Indie-Minded Sundance Channel No Longer Going It Alone

Kirk Iwanowski Oversees Cable Network's New Brand Partnerships

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Who: Kirk Iwanowski, exec VP-marketing, branded entertainment and sponsorship, Sundance Channel.
Kirk Iwanowski says Sundance Channel is looking for long-lasting partnerships with brands interested in creating content.

Why you need to know him: Sundance Channel is opening up its on-air environment to advertisers in ways it hasn't done before, and Mr. Iwanowski, in his newly created position, will oversee the marriage of marketers to the network's original content, interstitials, programming blocks, stunts and acquired series. He will also spread those partnerships across multiple platforms, such as online, video on demand and wireless.

Credentials: Mr. Iwanowski has been at Sundance Channel for nine years. "It's hard for me to remember life before Sundance Channel," he said, having started with affiliate marketing and later adding consumer marketing to his duties. He was at the network before it had cable distribution -- initially it was a satellite-distributed channel -- and helped get the channel off the ground. He progressed into marketing, sponsorships and branded-entertainment strategy, becoming a senior VP at the network. Before Sundance, he worked on the rollouts of Showtime and its sibling movie networks.

Talk about this newly created position you're in. What's the strategy behind Sundance creating such a position? "It's an evolution of my existing position. We've had a long history of establishing relationships with like-minded consumer brands, part out of desire and part out of necessity. We rely on the strength of those brands to help deliver a message to the marketplace about our programming. We've had programs like 'Sundance Channel Recommends' at 4,400 Blockbuster stores. We created an acoustic concert album that we recorded at the Sundance Film Festival and released at Starbucks first, then other retail. It's not about quantity, it's about the fit of the brand and the significance of the relationship."

Does this represent the next stage for the channel? "The business is maturing. We'll never be as aggressive as an ad-supported network. Our partnerships will be unique to us and the program at hand. But we're having real conversations about what type of third-party brand messaging we can have on air. Before, we mostly executed off-network. Now we have opportunity to execute on-network and off-air."

What kinds of deals do you envision with marketers? "There will be a more creative presence on and off network. We're not going to be about a CPM or daypart sell. It's not the broadcast strategy of selling 30 [second ads] and 60s. I see the channel doing deals with brands that look to closely align themselves with the overall Sundance Channel brand or a particular series or franchise on the network. They can take an ownership stake in a particular show so they have the opportunity to really activate against that show in the marketplace. It's not just about spots in a TV show or billboards or vignettes. We'll work with a brand to carve out a larger platform that's content-based that gets their message out into the market. We spend lots of time identifying brands and review program franchises. We no longer just appeal to indie film fans. Sundance Channel speaks to a larger audience of creative and thought leaders who perceive it as a brand that represents alternative culture. There's a restriction, though. If it could appear on another network, it can't appear on Sundance Channel. It has to be exclusive and specific to us."

Will these deals include integrating brands into the entertainment content? If so, how will that work? "If the show lends itself to a product placement or story integration, it's something we will consider. Miller Genuine Draft was integrated into 'House of Boateng.' Miller was looking to take the brand upscale and recognized that Ozwald [Boateng, a designer and the show's star] was already speaking to that audience and has a history of designing for upscale brands. We were looking for an opportunity to showcase his design skills in the U.S., and he was in talks to design an MGD bottle. The integration captures his interaction with the MGD team at Miller Brewing. We're really looking for partners who are interested in creating content and activating against it. That could mean co-financing programs. The deal with Grey Goose Entertainment [producers of the series 'Iconoclasts'] was precedent-setting. They established a production company solely to invest in high-end entertainment. 'Iconoclasts' is their first production."

How will branded-entertainment deals carry off-air? "It could be the development of exclusive content that relates to content on air; wireless; streaming; inclusion in the network's national tune-in campaign; developing a co-branded image campaign; events; national sweepstakes."

What about the rise of some producers who want or attempt to make their own brand-integration deals? What if a brand-integration deal originates with a producer? "It happens. Producers we deal with in those scenarios are very upfront about those relationships. If a brand is attached, we sit and have a conversation. Both the show and the brand have to be right for channel. At the same time, we don't seek out those producers with those deals already attached."

Many marketers say they want to do brand integration, but how does the network decide who can participate and who can't? "It has to pass through several filters. The brand has to be willing to take a risk, it can't be looking to simply buy a media schedule, because we're not ad-supported. The brand has to make an investment in a larger content-based marketing platform. We don't work with a lot of brands that are in and out of our lives; we want long-lasting relationships. We have an understanding of who's going to feel comfortable playing in this space and who isn't. We're not all things to all people. We're about emerging culture. If that doesn't fit with your brand DNA, our projects probably aren't right for you."

There's still considerable debate about what branded entertainment is. How do you define it? "It's about degrees of closeness -- how closely is the brand associated with the content? What's the dynamic or relationship between the two? A lot of measurement is instinctual. Clearly there's a continuum, and product placement and storyline integration is at low end of that. The highest end of the spectrum is when a brand is so closely aligned with a particular franchise that the lack of the association would negatively affect the quality of that program. A lot of us play somewhere in the middle."

What's a good example of branded entertainment you've seen lately? "Fine Living does an amazing job with branded entertainment to develop content that's useful to their audience. I really like their model. They have a significant amount, but it always feels tasteful and appropriate. It appears to be consistent with their programming mission and feels like incremental content and information to the viewer."

What's on your TiVo? "I have a DVR with my Time Warner cable system and it's filled with the new season of 'Cribs' on MTV. It's my guilty pleasure."

Being a Sundance guy, do you watch mainstream movies? "I love mainstream movies. I loved 'The Devil Wears Prada.'" Insider tidbit: A scene near the end of the movie contains a shot of an outdoor ad for 'Transgeneration,' a Sundance Channel show. Mr. Iwanowski said, "I had three e-mails the next day from people in the business asking how much I paid for that placement," and he declined to say if he actually paid for the placement. His favorite indie flick: "Little Miss Sunshine," which premiered at the Sundance festival and is playing in theaters now.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? "I'm a real-estate junkie and I love anything to do with home restoration and renovation. TV shows, magazines, books, I consume everything. I get a vicarious thrill out of it. And I'm a student of pop culture. You have to be to be successful in marketing today."
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