Q&A with 'Elevate' Trail Leader, Variety Content Studio's David S. Cohen


This Summer, Elevate returns to the iconic Stein Eriksen Lodge in Deer Valley, Utah. Elevate will once again be comprised of four ‘trails’, each one a deep dive into better understanding the foundations upon which branded content is built. This year’s trails will explore four subjects pertinent to the work of brand storytellers and their partners, each being carefully curated and led by an industry expert on the subject at hand. We're thrilled to have our first trail be led by none other than David Cohen.

Cohen is an award-winning journalist, editor and video producer. He is a veteran reporter, editor and producer for Variety, where he led coverage of the digital revolution, visual effects, post-production and technology. He won SoCal Journalism Awards (L.A. Press Club) for print coverage of the phaseout of film prints in the movie business and Alfonso Cuaròn and his film “Gravity.” As a video producer, he won SoCal Journalism and Maggie (Western Magazine Assn.) awards for the “Artisans” video episode, “The Dangerous Art of Aerial Cinematography.” He produced more than 100 episodes of the series.

In 2016, he became Senior Producer at Variety Content Studio, where he has directed behind-the-scenes videos for Adobe and edited the Easterseals advertorial “Abilities Unlimited,” which was honored by Pressboard as one of the top 10 branded content projects of 2018.

Brand Storytelling Advisory Chair Todd Barrish caught up with Cohen to key into his expertise and discuss what's in store for Elevate attendees set to embark on his "Conceiving Content" trail:

David - We are thrilled to have you and the team at Variety join us in Deer Valley this summer. Could you give our community a brief preview of the topics you'll be exploring for your trail, “Conceiving Content?"

The branded content space is somewhat chaotic, but there are best practices at every stage of the pipeline. When it comes to conceiving and planning branded content, many of those best practices require thinking and approaches that force marketers out of their comfort zone. I’ll be looking at how brands find their authentic voice, discover their own story, align with influencers, set achievable KPIs and collaborate with storytellers.

I know you are putting in a lot of work interviewing subjects for the white paper. Would you be able to give us a sense of who you are speaking with, and the types of information you are hoping to extract?

For the white paper, I’m trying to get a snapshot of the branded content space, speaking to brand marketers, content studios, talent agencies, creative agencies, production companies and creatives. The goal is to hear about emerging trends, what’s working, what’s not, what people are learning — from all these perspectives.

As you dive deeper into the discussions with brands, agencies, and media companies, is there an over-arching theme that is starting to emerge with regard to why companies are leveraging non-interruptive tactics to reach consumers?

Well, I’m not really talking to people about traditional TVCs and only a little about pre-roll, because that’s the interruptive model. But I am certainly talking to people about the need to rethink KPIs and metrics for branded entertainment. (I’m assuming that your metrics presentation is going to do a deeper dive on that.) So yes, brands are having to learn to set aside old practices and learn new approaches to setting goals.

Based on your discussions to date, what has been the one constant refrain you've been hearing as either a challenge or opportunity for brands in this particular space?

There’s not a single refrain; authenticity is the closest thing to that. However, the meta-theme that’s emerging is the lack of standard workflows and practices. Reza Izad wrote an article for Variety that said there are 23,000 different combinations and permutations for possible workflows in branded content. RFP or proactive content pitch? RFP from an agency or direct from the brand? In-house or external content studio? Does the content studio have a production company and creatives, or go to vendors? Almost every project is bespoke, and that’s a challenge, though every company has its own approaches and makes its own efforts to impose some order.