Branded entertainment should leave room for failure

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Failure is an option. It needs to be in the nascent area of branded entertainment as marketers experiment with new ways to reach consumers empowered by digital video recorders (and remote controls and the hundreds of options available on digital cable) to bypass intrusive commercials.

The willingness to put money at risk, to have some portion of their budgets practically earmarked in advance to fail, could be crucial to the development of this new discipline. But it also comes in direct conflict with the pressure CEOs put on CMOs-which those marketers then transfer to their agencies and the media-to prove return on investment for every dollar spent. It flies in the face of the accountability demands that dominate any discussion of marketing priorities.

Yet agencies and entertainment specialists are insisting that their clients boost their risk tolerance and give them room to explore. If nothing else, give them credit for showing backbone that those who earn a living in client service rarely display. (Although even the nature of those relationships could change along with everything else; the chief creative officer of a top shop told me he believes agencies are in manufacturing-with ideas and solutions their product-not the service sector.)

But I digress. Branded content, digital media and the need for new economic models dominated discussions at last week's NATPE conference in Las Vegas. The intersection of old and new was often hilarious. In ballrooms, industry executives from Yahoo, Omnicom and William Morris debated the future of TV as advertising executives in the audience hunched over their Blackberrys furiously typing out emails. On the convention floor, meanwhile, small-time producers peddled cheesy sitcoms and unscripted shows-"Tailgatin' with the Clever Cleaver Brothers," anyone?-out of flimsy booths as B-list celebs (Al Roker, Kato Kaelin) pumped hands.

While 90% of the TV shows are still awful, the ways in which they will be distributed, consumed and used as marketing vehicles is changing dramatically. The day is coming when show producers will be as likely to cut deals to distribute programs through cellphone screens and on-demand cable channels owned by advertisers as they will to sell them to the general manager of a local TV station.

The need to take risks in branded content was emphasized repeatedly in one conference session moderated-full disclosure-by me. But that opens a debate on measurement since panel participants also pushed the view that there is no real need for branded content standards to price and evaluate deals.

My argument: Without such benchmarks, branded entertainment won't be taken seriously as a marketing discipline. But media agencies and Hollywood talent shops seem content to let it exist in a squishier space. (Critics would argue they fear that it doesn't really work, and close examination might dampen marketers' enthusiasm for entertainment tie-ins.)

"It's more art than it is science right now," said one panelist. Rich Frank, chairman of The Firm, called demands for standards "an unfair burden."

But Robert Riesenberg of Full Circle Entertainment argued that agencies can still be held accountable for branded entertainment, and that ROI can be measured on a case-by-case basis without standards by setting clear objectives in advance of each project. "What is it that the brand is trying to accomplish? Once we know that, we can measure it."

The best solution may be for middlemen to share the risk. "Our fee structure," said Frank, "has to be tied to how successful it is."

Sounds like a plan that can't fail.

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