it for us to continue. But we have to find out, and that’s where our Medialab research data will come in. We have to learn to walk before we run.”