Advertisers are showing new interest in financing content, reports Steve Clarke
Advertiser-funded TV shows are as old as the medium itself. It’s easy to forget that the term soap opera was originally coined to describe radio serials sponsored in the US by Procter & Gamble. In the 1950s and 1960s, many of the first televised soaps were paid for and produced by the company, too.
There is nothing new about advertisers making programmes, stressed Campaign Editor-in-Chief Claire Beale at the start of a packed RTS early-evening event on advertiser-funded shows, No longer only buying eyeballs: why advertisers want to make programmes.
She proved her point by playing two clips first shown around half a century ago, both from across the Atlantic. The audience watched incredulously as The Flintstones plugged cigarettes and 1960s Beatles clones The Monkees hyped a well-known breakfast cereal. Those were the days – or maybe not.
In the 21st century, advertiser-funded programming (AFP) is a lot more sophisticated, especially in the UK, noted Beale, the event’s chair. Crucially, there is an expectation that editorial and advertising will be kept at arm’s length from one another. The row over The Daily Telegraph’s relationship with HSBC and its reporting – or lack of it – of dubious practices at the bank’s Swiss offshoot was a reminder of how the public needs to be vigilant about advertisers influencing editorial content.
As Beale pointed out, continued fragmentation and the spread of online video were enticing brands to turn once again to AFP.
One broadcaster that looks to be ahead of the curve in nurturing and encouraging AFP is UKTV. The company’s Director of Commercial Partnerships, Sally Quick, revealed that 26% of UKTV’s schedules across 11 channel brands contained shows financed directly by advertisers.
SWe had 26 commissions last year and six of them were AFP,T she said. One was a co-pro with Waitrose.
Quick said that she Ssat withinT UKTV’s commissioning team. This was a big advantage in getting AFP green-lit. She explained that there were three different routes by which AFP arrived on air at UKTV. [First], we take out ideas we want to commission that we think have got a commercial opportunity and look for co-funding partners,T said Quick. A good example of that was John Torode’s Australia, co-funded by Tourism Australia via the media agency Drum. It was the highest-rated show on Good Food last year.
Other ideas we create from scratch. Brands come to us with a brief on a content idea. We then come up with a concept and pitch it to producers and work it up to broadcast with the brand, said Quick.
Find My Past, made by Lion Television for Yesterday and winner of a Broadcast Digital Award, was funded by FindMyPast.com and followed this route to the small screen.
Quick continued: SWe also take and hone and develop ideas that a brand has already invested in. We’re now in the eighth year of our partnership with Red Bull.The relationship has led to Red Bull X-Fighters, Red Bull Cliff Diving and Red Bull Soapbox Race Live, all shown on Dave.
Channel 4 has taken a more softly, softly approach to AFP, explained Jon Lewis, Head of Digital and Partnership Innovation at the broadcaster.
SIt’s still a relatively nascent market at Channel 4… There’s a real opportunity, he said. The key thing is that it only works when you’ve got the commercial and creative teams aligned…
SIt’s important to identify areas in the schedule. I spent a lot of time at Channel 4 trying to create ad-funded shows in areas of the schedule that are either in big demand or in big stress.
SCreating AFP in peak is challenging at the best of times, particularly at Channel 4, where you are constantly competing for big audiences.T
As a result, the station has started to become Svery specific over where opportunities exist for AFP in the schedule. Two recent successes were daytime shows Weekend Kitchen with Waitrose and What’s Cooking, a partnership with Sainsbury’s.
SI’ve been doing this a long time,T Lewis added. SWe definitely went through a low period a couple of years ago, when it was difficult for production companies to get stuff away with broadcasters… I think there is a bit of a resurgence. It is about being clear and managing expectations from the outset.T
He added: This market is starting to come alive again, on linear TV, as well as in digital.
John Nolan, Managing Director at All3Media’s AFP arm, Apollo20, is a veteran of putting together shows funded by advertisers. He recalled how AFP had changed completely from the days when ITV screened Jim’s Inn, a so-called advertising magazine, which ran in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Said Nolan: SCustomers would go in to a pub run by a bloke called Jim and would say, ‘That’s a really nice jumper you’ve got there.’ ‘It’s three and six from BHS. You can get one for your birthday,’ replies the bloke wearing it.
I think there is a cultural question here about brands and their involvement with content, he added. SToday, we ask if AFP is changing the nature of programmes. I don’t think it is. Good ideas are good ideas and they come from anywhere…
Find My Past, which is made by an All3Media company, is a good idea. It doesn’t change because it is funded by a brand.
Nolan went on: SAre brands trying to coerce programme-makers and broadcasters to change their programmes
into adverts? The answer is yes, of course, they are. And then you have an intelligent conversation with them and with an intelligent agency.
You say: ‘Why would you want to do that?’ You then jointly develop good programmes… It’s arrogant of producers to think that good ideas only come from their development teams.
When you cross a Rubicon into a world that is research-based and concerned with specific audiences, then this is what it must be like to take drugs, where your eyes open to a whole new world of possibilities.
You suddenly realise that there is a rigour, planning and attention to detail in the ideas that doesn’t exist in a subjective production company environment.
I had brands that were convinced that AFP was right for them. I’d be sitting there with a pot of money talking to the traditional broadcasters, but there was no way they would take that money. It could be a large amount of money, maybe a million quid
Nolan emphasised that for an idea to work it had to have buy-in from everybody – the brand, the agency, the producer and the broadcaster.
He insisted that, as content, AFP should be no different to other shows. It was the funding model that distinguished AFP. And, in any case, Ofcom regulated the sector.
But do brands understand that, probed Beale? Isn’t it a challenging conversation to have with someone who has just put money on the table?
SYou need to be honest with people,T Nolan replied. You need to trust the people you are in the room with.
SIf somebody who is entering into an AFP is asking, ‘Is it delivering the numbers?’, then there is something called advertising that they can buy.
Sue Unerman, Chief Strategy Officer of MediaCom UK, said that her company regularly commissioned content. It was not an easy or a simple thing to do, but Sit is proving time and time again the right thing to do.
She added: There is not one client brief that goes through MediaCom’s planning floor now where the question ‘How can we use content?’ isn’t part of the process.
MediaCom set up its in-house content division, MediaCom Beyond Advertising, in 2009. However, MediaCom still works in partnership with media owners and producers on AFP.
The brilliant content will find its audience. The mediocre content, which is probably 97% of it, won’t, Unerman continued. SThat’s where paid-for content distribution comes in… Average content can sell product, average advertising does sell product. Not everything wins a Campaign award.T
The success of an AFP is measured against client outcomes, such as changing how a brand is perceived.
Unerman stressed her faith in the enduring power of television advertising: SWe are big believers in TV advertising; it isn’t going to go away.
SContent plays a different and complementary role to that… Most of the time, we’re probably still saying to clients that we believe there is a role for content that sits alongside advertising, rather than saying, ‘Don’t do that, you’re just being trendy’.
These days, she said, all parties involved in funding, producing and distributing AFP were – usually – more realistic about the process.
Why would a brand want to make content that people don’t want to watch?T asked Unerman. SIt’s even more of a waste of money.
Lewis said there was a new acceptance of AFP at Channel 4: SWe now talk about ad-funded programme ideas, be they digital or linear. It is no longer frowned upon.
Unerman implied that this was just as well because, in an online world, there were a lot more places where advertisers’ money could be spent.
A while ago, I had brands that were convinced that AFP was right for them. I’d be sitting there with a pot of money talking to the traditional broadcasters, but there was no way they would take that money. It could be a large amount of money, maybe a million quid.
Now there are so many different channels and so many ways to distribute that content that the money will get deployed in the appropriate way.
Quick added that it helped that there were some AFP hits. SOur benchmark is to achieve [ratings that are] above the slot average, she said, Sand to grow our share of commercial impacts. Now that we have shows that are delivering, it makes a real difference.T
Nevertheless, Unerman concluded the debate with a word of caution: SWe’re just at the beginning of this change. It is not as easy as it should be to do this.
‘No longer only buying eyeballs: why advertisers want to make programmes’ was an RTS early-evening event held at The Hospital Club in central London on 24 February. The producers were Tom Frazer, Vice President, Strategy, Viacom; Kerry Parker, Head of Network Communications, UKTV; and Sue Unerman, Chief Strategy Officer, MediaCom UK.
Where do you get the money?
Sue Unerman: ‘We start with a zero-sum game every year. Sometimes, it is additional money; sometimes, it is money that we feel isn’t doing enough of a job.
‘It is not black and white… If something works, the client will come back and do more of it. That’s how we’ve grown our business.’
Sally Quick: ‘It’s coming from different people. We’re dealing with PR firms and creative agencies, not just the media agencies of yesteryear. It’s coming from loads of different sources now.’
Jon Lewis: ‘My experience of talking to clients who have done some big AFPs with us is that it has been a toss-up between what they do in other areas, as opposed to coming out of TV ad space.
How do AFP projects work?
John Nolan: ‘I get a brief from a media owner – a broadcaster or a platform – that says, A brand has briefed us through its agency about wanting to do some content. Can we collaborate with you as a group?
‘I’ve got experts in cooking, comedy, in female- and male-skewed programming. We will develop those shows to a commercial brief.
‘It’s no different to a commissioning editor saying, I’m looking for a show that’s about so and so, for this audience, in this time slot.
‘When the direction is, Could you go and find an airline or a travel insurance company willing to fund my travel programme?T, that’s a more difficult fit. You’re then cold calling or calling up friends at agencies and asking, SHas one of your clients got a spare £2m they want to put into a programme that’s someone else’s idea?…
‘Trying to reverse something into someone else’s money… good luck, if you can do it, but I’ve never done it once.’
What are the best genres?
Jon Lewis: ‘Definitely food and lifestyle for daytime. Late night is more music-focused. When you move into the digital area, you are obviously going to go younger.
Fashion and beauty work in the digital space... There will always be genres that are difficult for brands to back, such as drama and comedy, because they involve a massive risk.’
Sue Unerman: ‘I can think of one project that didn’t get off the ground because it was outside of those genres. It was an idea around a chat show… [But] I think there is everything to play for and everywhere to go.’
John Nolan: ‘Fashion and travel. I had a meeting this morning with a guy who said he has this amazing idea for a travel show, and SI need you to find me a brand. What we’re going to do is go to New York and tell you what’s on this weekend.T
‘Then you go, Let me stop you there. A travel show these days is not just about travel, in the way that a cookery show isn’t just about food. There are fashions in broadcasting.
‘Cooking shows today are about lifestyles and narratives about lifestyles…You could say An Idiot Abroad is a travel show but I doubt if it was conceived as one… Programmes that are simply about products are not going to get made…
‘So, in terms of genres, it’s open to fashion, travel, cars, sport, comedy, cooking and mixing those genres.’