Branded entertainment, marketing tradition tussle

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Branded entertainment is still an experimental platform and can be tricky to pull off, let alone get buy-in from marketing management. Despite the progress that Madison Avenue and Hollywood are making in collaborating, a recently scratched TV deal for Nestle Purina Petcare shows that traditional marketing decision-making can wreak havoc on even the most well-oiled deal.

It would have been a first brave step for the marketer of pet-food brands Alpo, Dog Chow and Friskies, guided by David Lubars, North America president-executive creative director at Fallon, Rob White, president of Fallon, Minneapolis, and Rob Buchner, managing partner. They contracted former TiVo executive Stacy Jolna, and after a March 2003 brainstorming session with more than 20 Fallon executives, spearheaded development of an animated satire of the 2004 presidential election between the Cat Party and the Dog Party.

`gumbo'

"Marketers need an agency that works differently from the current agency model," said Mr. Lubars. "It's not GRPs, but creatives looking at where [they] can show up. It's not an assembly line but people getting together in a gumbo."

Set up as a one-hour broadcast network special complemented by a series of one-minute interstitials promoting the show on a network, the effort attracted production glitterati such as Howard Gordon, an executive producer of Fox's "24," and John Collier, a co-executive producer on "King of The Hill" also on Fox. They drew writers and producers with credits for "The Simpsons."

The agency proposed a merchandising campaign to include characters of the show on pet-food packaging, and the show would build and climax in October with the network special "Decision 2004," where America would choose between the Cat and Dog party by voting at purina.com.

They struck a deal with NBC Entertainment whereby NBC would pay a reduced license fee and in turn give up some of the ad inventory to the Purina team. But despite making financial concessions, the deal fell through after Purina in November suffered a difficult quarter and pulled out. Purina executives were not available to comment.

"It was quite upsetting to all of us because we really felt we'd pioneered a new kind of model with a compelling concept with a world-class team," said Mr. Jolna. "Ultimately, there's no one at fault here. It boiled down to finances. That was a marketplace issue and not a philosophical issue on part of the client."

It shows that even Fallon, a pioneer in branded entertainment with BMWFilms, continues to face pushback from marketers on Madison + Vine concepts. "For every success you have several failures, because you're basically using a machete to cut through the jungle," said Mr. Lubars. Part of the challenge for marketers trying to navigate the Madison + Vine space is because traditional media has a consistent format for reaching audiences, said Mr. Lubars. But with branded entertainment, "every time out, it's new."

quick change

Because marketers want to tap pop culture through entertainment, part of the problem is that it changes quickly, said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior VP-director of Publicis Groupe's Starcom Entertainment. "Agencies have been built on process and procedure, and these deals never fit nicely into the box," she said. "When it gets to a time when a client has to cut budgets and if you can't prove it's going to work, it's probably the first thing to be cut."

"It takes a very brave client ... that's willing to step outside a proven model and invest with something that is very difficult to pretest," said Mr. Buchner. "That's the dance that our business is doing right now."

With paid media, "there's always a market for it," he said, noting that if something disrupts a client's market, it's able to get out of its commitment. "If you spend six months for an entertainment program, you're locking in."

Still, there are plenty of marketers lining up. Fallon has seven or eight other projects in development.

Hollywood is far more thick-skinned over dropped ideas and can even shelve them until the timing is better. But for marketers, a killed deal may only enhance fear among their peers curious about the space.

"Nobody wants to be responsible for putting together a marketing deal ... that does any damage to the brand," said Ms. Caraccioli-Davis. In Hollywood, "talent comes and goes, but hopefully there will be always be cornflakes on your table."

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