Why agencies should stick with what they know and leave movies alone… for now
There may be no term that gets advertisers more excited right now than branded content. To some, it’s the saviour of the industry: a way to embed marketing messages into content consumers will want to see, hear or experience, all at a time when it’s easier than ever before for them to avoid advertising altogether.
We’ve responded to this opportunity, as agencies, by trying to create this content ourselves. If people are skipping commercials to get to the programming they want, we’re naturally going to try to embed ourselves in that programming. The problem is that people who have a story they want to tell think about characters, plot, and pacing—not brands.
We tack our marketing messages on like they’re some sort of strange aftermarket package, and they stick out in exactly the same way. Branded content is the advertising equivalent of those horrible neon lights people put on the underside of their cars. It’s making an impression, but a horrendously awkward one. The very name branded content is reflective of how the industry first approached this new marketing territory: Make content, then brand it. Agencies making content feels like a natural extension of that: “Hey, we’ve got writers and art directors and people aren’t watching our ads. So let’s make a show!”
It sounds great… except that the TV shows and movies that advertisers make aren’t exactly good content. Adeptness at making a 30-second brand-building spot doesn’t translate into skill at sustaining a narrative for 20 minutes or longer. So most of the content we’re creating is bloated or uninteresting, and we end up diluting the brand-building part of our messages anyway. Nothing drives agency folks as crazy as when a client tries to write an ad, but here we are thinking that we can make movies, as if that’s not a skill.
Of course, Labatt/Kokanee and its agency, Grip, did make a movie and by many measures it was a success. The Movie Out Here, a full-length feature film created by the agency, won awards, including two Gold Lions at Cannes and promotional and campaign materials had an impact on market share. But that indicates that what really worked was everything around the movie; the movie itself wasn’t a success. Almost no one went to see it and it’s rated 3.3/10 on IMDb, which is better than Gigli but not much else.
I’m not taking shots at a competing agency. I applaud their success and the guts it took to do this, both on their part and on Labatt’s. But I’m sure both would agree they market beer around movies a lot better than they make movies about beer.
This will change, of course. The younger people entering the industry today are bringing more experience in long-form content creation than previous generations. As the cost of producing video decreases and agencies create their own production and editing facilities, we’ll get more experience at this. And our clients will give us more freedom and more support.
Things are changing. Look no further than Cannes where one of the categories Grip won in was “Best Fictional Program Series or Film Where a Client has Successfully Created a Drama, Comedy or Miniseries Around a Product or Brand.” For all its unwieldiness, that category description is a pretty strong indication that branded content is here to stay.
For the time being, however, I think we need to find a way to play more to our strengths. The most interesting piece of branded content I saw last year was Red Bull Stratos. As a concept, it was pretty simple: Felix Baumgartner flew into the stratosphere and then jumped back down to earth. Discovery Channel aired seven hours of programming around it and the ratings were terrific.
That’s branded content at its best. Red Bull’s team produced an event and we all watched. It was on brand, and the brand was clearly visible. But no one had to write a script about a down-on-his-luck daredevil (they would have called him Red Bullings, and given him red hair and a fiery temper) who wins back the respect of his estranged son by jumping from the highest altitude ever. There were no moments of clunky integration where Felix pops a Total Zero right before jumping and no dumb comment about having wings. Instead, we got the best kind of content the brand team could produce, and in turn the brand got the best results it could have hoped for. If that’s the future of branded content, then we’ll all be watching.
Max Valiquette is managing director of strategy at Toronto agency Bensimon Byrne
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