Fashion House, the Nokia-funded reality-TV show, was beamed on to TV screens in Italy and the UK last week, although Swedes, Danes and Norwegians will catch their first glimpse in November.
It can't claim to be the first pan-European advertiser-funded deal - Gillette World of Sport, for instance, has been syndicated across the Continent for 18 years. But its backers say Fashion House has taken the format to another level in terms of cross-country collaboration between Nokia marketing teams, several TV producers, three local broadcasters as well as creatives and media advisers.
FBC, the Rome-based TV production firm that invented the show, says the difference between Fashion House and its ad-funded predecessors is that it was designed to be a truly European programme instead of originating in one country and being syndicated or adapted to local markets.
Fashion House stars 20 budding young designers from the UK, Italy, Sweden and France competing over six weeks to produce the best collection from a house in Rome. Viewers judge their creations by voting, Big Brother-style, via their phones to save or evict them at the end of each week.
The show began airing live in the UK on 26 September on Channel 4 and simultaneously on Italy's terrestrial version of MTV. Because Scandinavian viewers covered by the broadcaster TV3 will not see Fashion House until November, they have a different voting system where they try to guess who was evicted in the previous weeks.
It's partly the show's "Europeaness" that appealed to Nokia. "Our marketing is pan-European, so it makes sense to be present in several countries.
It's also more cost-effective to have a single European format such as this rather than trying it in individual markets," Hanna Viita, a senior marketing manager at Nokia, says. "We like to be seen as a global company with a local flavour, so to have a show that airs across Europe but features designers from different countries is a perfect fit for us."
Then there is the main attraction of being linked to the fashion world.
The Finnish phone manufacturer is also a sponsor of Fashion Week, the event at which the winning contestant will unveil his or her creations, so the programme fits snugly into its wider fashion-led marketing strategy.
"This is a great sponsorship opportunity for us as we are interested in the fashion and design industry; being associated with innovation also gives the brand credibility," Viita explains.
Nokia paid a sum of money to FBC, the holder of the intellectual property rights, and in return for part funding the show, is branding it with the usual sponsorship credits and break bumpers.
Another obvious appeal for a mobile phone manufacturer such as Nokia is its emphasis on the use of the phone to vote for contestants - the same benefits enjoyed by the Big Brother sponsor O2. The brand's ownership of Fashion House also extends to the internet; Nokia is detailing the comings and goings of contestants on a website, Nokia.com/fashionhouse.
Both Viita and Paul Chard, the managing director of SponsorCom, the sponsorship arm of Me-diaCom, which oversaw the deal, acknowledge that the initiative had its "challenges". For Viita, it was marshalling her fellow marketers, both in headquarters and locally, three broadcasters, different production companies, creatives at Channel 4 and Grey and SponsorCom. "It's been quite a lengthy process," she says diplomatically.
For Chard, the tricky bit was getting everyone involved to understand that this was no run-of-the-mill sponsorship deal.
"The difficulty was in making sure that people who had not done these kind of deals knew what they were all about," Chard explains. "Advertiser-funded programming is different from straight sponsorship where you are just 'badging' or putting your name on a programme that already exists.
By paying for the production, you get certain rights to use elements from that show for further exploitation on, for example, the internet."
It is the PR opportunities that may arise from Nokia's association with Fashion House that really excite Viita. "The deal gives us several things but the biggest asset is the PR that will come from it," she says. "Whether it's a sponsorship or advertiser-funded opportunity, the most important element is the content of a programme and what promotional opportunities it gives us."
The programme will be supported by spot advertising which will be booked individually by Nokia's local media agencies rather than centrally by SponsorCom.
"Personally, I don't think that ad-funded programming will ever replace spot advertising because it does a different job," Chard says. "Instead of the brand just saying 'buy my product for £2 in every high- street store', it says 'understand me'." He adds: "Ad-funded programming allows a company to stand out from the competition. I think we'll see a lot more brands trying it."
If Fashion House is a success, then Nokia will happily repeat the formula, Viita says. "Nokia is always looking for innovative ways of reaching its target group," she says. "If it goes well it will be interested in working further with this kind of format. This programme is a pilot for the future."
Coca-Cola and Siemens Mobile - Backed the reality show The Wedding Race, which pitted five Chinese couples against each other in extreme sports as they competed for a house.
IN THE US
P&G - Funds the daytime soaps The Guiding Light and As the World Turns. Produced and owned by P&G, they are used for product placement.
Unilever - Created short, relevant programming with Initiative Media Paris, which aired on France's biggest terrestrial channel, TF1. Starting with its Fruit d'Or margarine brand, the idea was then extended to Dove as well as to the dishwasher detergent Sun, which ran a programme on how to create beautiful table settings.