Close-Up: Do agencies 'get' branded content?

Have agencies got their heads round branded online content as a discipline, Matt Williams asks.

When AOL shelled out £61 million for the branded online video distribution network Goviral at the end of last month, the general consensus was that AOL is actually getting a pretty good deal.

Branded video content is certainly flavour of the month. Where once a select few companies were grabbing headlines for their weird and wacky virals, now the majority of brands are identifying the benefits of producing their own entertainment content for online consumption.

"Branded video content gives you the opportunity to do things that you just couldn't get away with using traditional advertising," Rupert Britton, the content strategy director of PHD, says. "For example, it means you no longer face time restrictions. Quality content does not have to be diluted into a 30-second TV spot."

There are other benefits too. The potential to create an ongoing series, for instance - episodic content that keeps the consumer returning for more, such as the recent LG "Young and Connected" series created by Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, or JWT London's "Art of Technology" spots for Microsoft's Bing.

And in the age of austerity, online branded video content can be far cheaper to produce than traditional television ads too. "Branded videos puts far more emphasis on quality content than quality production values, which has turned the whole production market on its head," Zaid Al-Zaidy, the chief strategy officer of TBWA\London, says.

For Dean Baker, the head of JWT Entertainment (a content production division launched by JWT last year), the rise of branded video content reflects the way that the media landscape is changing.

"The old advertising model was 'persuade me and I'll buy'; now it's 'entertain me and engage me'," he says. "And with the growth of social media in particular, branded online video content is the natural next step for brands."

Exciting stuff. But agencies are still advised to approach with caution. There is a fear that the opportunity to create longer content encourages creatives to become a little self-indulgent.

"Ad agency creatives' eyes light up when they have the opportunity to make more than a 40-second TV ad," Adam Graham, the managing partner of Saint, says. "The latent film director comes out and they can very quickly lose focus on exactly why they're doing it in the first place."

Britton adds: "Often I see content funded by a brand that has a sponsorship logo at the beginning but has nothing to do with the actual content."

There's also still major confusion over what type of agency really owns the branded content space.

"Digital agencies understand the online market better, but ad agencies are much better when it comes to film-making and storytelling," Graham says. "There are some agencies out there that can do both, but they are still few and far between."

Whatever the discipline an agency originated from, though, there's a real sense that, this year, they simply must make strides in coming to grips with branded video content. "I think it's reached a tipping point," Al-Zaidy says. "Branded content is going to continue to form a larger and larger part of an advertiser's strategy, so agencies must get their heads around it quickly if they don't want to get left behind."

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"Branded video content is all about entertainment and, as brand builders, it's up to us to provide that entertainment and engage consumers.

"At the moment, everyone is scared of other people getting into their space. But there's got to be greater collaboration now, particularly between ad agencies and content producers.

"If content is not of the highest quality, then people simply aren't going to watch it, no matter how well it's branded. That's why we've set up our own specialist division - we realise how important it is to have people who understand exactly how branded video content works. You can no longer ignore this space."


"Creating content is very different to creating an ad. It must be entertaining, but it also must be relevant. All the time you must be thinking just how you can properly integrate a brand into the content - too many clients are just jumping on the bandwagon because it's 'new and exciting'.

"That's why media agencies thrive in this space, as they are already well-versed in looking at the broader picture. We have the ability to originate content ideas and tell great stories, but also understand how to enter into the right partnerships."


"Branded online content is here to stay, and good agencies, whether from a traditional or digital background, can figure out how to make it work.

"The problem with most digital specialists is that they don't know how to make compelling film content or tell compelling stories.

"But there's also a whole generation of people from traditional agencies who don't have the social media skills needed to understand the platforms where that content gets placed.

"So this is an area in particular where it's imperative that agencies get the right talent in from all backgrounds, and create an environment where they can all work together."


"As viral ads just become clutter lost on the internet, branded content can provide more entertaining and informative videos that more specifically suit a consumer's requirements.

"But a lot of the progression at the moment is coming from the brands themselves. Many digital agencies, for instance, have been brought up on producing old-school websites rather than content creation, so they are struggling to take to this more than you'd think.

"And while creative agencies are good at producing content, they still seem to be afraid to really open up and take a punt on something that isn't as restrictive as what they're used to."