Like a Doctor, Science & Fiction CEO Is Happy to Specialize

Quality of Online Programming Now on Par With TV, Says Kevin Townsend

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NEW YORK (Madison & Vine) -- While the rest of Hollywood was stuck in writers strike limbo from November to February, Kevin Townsend was keeping himself well-employed with scripted projects.
Kevin Townsend: 'If you're a brand, and you need an operation, you better know the difference between your proctologist and your cardiologist.'
Kevin Townsend: 'If you're a brand, and you need an operation, you better know the difference between your proctologist and your cardiologist.'

"I feel like I have a bit of survivor's guilt because I've never been busier than during the strike," said the CEO and founder of Science & Fiction, a branded-entertainment agency based in Los Angeles. "It's interesting because it sort of took putting a big media event front and center to pay attention to what we've been doing for the last few years. It brought to the forefront what's going on in the world and how much media, entertainment and advertising are all changing."

Mr. Townsend spent his strike time zipping between Los Angeles and Mexico, where the latest installments of his joint ventures with MindShare Entertainment were being produced. The first, "In the Motherhood," is a comedic web series created with Sprint and Unilever's Suave and just premiered its second season last month on MSN. The new season has already accumulated 10 million video views online. The second, "The Rookie," is a commercial miniseries for Unilever's Degree antiperspirant that premiered its first season on Fox's "24" last year and was written and produced by the Science & Fiction team. An air date for the new installment has yet to be determined as the new season of "24" was delayed until next year due to the strike.

A veteran of Industrial Light & Magic, Mr. Townsend shares a big-budget movie producer's approach to branded entertainment with his agency partners at MindShare and Group M Entertainment, itself spearheaded by Peter Tortorici, the former head of programming at CBS. With a team of creatives who got their start in the trenches of TV and film production, Group M Entertainment is able to produce more deals in-house and thus truly partner with agencies such as Science & Fiction on writing and production rather than outsource entirely.

"Science & Fiction is one of our key vendors. They're a great creative and production resource, and we truly enjoy the process in producing these projects and bringing them to life," said David Lang, president of MindShare Entertainment.

With more finished projects than the TV networks can currently find a place for, Science & Fiction and its media agency partners are positioned to help further change the distribution model for fully produced branded content.

Taking a breather from his breakneck production slate, Mr. Townsend spoke with Madison & Vine about the role his agency plays in the new branded-entertainment model and some of his key lessons in producing big-budget projects for serious brands. Hint: It involves proctology -- metaphorically speaking, of course.

Madison & Vine: How did the strike ultimately boost your efforts as a branded-entertainment producer? Since you didn't have any Writers Guild conflicts, was it easier to make things happen with your agency and marketing partners?

Kevin Townsend: Unlike most studios, our number of projects didn't decrease. We were lucky and smart enough to set it up ahead of time where our projects were pretty much bulletproof before the strike and then just spent the vast majority of strike time producing what had already been created. Our timing couldn't have been better. Obviously a lot of considerations had to be made as far as shooting in a struck town, and you need to jump around and try to avoid places where there would be picket lines. We didn't want to force any of our other employees to cross the picket line if that wasn't in their belief system.

We have been lucky for the past six years. I always say we're smart enough to be lucky and lucky enough to be smart. We saw the direction we felt the industry was going to be going in. We sort of set ourselves up, and lo and behold the industry started to move in that direction.

M&V: How did your relationship with MindShare and Unilever originate?

Mr. Townsend: I was introduced to an old brand manager who's since moved on from Unilever. We were introduced up there in Connecticut. That same week I was introduced to David Lang at MindShare Entertainment. I wasn't fully aware of the relationship between MindShare and Unilever, but I soon realized we were all talking about the same things. Through our relationship with MindShare, we started developing projects. One turned out to be our first big project, a Felicity Huffman Dove Night webisode campaign. That proved to be successful, as was the concept of keeping a successful team in place in the front of everybody's mind.

M&V: How do you view the distribution model for these branded-entertainment projects once they're made? You haven't been afraid to launch them completely online yet syndicate them with the right partners. Is the TV model still valuable?

Mr. Townsend: What we believe is distribution is defined by what a brand is and what you want it do for you. It's not the days of TV and what you want it to do for you. There is some relevant programming out there created specifically for online distribution. A series like "In the Motherhood" was enabled by the fact that it's online versus on a TV network. The programming is shorter-versed, the interaction with the audience is ongoing, and the entire format is based on audiences telling us their stories. It's professionally assisted user-generated content.

M&V: The series was considered a big success in its first season on its home page and on MSN, and has already racked up 10 million views in its second season. Is this a future model that might work for other similar web series?

Mr. Townsend: For all intents and purposes, when you watch an episode of "In the Motherhood," you see the quality of the writing and actresses and actors, the quality of the directors and producers. It feels like a television show, only you have to log on, not turn on. In a nutshell, where the programming is seen will no longer define the quality of what we'll be seeing. In 1997, people were just amazed there was a dancing baby coming out of their computer and that was enough. Their tastes were a lot less sophisticated. Now technology has gotten to a point where my laptop on my desk and my 72-inch flat-screen TV hanging on my wall, both of them are long-term distribution platforms for long-form content. The question is, Where do I choose to get my content at any one time? In the old days it was throw all the crap online and spend all the money on television. That's not the case anymore.

M&V: Any key lessons learned from the last few years in the trenches of branded entertainment?

Mr. Townsend: It's not easy doing branded programming. But we've been doing this a lot longer than most people out there. Our secret sauce is the ability to take what an advertiser needs to communicate and put it in entertainment terms. The consumer starts every interaction with you, with the remote control in their hands or the hand on the mouse. If it feels like product placement with a bigger budget, then you'll lose them. Ultimately it doesn't matter how cool it was. You'll lose the audience if they're not entertained.

The one thing I caution all advertisers about is if you're a brand, and you need an operation, you better know the difference between your proctologist and your cardiologist. Both went to med school, both do things that are very important. But you wouldn't go to your cardiologist if you blew out your knee. You wouldn't go to the orthodontist if you broke your nose. And you shouldn't go to your advertising agency to do long-form programming. Just like you wouldn't go to a studio to do commercials and radio. Just because you're better positioned does not mean better suited. And just because you sit at the confluence of a brand and their needs, that doesn't mean you should be the person doing their entertainment.

You [see] a lot of what I was talking about -- product placement on a bigger budget. Our niche was ... we didn't have to re-engineer anything. We weren't a studio who decided to embrace some branding acumen. We saw an opportunity and built it from the ground up, custom building to fit the solution needed.