BEYOND THE BREAK: Can TV content and brands ever really combine forces in the UK market?

It's happening in the US, and there's a growing call for it on this side of the pond. Matthew Cowen investigates.

The course of true love never did run smooth. Still less smooth is it likely to run when the two supposed soulmates have been raised in the deepest suspicion of one another and have only been spurred to make a go of it by growing financial constraints. Throw into this mix a nanny figure determined that there should be no Teen Big Brother-style bedroom antics, a jealous third party determined to cause trouble, and some raunchy Americans who insist everything can be as down and dirty as you like and you've got enough hurdles to test the most stout-hearted Romeo and Juliet. In fact, you've got the situation facing advertisers and programme-makers as they seek to bring viable commercial content to TV in the UK.

"There's been a marriage between TV creatives and advertisers but they haven't had sex yet," Endemol's creative director, Tim Hincks, says. His company, which produced the Pepsi Chart Show, is the closest Britain has to an advertiser-funded programming veteran. But he doesn't think that's saying much. "We've made three shows like this and even that's enough to make us the leader," he adds. "There's a relationship of sorts already, because advertising supports programmes. But when the two get together it tends not to lead to fireworks."

It's a comment designed to pour cold water on the raging hormones released by the comments of Coca-Cola's chief operating officer, Steven J Heyer, at a conference in February. Heyer called for a move away from traditional advertising, "spots in pods", and towards "ideas that elicit emotion and create connections". He spoke of the "shared challenge" of "overcoming the creative and economic tensions that are an inherent part of this convergence of content and commerce". "If a new model isn't developed, the old one will simply collapse," he stated.

The American media community had been getting excited enough before this.

The conference at which Heyer spoke, hosted by Advertising Age, was dubbed Madison & Vine, a phrase meant to capture the sense of East Coast advertising and West Coast creativity coming together. It's a term that's been repeated with growing frequency ever since, as high-profile figures, such as Ford's global media manager, Mark Kaline, have echoed Heyer's call. Fantasies of creative tensions between art and commerce creating the advertiser-funded equivalent of high art are filling the trade press stateside.

That the UK remains more cautious is arguably a result of legal considerations.

The Independent Television Commission restricts the ways in which advertisers can buy their way into a programme. There are no such rules in the US.

Heyer made his comments after Coca-Cola, the sponsor of American Idol, had liberally sprinkled its product throughout the programme, even branding the performers green room the "Coca-Cola Red Room" and adding in "Coca-Cola Moments". Ford followed suit, with its vehicles the subject of ditties performed by the contestants. Heyer may talk of moving "away from gratuitous product placements" but he's still talking about a world where advertiser funding is rewarded by direct product involvement - and that type of instant gratification isn't available this side of the Atlantic.

"There's loads of different ways of doing content," Graham Bednash, a founder of Michaelides & Bednash, says.

M&B has orchestrated rave parties for Channel 4 and was recently appointed by Unilever to develop brand content ideas. "The Americans are often talking about sponsored content or product placement, about going back to where we were in the 60s with the Aston Martin in James Bond films."

The UK's advertisers have the same motives as their US counterparts when it comes to moving brands' TV presence beyond the traditional commercial break and into programming. In fact, with the bargaining power of a merged Carlton and Granada to add to long-term woes such as media fragmentation, dropping audience figures and the looming threat of personal, digital video, they've got still more of an incentive. Persuading viewers to seek out their brand in quality content rather than have it forced on them through expensive ads sounds like pretty good business. The trouble is, old nanny ITC isn't going to let them flaunt their stuff in the same way as Coke and Ford. If they're to win the hearts of programme-makers - and through them audiences - they're going to have to be a lot less brash and a lot more sensitive.

"Content is the new buzzword but people are using it without any understanding of what it means," Mark Boyd, the head of content for Bartle Bogle Hegarty, warns. "Presence doesn't mean impact. There's increasingly a backlash against product placement in the US. Whether the Ford Focus songs in American Idol had the right kind of impact is really questionable."

Could it be that the legal restrictions placed on advertisers in the UK might prove the catalyst for more genuinely engaging commercial content? "Just because it's not blatant brand placement doesn't mean that it has to lose meaning," Boyd adds. "When you forget trying to get the product in surreptitiously, it's quite liberating."

And there are signs that programme-makers, despite being raised with a healthy suspicion of commercial interference, are prepared to start thinking along similar lines. Where a brand proposition is meaningful enough to form the basis for content with no need for the brand itself, a mutual attraction seems more than possible. After all, TV advertisers aren't the only ones feeling their budgets squeezed.

"The need to look for alternative ways of funding content is rapidly becoming more important," Hincks says. "Ultimately, we get paid for our ideas. We don't get the ad revenue and we don't have a licence fee. As the need for big statements grows, there's often a shortfall between what it takes to make a show and what the broadcaster can afford. There's scope for revenue to fill the gap."

A common need isn't necessarily the basis for common happiness, however.

It's clear that advertisers - and their agencies - must be prepared to adapt the way they work in order to build an effective relationship with their programming counterparts. "You can see how The Salon might have synergy with certain products but that show would never have come out of a brainstorm where you were sat opposite a hair gel advertiser and you were trying to create a show to bring that brand alive," Hincks says. "Those creative handcuffs are too narrow."

The solution appears to be for a commercial brief to find a natural partner among pre-existing programme ideas. Indeed, ITC regulations, which insist that a commercial brief should not form the basis for content, dictate as much.

"We write a programming brief so it's clear to us how we would transfer the brand strategy to a programming strategy," Mike Falconer, the managing director of /Stream, a content agency for the TBWA network, says. "There are formats floating around, some of which have been commissioned and some of which haven't even been turned into treatments yet. We talk to producers about trying to find a relationship between our brief and the type of treatments they've got."

"It comes down to the ideas, stupid," Boyd adds. "Decent producers will only make shows that are going to get broadcast and commissioners will only commission those that will draw an audience. Those are strong natural filters."

Once filtered down, however, will content funded by an advertiser hold up to the measurement standards that clients expect from advertising? Could commercial content, vulnerable to the creative vagaries of the marketplace, ever be held accountable?

"There's a big myth about advertising - that it can be measured in terms of impacts," TBWA's chief executive, Andrew McGuinness, responds. "We always measure on what we're saying rather than what the audience is hearing. We talk about 'opportunities to see' as though we've actually interacted but it's only an opportunity."

For McGuinness, content provides a crucial opportunity to guarantee that interaction. "The ads versus content idea is really quite a boring argument that reinforces our parochialism," he adds. "This should be a plus - a more consumer-centric way of doing things."

So, with plenty of incentive on both sides, some of advertising's major players cheering from the sidelines, and creative content ideas that are arguably honed rather than discouraged by ITC regulations, a happy ending seems just about plausible for advertisers and their opposite numbers in programming. But wait. There's still that jealous third party to consider. "The broadcaster's ad sales people don't like it because it affects their business," David Brook, a former director of strategy at Channel 4 and a founder of the digital TV consultancy Optimistic Media, says. "If the partnership survives the first meeting between the brand guys and the commissioning editor, it's nothing compared to what happens when they go to see the sales director. Why would they support advertisers moving away from buying ads? It's like turkeys voting for Christmas."

"If a TV production company turns up with an advertiser saying 'we're here to do business', it's the worst nightmare for the broadcaster's commercial department," Hincks acknowledges.

So, what are programmer and advertiser to do when faced with indifference, or hostility within the broadcasters? One option is a move to the digital arena. "Costs are coming down there and you can start your own channel and make your own rules," Brook says. For those with high ideals of a marriage between mainstream content and advertiser funding, this may sound suspiciously like the cheap motel option. However, Dave Evans, formerly an associate producer on The Big Breakfast and the producer of the new digital venture Flipside TV, insists that the credibility of digital is on the increase. "The kind of people you'd expect to find on terrestrial TV are really interested in the content opportunities there," he says.

There are plenty, though, who believe that the path of commercial content will lead, ultimately, to the mass-market channels. And for those keeping the faith in this way, the key remains content ideas that can stand and fight for their right to be on the schedule.

"Things like the Heinz Dinner Doctors are only ever going to make daytime," Boyd says. "The fruitful conversation is one with a commissioner who would have wanted to get something off the ground anyway, but didn't have the money."

"In our view, the broadcasters have to accept that the traditional funding structures are changing," Falconer adds. "When the balloon goes up a bit and people can see what this area is capable of, then it becomes valid territory and we'll begin to see mainstream, ad-funded programming. That's the big moment and it's still to come."

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