The missing links in branded content (Column)

There's an important role for agencies to play in new forms of storytelling

I love reading the New York Times. The appeal is both aesthetic, the writing is often good, as well as educational, writers are given time to investigate their stories deeply. So I am rooting for the Times to survive the transition from the ad-supported world to whatever we’re calling what we’re in now.

One area the Times is betting on is branded content.  The premise is that the creativity, ingenuity and thoughtfulness of their designers, photographers and writers can be applied to the needs of brand advertisers.  The Times’ TBrand Studio does this about as well as any other media organization in their situation.  Others are doing it much less well but even the Times’ work illustrates the limits of this proposition.

TBrand Studio has created pieces for a range of prestige brands like GE, Shell, Cole Haan and Netflix.  The model to date is to create info-tainment pieces including dynamic motion graphics, exquisite photography, documentary-style video and copy. They find a topic of interest to NYT readers such as ballet, urbanization, innovation etc. and create rich experiences for the advertiser to sponsor.  TBrand Studio rightfully boasts about the very high engagement levels it achieves with this content.  That it doesn’t talk about measurable benefits to the sponsoring brands is telling.  I think this is a symptom of the experimental phase of branded content we’re in now.  Engagement with the piece is good for the Times but really does that benefit Shell, GE and Cole Haan?

Of course, the branded content piece appearing in the Times is just the tip of the branded experience.  Usually it’s the lead and other bits link to it.  The brand’s presence is muted in this first part of the system so as not to break the spell of the story.  Fair enough.  But the genteel “sponsored by” in the final credits hardly does much for the brand.  Some programs provide a link to “learn more how XX is helping this cause you’re interested in”. But even there, I find the brands not well represented.  Mostly it’s the sponsor’s experts making the same pronouncements made in the documentary.  That doesn’t do much for the brand either.  Why are these opportunities sub-optimized?

We see these same types of opportunities missed in our local market.  We have several clients who’ve bought all-in production/media deals with broadcast and online networks, only to be disappointed by the results.  In talking with clients I think there are two main areas for improvement.

Some are disappointed in the production values.  “This is not how we represent the brand,” is a frequent lament.  This one is the easiest problem to address.  All it takes is better expectations-setting at the outset.  Brand advertisers who have any experience with traditional (controlled) advertising have come to expect a level of polish to their work that just can’t be replicated in all circumstances.  Five hours of pre-lighting makes sense for video that’s going to be shown on wide-screen home TVs or in cinema but it’s really not often necessary for a mobile screen.  We’re hiring people from the TV world who can do amazing things in no time for online video budgets.  Progressive brand managers learn they can allow consumers to see their product/packaging in less than perfect conditions and maintain equity scores.

In search of benefits

The bigger issue with these media-co-productions is that brand managers often complain that the result seemed to be video that worked seamlessly in the context of the medium but didn’t advance the brand’s objectives.  Either the on-air celebrity overshadowed the brand or it became a forgettable support point for the show’s story arc. How many “play of the game” sponsors really benefit?

These deals get off track at the beginning.  As they enter these negotiations, brand managers are reminded that they need to put aside their old advertising mindset and judge this content differently.  And that’s true as far as it goes.  They often then accept the producer’s objectives as their own.  They don’t want to be the old-timey brand manager imposing yesterday’s ad requirements on someone else’s production.

We’ve had success by remembering the fundamentals of the agency role. That is, the agency acts as the agent for the brand.  That means we act in the brand’s best interest as we create and co-produce brand content.  It’s one of those times when the role of agent has unique benefit for the brand’s results.  The agent possesses more brand knowledge than the publisher/broadcaster can have.  And, as part of the creative production community, we have the authority to actively represent the brand’s interests in the thousands of creative production decisions.  Potentially most importantly, the agent can design the entire branded content experience beyond the one piece that’s being created by the published/producer.

Contrast that approach to the New York Times ballet-themed work for Cole Haan.  An agent working on behalf of the Cole Haan brand would have ensured that piece was part of a total brad experience. Did anyone consider redesigning to capitalize on this link to the ballet world?  Is there not any parallel to the design of some Cole Haan shoes?  Could Cole Haan design expertise not be applied to toe shoes in some way?  An agent representing the brand would have also ensured the retail experience was linked to the piece.  Most importantly, KPIs would have been set.  And by KPIs, I mean metrics of genuine commercial value to the brand – a revitalized and quantifiable lift in awareness, conversation, consideration, brand perception even e-commerce traffic.

Quality publishers like the Times, the Globe & Mail, the Toronto Star and broadcasters like Rogers and Bell possess talent that’s available to brand sponsors who want to reach their audiences.  It’s up to agencies to capture the potential of these new partnerships on behalf of clients.  Agencies must cast projects with the optimal combination of in-house and external talent whether freelance or in media partners.  When we do this we’ll provide clients with the best of each.

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