The Years Ahead For ... Content

Mark Eaves thinks 2010 could be the year when the relationship between brands and entertainment will reach maturity.

Content, used to be something that happened while you were busy making other communication plans. Not any more. These days you can't escape the word. Charlotte Street is becoming Content Street.

Perhaps we should start 2010 by agreeing what we really mean by this term (and what we don't). For my money, the most useful approach is to think about content as something that primarily aims to entertain. Something that makes people love you more. Good old-fashioned brand work - the more ambitious the better - but not delivered in an advertising context.

Often our industry likes to talk about advertising as entertainment, and great advertising can sometimes be great entertainment. Still, this mantra has too often been at the expense of, rather than complementary to, an understanding of what it takes to paint ideas across a broader canvas.

But I shouldn't moan, because these are exciting times. Brands' use of entertainment - whether creating their own or associating with existing - is really maturing, thanks to cleverer thinking and more dynamic digital possibilities. The brands that are now really cracking this territory are those which use advertising to make big entertainment ideas famous.

There's actually a powerful sensibility fast emerging - that of advertising the entertainment. Advertisers are starting to borrow models of fame-generation that were once the preserve of the entertainment industry. It follows that the ability to create and launch such intellectual property will be a defining feature of agency success across the next decade. Expertise in sourcing and working with talent will be a key part of this.

Great creative ideas are increasingly finding their first expression in formats, applications, platforms or events - and not as scripts. This is exciting. But it takes real power of will, plus the right kind of creative skillset, to pull these ideas off.

It also takes experimentation, collaboration and an opening up to new creative and media dynamics. And this touches on another agency trend that I think will begin to reach maturity through 2010. The creation of content demands a seamlessly integrated approach. You can't easily split out creative and media. Big content ideas have a unifying power, creating as they go coherent briefs for advertising, PR, digital etc. They also demand a planning sensibility that is at ease in the world of distribution strategies: it's fair to say that "content planning" is fast becoming a definable skill.

And what about the entertainment industry itself? If we're making the effort, are they? (Two men certainly are: Messrs Cowell and Green. I suspect 2010 will see new entertainment franchises created and existing ones expanded globally and commercially - X Factor Vegas, anyone?)

At a UK level, television is preparing for the likely introduction of product placement in 2010 - an area that carries its own very specific set of opportunities and threats. What regulation change will actually look like on-screen is still rather hazy. But one thing's for sure: when the first big deals come to air - probably in the second half of the year - the whole industry will be watching with fascination. Who'll be first in? In the short term, expect simple placement deals in existing shows. But things should get more interesting as we get our heads around how regulation change can fire bigger broadcast content ideas.

Obviously 2010 will continue to see a lot of productions seeking brand funding. But financial input alone will not be the key to this area maturing. The mindset of the TV community also needs to become more consistently at ease with working closely with brand partners at a fundamental level.

The music industry, being the first to feel the digital pinch, has begun to dramatically change its relationships with brands - especially in the live music space. We're thankfully moving on from the "walking chequebook" phase into a far more collaborative state where promoters, agents and sometimes even labels are focusing on what can be co-created for mutual commercial benefit, while at the same time creating absolute audience benefit. Something more mature emerges - a realisation that brands have money, yes, but also a valuable relationship with their customers, and with that comes marketing clout. For fans, as ever, it's simply about the outcome creating better music experiences.

In film, there are some interesting moves being made by the UK Film Council to look at how productions can engage creatively and commercially with brands. This could provide a refreshing change for advertisers - the chance to become major partners in interesting British ideas, rather than bit-part players in huge Hollywood productions. Scale isn't everything, especially when you can successfully incubate film content online.

Brands have toyed with gaming for a while, and the App Store explosion has been a brilliant way for many to develop a taste for its potential at a relatively low capital cost. Mobile gaming (and other apps too) will continue to grow, and an increasing share will be brand initiated.

But I also think this might be the year when we'll see some more traditional heritage brands explore gaming's broader potential. The trigger point should be the realisation that finally the console box has taken up residence in the living room as a serious family entertainment provider. There have been some important developments recently too - such as Xbox signing a Sky carriage deal, or Wii receiving the stamp of approval from Change4Life (Hey, mum, chill out, gaming's good for the kids. It's official).

There are seven million-plus Wiis in the UK now; I can buy the latest console releases in Sainsbury's; this is no longer niche behaviour but a form of family entertainment begging to be harnessed in content creation terms. Not by youth brands, but by those great advertisers that have always seen themselves as integral to family living. Could 2010 witness a Guiding Light-esque moment for digital entertainment? Let's see. Happy New Year.

- Mark Eaves is the managing director of Drum PHD.