In season three of Mad Men, Harry Crane, played brilliantly by Rich Sommer, pitches the idea of creating a TV department to his bosses at Sterling Cooper. "It’s the future," he predicts – and, of course, he is right. Thanks largely to the constant rubbing of shoulders with the entertainment industry on the West Coast of the US, by the end of season seven he is speaking way more Hollywood than Madison Avenue.
And there it is. About 60-odd years of one industry rubbing shoulders with the other – to great mutual benefit. Yet the film industry has been less embracing of brands, in large part because they have never needed their money. Sam Goldwyn’s point of view that "pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union" still holds true in the majority of the industry but, like television, those walls are being dismantled and a new generation of writers, filmmakers and producers are experimenting with brands.
Know your brand and stand by its ethos, be relevant and authentic" Werner Brell Red Bull Media House North America
We have been talking about brands and entertainment for well over a decade. The field is conspicuously sparse of true commercial and critical successes: Shane Meadows’ award-winning Somers Town (funded by Eurostar), the blockbusting Lego Movie… the examples of brands creating what people in the entertainment world would call "entertainment" are still rare. It is still a genuine frontier. As someone who has spent a good while working at the intersection of both industries, I have realised why: the brand world is still only half in. It lacks confidence, understanding and talent from the other side. It is calling media-buy deals with Vice "branded entertainment platforms". They are not. There is nothing wrong with them as a brand-building mechanism but they are media buys with another third-party owner, not entertainment.
And then there is Red Bull. So far ahead no-one can see it. Or even really talks about it. When asked a couple of years ago why it did not enter the Cannes Lions, the company’s answer was: "Wrong Cannes." It is not thinking in terms of marketing, it is thinking in terms of entertainment. If you are a 17-year-old snowboarder in Tahoe, Red Bull is an entertainment company that happens to make a soft drink.
What set it apart years ago was the energy it put into building an entertainment and media business. Werner Brell, president of Red Bull Media House North America, puts the strategy simply: "Know your brand and stand by its ethos, be relevant and authentic, surprise and innovate, be consistent, and tell a real story." Moreover, when he talks about a story, he means a story, and, like all stories in the entertainment world, one that is worth something. In 2015, Forbes ranked Red Bull as its 76th most-valuable brand in the world, at $7.6bn. Telling stories is a strategy that works.
Red Bull has invested in the right combination of talent – poaching from slower, more traditional broadcasters, production companies and magazines. These roles entail creation, production, financing, distribution and marketing.
It has become one of the world’s leading producers of premium audio-visual media in the fields of sports, culture and lifestyle. Through magazines, video series, clip shows, tailor-made programme blocks and documentaries, it offers its partners – TV stations, platform providers, cinema distributors and others – a vast array of entertainment products, and a global audience.
What is the secret to the success? Unlike most brands, it does not talk about itself. Former Financial Times journalist (and now Silicon Valley-watcher) Tom Forenski put it brilliantly recently when saying "media companies do not create media about themselves". And therein lies the problem with the vast majority of brands that still rely heavily on the orthodoxy of traditional marketing thinking: they are message out. It is compounded by the fact that the interruptive media they rely heavily on are not designed for anything else. The two worlds – their people and their formats – are just very different. There are no decks in entertainment meetings – just people pitching stories.
A new epoch
The world of media is changing faster than at any time in history. Audiences, owing to the sheer explosion in choice, are under huge pressure when it comes to where they spend their precious time. In that battle for attention, for the hearts and minds of audiences, the rules are actually incredibly simple: the best story wins. The most relevant story wins. The most groundbreaking story wins. The most life-affirming, uplifting, rewarding, shareable story wins. The rest is just noise.
That skill, that ability, the deep expertise it takes to find, craft and carry those stories into audiences’ lives, homes and hands lies not in our industry but theirs. Red Bull does not have to be the anomaly.
At Sunshine, we have spent the past couple of years recruiting talent from the entertainment world; people who have never set foot in a company that deals with brands before – from the BBC, Viacom, CAA, Shine, Channel 4 and MTV. They have different skills and experiences and are changing the way we see the world – and what we do.
I have realised that, in the end, it is actually just down to like-minded people, a healthy dose of unreasonable ambition and a strong sense of collective endeavour. The best example of this recently was Brian Chesky, chief executive of Airbnb, and Joanna Coles, the chief content officer at Hearst Magazines, on stage launching their joint venture, Airbnb Magazine.
Coles, a former editor of Cosmopolitan, put it beautifully: "So what is my ambition for this magazine? I’ll be really straight with you. It’s to be on every coffee table. It’s to be on every nightstand. It’s to accompany you on every flight you take." She summed it up thus: "To connect you, to inspire you, to transform you."
That is an enlightened brand and an enlightened entertainment company spotting an opportunity. Here is my bet: Airbnb, thanks in large part to the vision of its chief marketing officer, Jonathan Mildenhall, is on track to become the next "home run" global media company. I am not for a second saying that it is the end of advertising because it is not. Not by a long shot. But it could be, for bold, well-capitalised, high-interest brands in high-interest categories – just like Airbnb – a brave new world.