OnScreen Media Summit: Branded Content's Risks and Rewards

OnScreen Media Summit: Complete Coverage from Broadcasting & Cable and Multichannel News

New York – Even in a recession, branded entertainment can offer advertisers new opportunities and greater return on investment—if they are willing to work closely with content creators and relinquish a bit of control.

That was one of the messages out of a panel discussion on branded content at the Broadcasting & Cable/Multichannel News OnScreen Media Summit here Tuesday.

Moderated by B&C's Marisa Guthrie, the panel brought together executives from the advertising, marketing and creative communities, who agreed that successful branded content requires collaboration at the earliest stages and a leap of faith from all involved.

“It all starts with the creative concept,” said Jarrod Moses, Founder, President and CEO, United Entertainment Group, adding that many branded content storylines are conceived by copywriters, not drama or comedy writers. “Once that creative germ has been set, then the conversations can begin.”

“Brands are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and they understand that they need to become involved earlier,” said Linda Goldstein, partner and chair, Advertising, Marketing and Media Division, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP.

Greg Clayman, executive VP, Digital Distribution and Business Development, MTV Networks, agreed. 

“The days of ‘so-and-so is using a Nokia phone’…are pretty much over.”

That early collaboration can avoid misfires, such as the notoriously incongruous automotive product placement on reality series The Real Gilligan’s Island.

Representing the writers’ community, Lowell Peterson, Executive Director, Writers Guild of America East, pointed to 30 Rock’s winking acknowledgement of product placement as a clever way to go.

“A little tongue and cheek doesn’t hurt,” Peterson said. “I think where the Guild has had some difficulty is with sub silencio product integration, where we sort of pretend it’s not happening.”

While companies may be reluctant to embrace the risks of branded content—as Chevrolet experienced when it solicited user-generated ads online—Greg Clayman, executive VP, Digital Distribution and Business Development, MTV Networks, suggested that letting go can bring both rewards and honest market research.

However, Goldstein noted that the risks can be legal when advertisers dabble in the social networking space, where user-generated content can be libelous.

On the matter of risk, Moses suggested it should cut both ways. “How do we prevent a network from walking away from a show before giving it enough time?” he asked, noting NBC’s treatment of Friday Night Lights, which he said several advertisers were anxious to back. “Is there some kind of make-good either in ad time or a chance to get behind an A-list show?”

Moses also used the point to praise NBC Entertainment Co-Chair Ben Silverman’s understanding of brand integration, saying conversations with the network under his leadership have been more productive. Conversely, he said, CBS’ “old-school model” is far less hospitable.

As for how the recession might affect advertisers’ enthusiasm for branded entertainment, the panelists agreed that continued increases in television viewership would only mean continued opportunity.

“Our brands are probably 50% more involved in programming than they were last year,” Moses said, noting that many B- and C-level advertisers have rushed to fill the void left by automotive companies.

Still, much of the discussion focused on how to balance the needs of the advertiser with the quality of the content so as to deliver entertainment, not infomercials. Referring to a Proctor & Gamble campaign on MTV, WGA’s Peterson remarked, “I don’t think I would want to be the writer of a microseries about Alicia Keyes talking about Dove.”

United Entertainment Group’s Moses proposed a way to encourage writers to get more involved in branded content: Why doesn’t the Guild start a fund to finance WGA writers’ efforts to create branded content? They could even share in the profits.

Peterson received the idea positively, saying that while writers are traditionally averse to intrusions from “suits,” “we want writers to be there on the cutting edge.”