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Advertisers! Stop Making Long, Boring Ads Called Branded Content

With DVRs, binge-watching, and other commercial-free viewing opportunities, consumers aren’t watching traditional ads like they used to.

In response, many brands are starting new in-house agencies to produce fresh, innovative work in the form of branded content. But for all the supposed difference between branded content and traditional ads, most brands approach both in the exact same way.

Too many brands see branded content as an excuse to make long, dull advertisements. Then, stuck as they are with a boring product, brands spend substantial amounts of money on a media buy to support these long ads. Success is measured by likes and shares. But that’s not real success; the likes have simply been bought.

Supporting branded content with a media buy is a deeply flawed approach. It’s the equivalent of a movie studio buying tickets to its own film to prove box office success.

Worse than that, branded content doesn’t even solve the issue we’ve asked it to solve. Fewer and fewer people are watching ads. So why are we spending time and money making even longer ones? The advertising world’s preoccupation with branded content is a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Fortunately, there is a much more effective way to engage consumers and make an impact. For brands interested in a distribution strategy that does not require a prohibitively expensive media buy, there is sponsored entertainment.

Sponsored entertainment is not new. Many of the most successful film franchises—Lego and Marvel for example—are pieces of sponsored entertainment. Their purpose is to guide consumer interest toward related toys and other merchandise. In the words of George Lucas, “All the money is in the action figures.”

The success of films like The Lego Batman Movie and Logan should have us advertisers asking a question. Why not skip the media buy altogether and put those dollars into entertainment we can sell?

Instead of making short form branded content and then buying likes, more brands should consider investing in long form sponsored entertainment that people will pay to watch. Blockbuster films aren’t the only way to reach mainstream audiences. The appetite for less expensive formats, like documentaries, is stronger than ever.

In 2016, we produced the Werner Herzog documentary, “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World.” The film was sponsored by the network solutions company, NetScout, but the production and eventual distribution resembled an independent film. “Lo and Behold” premiered at Sundance, where it was purchased by Magnolia Pictures. NetScout recouped a portion of their investment from the sale and Magnolia used their own media dollars to promote the film.

Upon the release of the film, NetScout’s annual impressions increased tenfold. To achieve those results with a traditional media buy would have required tens of millions. NetScout did it all for the cost of production.

Film and television properties have value. They make money and create revenue streams. Like “Lo and Behold,” they also have a long life with multiple viewing windows: theatrical, DVD/digital, and cable. Branded content has none of this. In order to collect likes and be seen, branded content requires a media buy.

Not every brand-sponsored piece of entertainment is multiplex ready. But every brand-sponsored project does have a chance to reach consumers through the same distribution channels used by popular film and television.

With our Michael Apted documentary, “Bending the Light,” we used the film festival circuit to engage Canon’s target audience of amateur and professional photographers and cinematographers. With Werner Herzog’s texting-and-driving PSA, “From One Second to the Next,” we used an educational distributor and popular streaming services like Netflix to place the film in 40,000 schools and millions of households.

One of our next projects is a documentary series based on the definitive history of soccer, The Ball is Round, by sports journalist David Goldblatt. Over three billion people watched the 2014 World Cup. This series is a great opportunity for brands looking to reach the global soccer audience. We are currently in discussions with a number of signature directors to helm the series.

There will always be a place for huge media spends, but it’s not the only distribution strategy out there. Many of today’s most proactive brands are finding success by skipping the media buy and making brand-sponsored entertainment that people actually want to watch.

Rupert Maconick is the Founder of Saville Productions. Rupert currently sits on the advisory board for Elevate, A Brand Storytelling Event coming this July.

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