If creative industries in the UK are a key barometer of economic health, then the clearest sign of their own health will be the willingness to break the mould and embrace the realities of the new media environment.  Funding is tight, and audiences increasingly fickle.  Flexibility is central to obtaining the resource to pay for content. 

In the context of a changing and volatile marketplace, producers and broadcasters have to accept new kinds of funding from organisations seeking to generate marketing communications that engage the consumer in an original and relevant way. Advertisers and their agencies equally have to recognise that the old communications model based on opportunities to see is no longer robust enough to meet all a brands communications needs.

The Rise of the Ad Man

The period spanning the 70 –90s are commonly viewed as the heyday of – primarily London based – UK advertising agencies.  Central to the success of companies such as Saatchi, Lowe Howard Spink, Abbott Mead Vickers and many more was the ability to generate advertising that got its crucial marketing message across by engaging and entertaining the consumer, often (though not exclusively) through the use of humour. 

The growth in importance during the 90s and into the 21st century of global brands, global campaigns and the obsession with accountability has almost squeezed the proverbial pips of creativity out of the UK advertising industry.  These days the baton of creative world leadership seems to be held by our content creators – TV, film, digital, online and mobile. 

Marketing now operates in an environment where communications struggle to cut through the clutter.  A clutter resulting from the emergence of multiple media channels made up of hundreds of TV and radio channels, digital and online content including social networking sites delivered via high speed internet connections and consol and computer games. This, combined with the long-term decline in traditional media channels like newspapers, is undermining the fortunes of traditional media.  It is content that the consumer craves and content that supplies the oxygen of engagement and impact, the messages in between the media owners’ content are noticed less and less. 

Traditional Media Suffers

Terrestrial broadcasting in the UK, already suffering at the hands of competition for revenue from the burgeoning number of digital channels and the growth of the internet, is now being hit by the most severe of downturns in advertising spend caused by the current economic woes.  In a desperate effort to battle against this they are, for the first time, open to proposals based on different business models.  One such that is becoming increasingly popular is Brand Funded Content, otherwise known as Advertising Funded Programmes.

These days, if brand owners wish to engage their audiences, in order to cut through the clutter they could do worse than to look to our most respected creative businesses.  Content creation in the UK, whether broadcast programming, computer gaming, publishing or film, has a global reputation second to none.  TV stations all around the world devour British originated programmes and formats voraciously. US networks are looking to UK producers for ideas to maintain their market share and keep commercial revenues flowing. 

The basics of this brand funded content approach are not new.  The origins of much loved  “soap operas” lie in the middle of the 20th century and stem form the desire of detergent manufacturers like P&G to create programming that engaged a housewife audience more effectively than existing vehicles.  A whole tradition of programming developed from these origins and it is still in the US, with its more liberal regulation environment, that AFP is developing most readily. 

Brand Funded Content

In the UK during the mid ‘naughties’, many of the early examples focused on events such as music concerts like Virgin’s V Festival, awards ceremonies like the Orange Film Awards, or fringe sports.  Also, it was easier to get brand funded projects on air via digital channels than on the major terrestrial channels.  As long ago as 2005, UKTV (owner of channels such as Living and Dave)was claiming “several” brand funded projects, including ‘Baby Squad’ with funding from Cow & Gate and ‘An Italian in Mexico’ for Old El Paso.

At about the same time North One Television created a whole channel on the Sky platform for Audi.  This claimed over 60 original programmes including history, sports and celebrity content.  Audi pronounced the project a success, though the writer has seen nothing specific to support the claim, other than its continued existence.  Interestingly, in the last few days it has disappeared from the Sky Platform and is only available on-line – an outcome predicted by some of us for some time and a portent for the future as on-line grows as a source of TV entertainment. 

Another branded channel that seems to have been a success is Thomas Cook TV, also on the sky platform, produced by Enteraction.  Three years ago this cost about £2m to produce, but apparently generated at least £50 -60m of incremental sales for the business, more than justifying the investment.

The key to success lies in the relevance of the content to the brand’s audience.  As long ago as 2003, Heinz invested in the development of Dinner Doctors for Five to show consumers creative ways to serve processed food.  At the same time it ran in-store promotions linking to the programmes content (recipes etc) to maximise the benefits of the investment to the brand.  As one of the earliest examples of openly brand funded content it generated an enormous amount of controversy and it could be claimed to have succeeded for this reason alone. 

The ITC complaints process at the time ultimately concluded that Heinz had “no undue influence” on the editorial process.  To get to this point the producers had to go through a tortuous process of consultation with the then governing agency (now under the auspices of Ofcom) in order to succeed in coming to air.  The key lesson to be learnt from this is that brand funded content in established media can take a long time to bring to market.  I have always recommended to clients that they should anticipate a gestation period of 18 months to be safe (it can be shorter, but not easily).  In the case of Audi TV this development period was claimed by the agency BBH to be 2½ years!

Opening New Revenue Streams

The most significant influence on this emerging market, that warrants further emphasis, is that there has been a fundamental change in the environment over the last twelve months.  As already stated, the traditional advertising model is holed below the waterline.  For the first time it is in the interest of both sides – advertisers and media owners – to address the opportunities head on.  Media owners need to open up new revenue streams and advertisers need to find new and relevant ways of engaging their consumers.  Importantly, more of them seem to recognise this fact.

Creation of relevant content presents a genuine opportunity for brands to cut through the clutter.  Exploitation of this content via multiple marketing channels allows brands to be encountered by consumers in an environment where they are actively engaged and therefore more receptive to the message.  This channel can generate new impetus and revenue for our creative businesses; it would also be further stimulated by a relaxation in the regulatory environment (not a fashionable approach in markets like Banking where “light touch” has acquired a bad name). There is also an opportunity for creativebrief to help facilitate the process of connecting brands to these creative resources, providing extra stimulus to the sector and encouraging funds into content creation.

Patrick Roberts, Founding Partner

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