CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/CONTENT - Advertisers turn to content to further their brands. Advertiser-funded TV can become a real alternative to ads

Robin Azis, the former chief executive of HHCL %26 Partners, is very excited about content creation. Last week he left the familiar comfort of agency life to set up a new venture in partnership with the production company Jane Fuller Associates.

The new company, The E-Factor, will bring together brand marketing budgets with new TV programmes, films and events in a bid to move on from above-the-line advertising.

While Azis is a high-profile member of the agency community to jump ship, he is by no means the first. Advertiser-funded television and content creation are areas rich in ideas and cash, as companies seek to bond with their target audience in ways other than a 30-second commercial or poster campaign.

In 2001, the UK's £3 billion commercial TV advertising market shrank by 12 per cent. What also fell was ITV's revenue, by 15 per cent, and TV audiences. According to Barb, adult audiences on ITV fell by 5.4 per cent in 2001.

So for cash-rich clients, there are fresh opportunities for forging relationships with viewers with the use of editorial airtime, and for those who create the concepts, make the programmes, distribute and air them, there's a big revenue stream to be tapped. The management consultancy Arthur D Little predicts advertisers could spend up to £1.3 billion on funding their own programmes by 2005 - at the moment, they spend just £15 million each year.

The idea of advertisers making their own programmes isn't new - the US soap operas of the 50s were funded by detergent manufacturers. In the UK, Heinz funded Heinz Superchamps, a sports and activities programme aimed at children, and way back in 1994 Ford televised The Big Race to launch the Mondeo.

But agencies on both the creative and media sides are preparing to probe the medium much more deeply. Elisabeth Murdoch's Shine Entertainment company struck a deal with MindShare last year to form Shine:M, and Bates UK has a dedicated unit for TV content creation, Bates Widescreen, which was behind B&Q's Real DIY Show of last year.

Omnicom's OMD network put on a Jennifer Lopez concert in November for NBC in the US, as well as a Backstreet Boys special for CBS. Its sister TBWA network has also invested in Stream/MSI, a UK-based operation dedicated to exploring and tapping into the market.

Starcom Motive's head of content and development, Tracey Darwen, claims there are a number of issues which make the time ripe for advertisers, agencies and production companies.

"Having the global rights for televised activity which involves the brand and works in each market is a great asset, Darwen says, pointing to TV brands such as Big Brother and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? as examples.

Darwen also agrees with Azis on the point of the creative potential for such a venture, claiming that the idea, its feasibility and its relevance to the advertiser's brand must come before any communications objective.

"Programming is a way to open up a new layer of interaction with consumers. It's crucial that the vehicle can stand the distance. There's absolutely no point in running with a format which wouldn't stand up as a standalone show - it could ruin your brand, Darwen warns.

Stream/MSI's managing director, Mike Falconer, says consumers are hungry for good content, and aren't opposed to an advertiser being behind it.

"Advertising is, by its very nature, interruptive and distracting, and viewers don't like that. The concept of programming allows advertisers and their brands to have an altogether different relationship - consumers get good entertainment and advertisers reap the rewards of having their brand embedded within a credible show."

Falconer points to the recent series created by Sponsorvision for Coors Brewery, Carling Homecoming, as an example of a brand bonding with its target audience. The series, currently on Channel 4, features musicians returning to their roots to perform a small gig in their first venue.

The 300-strong audience is picked from Carling consumers, and the footage is spliced with interviews to create a "rockumentary-style" programme.

There's also the cost factor - the £1 million an advertiser might spend on a 30-second TV spot goes much further in a TV show budget. Sponsorvision's partner, Mischa Alexander, says: "Advertisers have seen how many TV shows have become enormous, and very bankable, brands. Investment in the area can reap big financial rewards in overseas sales, brand extensions and merchandising opportunities."

Bates Widescreen's branded television director, Joy Salisbury, says: "Advertisers might see the project grow so they have a revenue from merchandising, off-screen usage rights, a share of the format, or indeed owning it outright."

Azis claims: "The old model of advertising to consumers in a 30-second telly spot has moved on. If advertisers can engage them in an entertaining way where the onus is on the quality of the programming, then there's a real opportunity for a brand to take ownership of the attributes it conveys."

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