The year ahead for ... content

Mark Whelan predicts that, in these difficult times, finding ways to entertain and reward consumers will become a priority for brands.

Times must be changing. An invitation to write a piece solely on branded content in adland's bible. Alright!

In fairness, coverage dedicated to branded content has increased in the past couple of years as more and more clients have experimented with the idea. Why are they interested? The media proliferation argument is an obvious one, but the more qualitative angle is more interesting. There's a refreshing wind blowing through (certainly our own) clients' view of their brands - humility. Clients are talking about customers rather than consumers. The language they use is becoming more human. Brands such as Innocent pioneered the notion of talking to people, as people. Even its copy is becoming a bit twee and try-hard, but it does understand relationships, and a relationship is the key to branded content. If you have a relationship, you give your customers what they want.

I have always maintained that great TV advertising is still some of best branded content around. Thing is, there is just so little of it. And, ultimately, it's one-way. I remember years ago when I worked with Rich (Flintham) and Andy (McLeod), they said they liked the idea of being in millions of living rooms in one evening. Nowadays, most ads feel like unwelcome intruders. How outdated do the ones that tell people that "life's good" or to "be" something sound? I know, I'm guilty of "Evian: live young" (but only because it rhymed when said in an 'Allo 'Allo! accent and it was years ago).

The very premise of branded content is the notion of a brand creating a property of genuine interest for its customers. For it to work, it must harmonise the complex relationship between brand, customer, the content and the medium. Burger King + Seth MacFarlane + web animation + burger-hungry teenagers + no fear = JACKPOT! A genius follow-on from the Cannes Lion-winning gaming initiative.

Clients are much more focused and forensic in their investigation of the relationship. Digital has helped hugely in this. It has taken centre stage - as it has to be, as consumers are one click away from information, choice and price-checking. That is why digital is at the heart of most branded content. That is why companies such as Nike are increasingly creating a core content idea that lives digitally and then use advertising to make it famous. I don't mean awareness, I mean fame - "this thing is so good, we made an ad about it". The challenge for ad agencies in these hard times will be to prove that an ad campaign is more, or at least equally, effective at driving click-through than online advertising and outreach. I remember the last recession and the argument that strength and profile of brands is even more important. But now we are AD (after digital).

So, if digital's near future is looking even rosier, what of the young pretender: branded content? Well the rationale remains unshakeable: the strengthening of the relationship, through an engaging property, that is the embodiment of the brand. The question, as always, is over measurement. We don't have the industry standard; our proof points are a bespoke hybrid of media evaluation, PR coverage, online activity, live feedback and tracking data. Clients that make the leap rarely regret it, but they need the backing of bosses with the same intuition and courage. What we have found is that repeat business is not an issue; once a client has created a content campaign, it wants more. Orange Playlist ran for three series, which is unprecedented for most TV shows per se, let alone one that was ad-funded.

So I think we'll see more content initiatives, but mainly from brands that have already lived the dream and still believe in it. The big mobile players, the sports brands, the big fizzies.

What content do I see ahead? The smart brands will be thinking about how to put a smile on people's faces. It's miserable out there, it's going to get worse, entertainment is key. It's not flippant to say: "It's grim, so here, have this from us, enjoy."

In television, broadcasters are feeling the pinch, too, and with some great precedents as proof points, I think we will be seeing more advertiser-funded programming. The challenge will be in both proving the AFP model vs sponsorship and navigating the woolly world of regulation.

The logic of AFP has always been that not every brand can find a show to sponsor that "fits" their value. We argue that, with AFP, you can build a format around your values.

For some brands, sponsorship is all they need: Domino's and Britain's Got Talent - spot on. "Cowell's on, we're staying in" - a million lights blink on in Mission Control Dominoland. For Vodafone, AFP about the story behind Formula One and the rise of Lewis Hamiltion is absolutely the embodiment (as is Sir Lewis himself) of "make the most of now".

AFP's other advantage is about depth of message as well as breadth (airtime); it's about having content rights to exploit across all platforms: online, mobile, airline and so on.

The numbers raise interesting questions about the cost of entry of AFP vs TV advertising. We argue that AFP is the cheaper way to get a brand on TV. For £200k, you can be on TV. Is a TV ad campaign on the same budget going to make an impact? When you invest and create a franchise (Orange Playlist became exactly that), then you are really making an impact.

I see music as the biggest growth area. When we first started, we couldn't get through the door of most record companies, despite our chief executive being ex-industry. Now they are on the phone every day. Crucially, when done right, music fans don't mind. In fact, they welcome priority ticketing (Orange, O2), giving new talent a leg-up (Carling, Intel, Motorola) and seeing their idols' quality knitwear (Take That/Marks & Spencer). They do mind if you get it wrong. Last year, Shockwaves had a mare when it released a single, then "revealed" the lyrics were its ad strapline. Cue a stinging backlash from industry and music fans alike. That's not revealing, that's deceiving. So, any clients reading this: please don't be persuaded that "revealing" yourself is ever a good idea.

Finally, I think we will see much more "live" or "experiential" initiatives. The chance to get up close and personal, the brand experience - we also call content. Particularly if it can be captured and distributed via web or broadcast. The key here is giving back - creating an experience that adds values to people's lives, either with some sort of legacy or as pure and simple entertainment. We will warm to the brand that says "have lunch on us today" or "come see this band" or "here's Kelly Brook in HD". So I'm updating the logic about "brands that communicate in recession emerge stronger". I'd say if you are there for someone in the bad times, then they won't forget you in the good times.

- Mark Whelan is the creative director at Cake.