Evidence of branded content's inexorable move into advertising's mainstream was apparent at last year's Campaign Media Awards.
Both the winner of the best overall media campaign, Nike, and the victor in the best public, utilities and charities sector, the National Blood Service, used branded content at the core of their respective communications strategies.
This, combined with the fact that brands such as Carling, BMW and Audi are all investigating running branded TV channels, reveals that branded content has come a long way since Heinz made its pioneering, if rather clumsy, attempt at cracking the technique back in 2001 with Dinner Doctors on five.
According to the PHD content specialist subsidiary Drum, the UK branded content market will be worth £100 million by 2010. It's no surprise then that media and creative agencies and production companies are improving their credentials in this area as they seek to tap this new revenue stream.
In September last year, Martin Bowley, the former chief executive of Carlton TV Sales, set up Amplified in partnership with Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, while last week, PHD's Drum formalised its branded content division with the hiring of Enteraction TV's Simon Wells to run the newly christened Drum Screen. And Celador, the production company behind Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, has set up a division called Brand Alliances to offer advice in the creation of ad-funded programming. And the Advertising Producers Association has launched a branded content division.
Branded content and AFP is becoming a hot topic. The impact of audience fragmentation and the personal video recorder effect are obvious, but there's also been a sea change among the broadcasters who act as the gatekeepers to AFP getting on screen. The independent TV producers trade body, Pact, recently scored a victory over these broadcasters. The 2004 Communications Act handed programme rights, which include revenue streams such as DVDs, back to the production companies. Traditionally, the broadcasters retained these, so the Act has left a hole in their finances, which has translated to a gap in their on-air schedules.
Whereas once commissioning editors and programming directors would have treated AFP with a certain lofty disdain, anecdotal evidence suggests that they realise that branded content could be just the thing to plug this gap. It's not just the multichannel minnows that are keen on using the advertising shilling to fill schedules - the mainstream terrestrial broadcasters are also beginning to react.
With so many organisations and agencies claiming to offer the service, it is understandable if advertisers become a little confused about whether the media agency, the creative agency or a production company is the best place to get advice on an AFP project.
Each has its own compelling reason why it has primacy - the production companies have existing relationships with the commissioning editors, the media agencies understand and can evaluate the currency of AFP, while the creative agencies are the originators of advertising ideas, of which AFP is currently only an element.
At the moment, the best way seems to be to work with all three. It will be interesting to see in the longer term whether one becomes the prime mover, or the media owners gear up in this area and add their own dimension to the debate.
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PRODUCTION COMPANY - John Nolan, head of commercial programming, North One Television
"The pressure on broadcasters' income means relationships with their suppliers are bound to change. Given that branded content has to be exactly the same as non-branded content, it needs to go through the same production processes - it needs to have a buy-in from the broadcaster.
"Media agencies use production companies as a creative platform and creative agencies use production companies as a media platform. In branded content, there is a new hierarchy because production companies have direct relationships with the broadcasters. From a broadcast point of view, the broadcasters need distance between the agency and themselves."
MEDIA AGENCY - Simon George, founding partner, Drum
"We feel that we are the best placed, which is why we've taken the Drum Screen approach. You need to be able to understand the media market, the production market and the broadcast market.
"Obviously, by setting up Drum Screen, we are best placed to look at those areas as a whole and not in isolation.
"We're not saying we're not going to work with production companies, but we will provide a combination of all factors - there comes a time when you have to be able to measure the media value of these executions."
CREATIVE AGENCY - Mark Boyd, director of content, Bartle Bogle Hegarty
"Media agencies will find the pull to content irresistible: they have relationships with media commercial departments and are staring at declining margins. The reality of getting projects off the ground will be very disappointing.
"Specialist AFP agencies struggle with credibility, weight and retained clients and will have a tough two years before they can build a business in a new industry.
"I believe there will be a few brilliant companies from each sector, including producers and clients direct. Longer-term, creative agencies will have a strong claim on realising this space. Creative agencies working with creative people to come up with the biggest, most engaging ideas."
CLIENT - Andrew Constable, head of media, Coors Brewers
"I don't think that media agencies, creative agencies or production companies have proved their ability in this area, so no-one can claim to own the branded content territory.
"Some individual agencies may have done some good projects but generically as an industry they don't, in my view. That said, the branded content area will continue to grow."