What a Former 'Suit' Has to Say About Branded Entertainment

Chokolat's Jeff Spriet Believes a Lack of Risk-Taking Keeps Marketers Out

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Who: Jeff Spriet, co-founder, president of Toronto-based TV production company Chokolat, which also has an office in New York.
Jeff Spriet wonders why more marketers aren't involved in branded entertainment: 'I've been banging this drum from a number of years now.'

Why you need to know him: A native of London, Ontario, Mr. Spriet started at Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto, five days after graduating from Wilfrid Laurier university in Waterloo and has worked in marketing and advertising ever since. Now 39, Mr. Spriet learned TV production basically "by the seat of my pants. As an account guy, I didn't see too many old ones. At Chokolat, I didn't take a salary for nearly two years. It was really for the love of it and the desire to create a creative canvas that was bigger than 30 seconds. I just jumped in. We did some ad gigs and some planning gigs to pay the bills while we waited for our branded-entertainment business to catch fire."

Credentials: A former "suit," Mr. Spriet logged hours at big-name agencies including Ogilvy & Mather and Ammirati Puris Lintas, as well as at entrepreneurial shops such as Taxi; his clients over the years included Jaguar, BMW Mini, Unilever, Duracell and Nike. Nonagency stints included several years at Nike Canada, where he was advertising director, and several years running his own business, a strategic planning and youth-marketing company called Wiretap. He co-founded Chokolat in 2003 with well-known Canadian adman Paul Lavoie, chairman and chief creative officer of Taxi, who bought into the pitch that "branded entertainment will be huge." His point of differentiation: "We're not deal brokers or people trading on the names in our Rolodexes. We're creative people with the ability to not only come up with the idea but also to write and direct it," he said. Chokolat's first deal was for client Nike USA, creating a documentary, "Full Ride," about six high-school seniors vying for college scholarships, that was sponsored by nikegridiron.com and aired on ESPN.

You've been in the branded-entertainment space for nearly four years. Where's branded entertainment headed? "Branded entertainment's growth has been slow but I believe it will get bigger. The broadcast media landscape isn't getting any less saturated, and clients need innovation. Our philosophy is that the ideal branded-entertainment deals are partnerships between the brand and the broadcaster -- it works best when you have a great idea both the advertiser and the broadcaster like, and both have skin in the game. The problem with developing branded-entertainment projects is that many of them take a long time to come to fruition because there are so many cooks in the kitchen. As branded entertainment becomes more common, it will get easier, and in many ways, it is getting easier now; there's less of a stigma about it, from a viewer's point of view. Someone can look at a bag of Doritos on 'Survivor' and say, OK, I get why that's in the show and why the characters on the show want it to be there. The challenge is still to find ways of creating content that is more integral to the brand and to go beyond product placement and sponsorship. With '11 Cameras' [a prime-time TV drama created and co-produced by Chokolat in conjunction with others that was told entirely using webcams], we pitched the show simultaneously to the broadcaster and the marketer, Bell [Bell Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Company funded most of the show's costs]. But ultimately, we're in the business to make great TV shows. For us, brands are a means to an end."

Why aren't more marketers involved in branded entertainment? "Good question. I've been banging this drum from a number of years now. To a beer company, I'll say, you are spending between half a million and a million bucks on a 30-second spot in which people cannot drink the beer [due to Canadian government regulations]. I could take that half a million and buy six hours of late-night airtime and produce a great reality show in which people actually drink the beer. The reticence is conservatism and a lack of good case studies."

What's the holy grail of branded entertainment? "Prime-time is where everyone wants to be. We've done network prime time in Canada and a number of deals in U.S. cable. The bigger the stage, the better."

What about using the Web, as the creators of BMW Films did? "We've shied away from web strategies because of scope. I'm a fan of BMW Films and think it was a great branded-entertainment showcase, but I think it missed a great opportunity because it was web-only. Had they secured the television-broadcast rights, it would have been seen by a great many more people. Our movie network here tried to air all the BMW films for free, but because the rights weren't secure, it wasn't possible. And web-only distribution strategy was expensive: 90 million downloads for creative that cost $15 million, that's $6 a download."

You've just finished a project with Nike and the NFL network, "Four Quarters," that aired in February. What's next? "We have a development deal for a prime-time dramatic series here in Canada that's in the vein of '24' or 'Lost.' Hopefully it'll air in 2008. The subject is pretty controversial, so I'm not sure we'll have marketers lining up for it, though for the right one, it could be a fit. We also have two reality pilots in the works with Viacom."