At NewFront, Branded Entertainment Focuses on Fans

As Marketers and Celebs Get More Cozy Online, Siren Song of Consumer Engagement Is Heard

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NEW YORK ( -- The NewFront, a play on TV's annual upfront ad-sales period, is evolving from a show-and-tell for original web series into a platform for figuring out where content and marketing are headed online. If the past two years were about giving producers and brands a forum to discuss ways to develop alternate financing and distribution of branded content, this year's conversation was about how to let consumers do the marketing for you.

"As soon as Facebook announced they were no longer using the 'fan' feature, we wanted to take a deep dive into figuring out how to activate new media," said John McCarus, VP-group director of branded content at Digitas, the Publicis digital agency that introduced the Digital Content NewFront in 2008. "The NewFront is all about trying to embrace what is possible now and giving brands the opportunity to participate."

One brand that discovered the power of fans in a big way this year was Kraft's Philadelphia Cream Cheese, which recruited Paula Deen and more than 8,000 fans for a user-generated content effort to establish the spread as more than just a creamy pairing for crackers or bagels. The effort yielded more than 8 million impressions in its first eight weeks, and recently contributed to the brand's first sales surge in more than five years.

"Us telling consumers they could now cook with the cheese would not be effective," said Howard Friedman, senior VP-marketing, Kraft Cheese. "There's obviously a place for that, but consumers are increasingly interested in learning peer-to-peer. We wanted to enable consumers to create recipes using our product, and also get them to talk about the product on their own. It becomes a more credible way to use the brand."

Pitching web series
Of course, the NewFront is still a key launchpad for new web pilots, just as the TV upfronts are breeding grounds for hot new shows in search of ad dollars. Actor Seth Green spoke about his upcoming series "YouRule," a partnership with Digital Broadcasting Group, an online branded-entertainment production and video distribution company. Actor/writer/producer Dan Bucatinsky ("Web Therapy") and his partner, author Dani Klein Modisett, pitched their scripted/stand-up parenting series "Afterbirth."

"Judging Amy" and "Private Practice" star Amy Brenneman was on hand to pitch "The Procrastinator," a new web series she wrote and created with production from Ben Silverman's Electus. Although Ms. Brenneman has been well-employed by network TV, she enjoyed the relative freedom the web provides -- for now, anyway.

"I love the two-way connection," she told Ad Age. "I've had a lot of fun with Twitter and a blog that I do. I love the interactivity of people saying I'm interested in this, and -- if I find it interesting -- I can [connect with it]."

She looks up to Tina Fey of "30 Rock" and Lisa Kudrow of "Web Therapy" as the models of what she would like to do with brands on "The Procrastinator."

"It works if you can find a way that's consistent with the tone of your show, that sort of acknowledges [that brands are there]," she said.

One panel, moderated by actor and host Kevin Pollak, featured Ms. Kudrow, Teri Hatcher (pitching her new Disney website, Electus' Mr. Silverman and CollegeHumor founder Ricky Van Veen. The panelists stressed that the quality of original web series and their overall production value needs to remain high enough to lure brands to integrate.

"It's a hurdle for advertisers," Mr. Pollak said on the panel.

"What the hell is this thing going to look like?" Ms. Kudrow sympathized. "[Marketers] should care. It's more about brand affiliation than just [inserting] an outright plug."

Mr. Van Veen said the nature and methods of integrating brands into the content they sponsor (via product placement, for example) is a key concern, because consumers are more sensitive to a traditional "plug" than ever.

"You have to be transparent; you don't have a choice anymore," Mr. Van Veen told Ad Age. "[Consumers] are so media savvy. They even think things that aren't integration really are."

Mr. Van Veen said he hopes that the aspirations for producers of original web content change as more quality series emerge. "Right now, for everybody who's creating content for the web, TV and film are still the ultimate destination," he said to the panel. "We'll know real change has happened when web becomes the destination."

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