The importance of understanding audiences and creating content that they really want has never been more important because it’s the solution to building brands in fresh, and powerful ways.
That’s why I invited Zai Bennett, my old colleague from ITV and now the director of programmes at Sky, to talk at Cannes. He’s an expert at delivering exceptional programming to well-defined audiences on a consistent basis.
The Cannes session revealed the following advice for brands looking to understand and serve their audiences.
1. Back ideas that people are passionate about
Bennett said: "We’ve got to be able to make the thing. The main issue at Sky is that we’re looking for authorship. I’d much rather take a pitch and commission something from a person who is massively passionate about one show rather than a list of 40."
2. Be brave and work over the long-term to build an audience
"Instinct’s important. When I commissioned Celebrity Juice for ITV, I looked for a point of difference to exploit. How much data analysis came into it? Not a lot. It’s about finding an idea, getting it right and sticking with it. Nobody watched the first three series’ but now it’s 20 series’ in and is a stalwart show. If we’d stuck to pure numbers we’d have killed it sooner."
3. Respect your audience
"As soon as you start thinking ‘they think like this’ or ‘they think like that’ you’re finished. For instance, Sky Atlantic could think it’s serving a metropolitan elite, but my first thought is that it’s a channel for anyone who likes quality TV, not for a certain audience group. You can get into trouble if you start cutting everything into demographics."
4. Don’t stress over social media reaction
"We can get a quick read on shows, we have the overnights data, but now there’s a longer tail to judge a programme’s worth or value, and to discover whether people are really engrossed and adore a show. Social media reaction is not the be all and end all, it’s useful and I love that it brings a direct customer relationship but you can read too much into it."
5. Focus on authenticity and cultural influence will follow
"When I commissioned The Only Way is Essex it wasn’t the first of its kind, there had been other similar semi-scripted shows, but because of the way it was shot it influenced popular culture. But that was never the ultimate ambition. We want things to be talked about, and to create something that the audience love, so it’s important that it’s authentic and there’s true authorship to it."
6. Invest in new ideas from fresh talent
"At Sky, we’re selling fully formed, amazing pieces of entertainment so there’s some emphasis on more established talent but we try to have newer people coming through. That makes things spiky and interesting, and people value discovering things."
7. Audiences need to be more accurately reflected in content
"We’re not representative and that’s fucking awful. On screen portrayal? There’s not really an excuse anymore, you’re controlling the casting and you can accurately reflect the population of the UK. In general we should get it right. Don’t go back to the same old people all the time. You should have others in the mix, every show we’ve worked with new people on, we’ve been better for it."
8. Make ad-funded content for long-term brand benefit
"Ad funding for programming is really good when brands do it well – Lego Batman was good I thought and Red Bull’s is authentic and part of an experience but mostly brands don’t want to do this, they want to sell something. They should get onboard with ad-funded because it elevates the brand – don’t look for immediate results in selling margarine but do it because you want to be, in a year’s time, a much-loved margarine brand."
Chaka Sobhani is chief creative officer at Leo Burnett London