Eisner in No Hurry to Create Branded Content

Former Disney Chief Now Active Online, but Not Ready to Let Marketers Dictate Stories

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When it comes to branded entertainment online, there are two camps of producers: those who embrace it and those who treat it as an afterthought.
Michael Eisner
Michael Eisner Credit: Jeff Frank

Count Michael Eisner among the latter. In a conversation with Veoh founder Dmitry Shapiro at Digitas' inaugural Digital Content NewFront event in New York, the former Disney chief and current head of Vuguru showed little interest in bringing brands into the development of his short-form online programming.

"I have never produced anything in my career with an audience in mind," he said.

Traditional methods still viable
He later gave an example of how a more traditional sponsorship model could be woven into the viewing experience of one of his company's web series, which include "Prom Queen" and the new "Foreign Body." If the first act of an episode took place in Yankee Stadium and the second act at a nightclub, he said, "a [contextual] commercial could follow those scenes. It's [re-creating] the ambience of the same environment, not the same story. The audience would get the idea that the brand was involved in the creative process."

In fact, his company's first major foray into branded entertainment, a web series for sports trading-card company Topps called "Back on Topps," only came about because he acquired the brand last year. "We never thought, Who's the audience? [People] are saying the internet is made up of 13-year-olds, so gear toward them. But I just don't think you should. I like to make it, then figure out who to reach."

He also had a few choice words for the excessive use of pre-roll and mid-roll ads for already short-form content. "You can't put a 30-second spot in front of a 45-second ESPN clip. We like to put our shows together in five- to seven-minute pieces. Pop-ups, overlays, some of that new stuff is interesting, but some of it is offensive."

A more accommodating view
In the following panel, a conversation with some of digital entertainment's leading content creators, Jordan Levin, co-founder of Generate and former CEO of the WB, extended a more open invitation to the Publicis digital execs and clients in attendance. "When we come to you, it's not to presume we know what's best for your brand. We're incubating content here. We want to be partners with you here, see what rollout fits and really invest you in it. You're the stakeholder. So when that content migrates to other platforms, you're associated with it."
Jordan Levin
Jordan Levin

Mr. Levin likened Generate's branded distribution model to the relationship "American Idol" has with its integrated sponsors, such as Coke, or the Dallas Cowboys' relationship with Nike. "Our biggest barrier of entry is how you get noticed. We need help marketing, selling and creating awareness for these properties."

If it seems like more and more traditional media vets such as Messrs. Eisner and Levin are producing more shows on the cheap online, there's a reason. The TV branded-entertainment model that tends to take precedence among agencies and brands often shuts out the content producers.

In producing a TV show for a network recently, Mr. Levin said, "The brand came in through the door, and the network takes all the money. That doesn't help offset any of our production budget. So it makes it seem like that's not going to be something we should be investing in as the producers."

Internet bears fruit
And although the still-nascent digital-entertainment industry is "just beginning to be a place for originality," as Mr. Eisner put it, some web shows are already making the migration to the TV screen. Although "Quarterlife," a scripted web series-cum-revamped drama for NBC, tanked after one episode, there are high hopes that MindShare Entertainment's "In the Motherhood" could break the supposed web-to-TV curse. The comedic web series, co-sponsored by MindShare's clients Sprint and Suave, was recently picked up as a mid-season replacement candidate for ABC.

Kevin Townsend, one of the show's producers and CEO of branded-entertainment agency Science & Fiction, said he is a longtime champion of the branded-entertainment model, and sees more agencies coming into the fold as web and TV producers. "We personally like to work with brands, and our best partners are the agencies. Any time you can get 20 million-plus uniques, any network's going to stand up and take notice."
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