Report from Madison & Vine Conference

A SOCRATIC DEBATE ABOUT BRANDED ENTERTAINMENT

Hollywood and Madison Ave. Execs Wrestle With Potential and Pitfalls

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AdAge.com) -- It's time to get back to basics.

In what's become a stampede into branded entertainment, some of the players have failed to ask a fundamental question, namely, who they are as a brand, said panelists at the fourth annual Madison & Vine Conference yesterday at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Photo: Stephanie Diani
Harvard Law School professor Arthur Miller gathered executives from Hollywood's creative community along with marketers, consultants and other branded entertainment players for yesterday's Socratic debate at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Click to see larger photo.

Marketers who have overlooked that crucial first step have wasted time, energy and money and, likely, made some misguided marriages that damaged their brand. Hollywood's not without fault either, panelists said, sometimes sacrificing the integrity of the story for the sake of the deal.

They can right the ship, but only if they're willing to do some serious introspection.

Knowing your brand's DNA
"You must be very clear about what you stand for and why you deserve a place in the market," said Stephen Berkov, director of marketing for Audi of America. "You start with knowing your brand DNA."

The consumer is king, and advertisers need to study their audiences to better understand how to connect with them emotionally in an ever noisier environment. Traditional media doesn't cut it, and even though it's difficult or impossible to measure, branded entertainment can be a means to that end.

Marketers have to choose carefully, though, or risk becoming part of the din. "They need to ask if it helps create an emotional connection with the consumer," said Peter Dang, chief marketing officer of Bragman Nyman Cafarelli. "Does it give you the kind of lifestyle projection you want to reflect with your brand?"

A brand integration deal alone can only do so much for a marketer, panelists said, and the business needs to evolve past that stage. The goal should be a full-scale partnership that takes the integration into retail, online communities, wireless platforms and other places that touch consumers' busy lives.

"A lot of people approach entertainment as a tactic and not a strategy," said Paul Bricault, senior vice president at the William Morris Agency. "It has to be relevant -- it can't be haphazard."

Socratic debate
The panel, a Socratic debate led by Harvard Law School professor Arthur Miller, gathered executives from Hollywood's creative community along with marketers, consultants and other branded entertainment players. Using fictional scenarios that have become his trademark, Mr. Miller drew the discussion from potential consumer overload on product placement to brands fully funding entertainment projects.

In previous Madison & Vine conferences, the talk centered on whether branded entertainment was the right path for marketers to follow. This year, there seemed to be no question that it's a marketing approach worth investing in. How to structure deals and execute programs are still evolving.

"You need to partner with entertainment that's like-minded," said Linda Yaccarino, exec VP-sales and marketing at Turner Entertainment, "and seek partners that extend your reach."

Panelists put more emphasis on collaboration and said marketers and entertainment companies aren't so far apart anymore.

It's all content
"We're all telling stories," said Frank Cooper, vice president of promotions and interactive marketing at Pepsi-Cola North America. "We're all trying to create meaning."

"We have the same challenge," said Ms. Yaccarino. "Position or perish."

There's a tendency to talk at instead of talking to the consumer, and that approach is falling on deaf ears.

"We have to identify the consumer and ask what they want," Mr. Dang said, "and then look for nontraditional bridges to speak to them."

"The customer is in control," said Chris DiCesare, Microsoft's director of Xbox marketing. "The cornerstone is to understand how you can engage them."

There's still no standard, reliable way to measure brand integrations, which is the source of ongoing concern for many marketers. Panelists cautioned advertisers about getting too hung up on return-on-investment metrics because the right integration deftly handled can have a halo effect that extends far beyond any one project.

"It can't always be tied to box office or ratings," Mr. Bricault said. "If you reach your audience, it's a success."

"No one will have success 100% of the time," Mr. Cooper said. "You have to have the stomach for failure."

Union protests
Outside the conference, about 70 demonstrators from the Writers Guild of America West and the Screen Actors Guild picketed at the curb of the Beverly Hills Hotel. The groups, whose members have crashed a number of industry gatherings over the past several months, have asked for a voluntary code of conduct on brand integrations. Their leadership said writers, actors and others in the creative community deserve a voice in how or if products are woven into entertainment. They're also asking to share in the advertiser money for such deals.

They've complained that the proliferation of such deals is hurting entertainment content and that actors could be unfairly cut out of lucrative endorsement deals because of brand integrations.

Yesterday's protest was the largest so far, with picketers carrying signs that said, "Can you hear us now?" "Storytellers and actors united" and "Extreme commercial takeover."

So far, according to WGA West President Patric Verrone, studios, production companies and networks have refused to discuss the matter with the unions.

Readying FCC complaint
"We've expanded our campaign, but we can't seem to get our employers to talk to us," Mr. Verrone said. The unions are preparing a complaint letter for the Federal Communications Commission, he said, asking that product integrations be more fully disclosed to viewers.

The union leadership also complained that they were not invited to speak at the Madison & Vine conference. Union members interrupted the Madison & Vine East conference in September in New York, but did not do so yesterday.

This being Hollywood, they enlisted some famous union members for the demonstration. Connie Stevens, Elliott Gould and Kent McCord were among the curbside protestors.

"We deserve to be consulted because we have separate contracts for commercials and separate contracts for films and TV," Mr. Gould said. "We need to be involved."

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