Subway makes an appearance on NBC's 'Community.'

'Madison & Vine' Turns 10 -- But How Far Has Branded Content Really Come?

Alliance of Advertising and Entertainment Remains Strong Despite Questionable Sales Results

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It's been 10 years since "Madison & Vine," a book written by Scott Donaton while he was editor of Ad Age, called for the ad industry (Madison Avenue) and entertainment industry (Vine Street) to work together to survive the upheaval promised by ad-skipping technology like TiVo. This was to be done partly by clever product placement but more broadly through content consumers actually wanted to watch.

In some ways, the partnership between advertising and entertainment has become just as imperative and pervasive as the book predicted: There's everything from the P&G-and-Walmart movies on NBC to sponsored listicles on BuzzFeed -- and not a reality competition in sight without heavy brand integration. Subway product placement is extending the lives of TV shows that were on the brink. Millions of people go out of their way to watch videos created by Red Bull. Brands pay Stephen Colbert to make fun of them.

But in other ways, it's shocking how little has changed. "The fact is, traditional TV advertising still works," said Ben Silverman, founder and chairman of entertainment-production company Electus, former co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and enthusiastic proponent of branded entertainment. "So there's not that aggressive a move away from it."

Mitch Kanner, described in "Madison & Vine" as one of the branded entertainment's earliest practitioners and leaders, was more blunt: "People were swinging at the ball 10 years ago. You'd have thought that people would have hit by now."

Despite a lot of experimentation, few partnerships between advertising and entertainment have sparked any sort of cultural change or moved a lot of products off shelves, he said. Examples do exist, such as AT&T's work with "American Idol," which taught the nation how to text. But many other integrations seem as easy to ignore as commercials.

Product placement grows up

The relative scarcity of breakout successes hasn't deterred interest, and tactics continue to evolve in sometimes unanticipated directions.

Corbis Entertainment helped place JBL headphones on actress Vanessa Hudgens and then a photographer from the paparazzi company Splash Media, which Corbis owns, snapped her picture and circulated it to publishers with a caption mentioning JBL. The Mail Online and celebrity blog JustJared were among the sites to run the image, without mentioning that it was set up.

"It was very organic, very natural," said Mark Owens, executive VP at Corbis. (JBL parent Harman did not respond to emails seeking comment on the photo.)

Corbis last week introduced a unit, Branded Entertainment Network, which offers to get media buyers access to TV shows, movies, digital videos and celebrity photos. "Content is still king," said Bill Gates, owner of Corbis, at a promotional event.

Last year, brands spent $5.3 billion on product placement in movies, TV shows, video games, music videos and books, according to PQ Media. That's just 1.5% of the $378 billion spent on ads overall, said Leo Kivijarv, PQ Media's VP-research, but it's growing by the "low double-digits" annually.

The number doesn't include a trade of services -- an airline, for example, might give a movie studio access to a hangar in exchange for placement in a film -- or when brands work with production companies to develop TV series and movies from the ground up.

In April, Relativity Media announced the creation of Madvine, an in-house agency that looked to put brands in the same room as writers and producers as they develop content. One if its first clients, Evian, will be a part of the film adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' "The Best of Me," according to Danny Stepper, CEO of Madvine. He declined to share details.

Everyone hated the idea

Embarrassing missteps like "Cavemen," 2007's failed ABC sitcom starring the Geico Cavemen, still crop up regularly to give the practice a bad name. And there's still an inherent tension in the arrangement. Can marketers and media executives actually work together, to the consumers' enjoyment, after decades of one side proudly producing the content and the other just paying the bills?

"Everyone hated the idea of bringing brands into the content," said Mr. Silverman, who has helped lead the way in branded entertainment through the production of shows like "The Restaurant" and "Fashion Star," both of which had brands at their core.

"It's really hard," he added. "You need the ability to speak the language of people coming to the table. Most people are pontificating on it. It's continuing to grow, but slowly."

Even the crankiest showrunners are open to working with a brand, though, if they're brought in early and not asked to jam a product into a scene at the last minute, Mr. Donaton said. To that end, Starcom last fall struck an overarching deal with Turner to encourage TNT and TBS shows to bake in Starcom clients from the start.

The biggest brand evolution

But product placement is only part of "Madison & Vine." Its greatest legacy so far is brands' growing role as content creators themselves.

In 2001 and 2002, BMW released eight short films directed by marquee directors and starring Clive Owen, Madonna and others. Millions of people downloaded the films. "Back then, they were downloaded overnight; streaming was impossible," said David Lubars, chief creative officer, BBDO Worldwide, and chairman, BBDO North America, who worked on BMW Films when he was at Fallon, Minneapolis.

The project was a bold foray into content creation, which has remained a staple at BMW. "We believe in branded entertainment and storytelling," said Trudy Hardy, VP of marketing at BMW. "To get someone to remember your message in today's cluttered world, you need something powerful to create that recall."

Ms. Hardy said the practice "warrants a good deal of investment," though she wouldn't elaborate on the amount BMW spends on nontraditional marketing.

Mr. Donaton, now chief content officer at UM, pointed to Denny's "Always Open," a web series he produced with actors Will Arnett and Jason Bateman that evoked late-night talk shows. Celebrities ate at the restaurant, but they didn't mention it or the food. "We said that this has to compete with 'Between Two Ferns,' not another restaurant's ads," he said, referring to the Funny or Die series.

UM worked closely with a number of agencies, including Denny's creative agency at the time, Gotham; Mr. Silverman's company, Electus; and DumbDumb, the agency created by Messrs. Arnett and Bateman. The actors, Mr. Donaton said, were on set along with clients. That was rare a decade ago, when Hollywood talent would say, "Write me a check and trust me that I know how to create content," he explained. "From there we went from a period of reluctantly saying, 'you have a seat at the table, but please be quiet.' Now it's a true collaboration."

With no other marketing running against the target demographic of 18- to 24-year-olds, Denny's saw a five-fold increase in relevance among them, according to Mr. Donaton.

Too much hand-wringing

The pressure on print advertising and display ads online has also helped spawn something "Madison & Vine" foreshadowed but didn't specifically predict: so-called native advertising, in which ad content mimics the editorial surrounding it. Websites like BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and Mashable were first to this space. But even The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Time Inc. have introduced these products, much to the chagrin of their editors, who fear an erosion of the traditional ad-edit wall.

"There's too much hand-wringing," Mr. Donaton said of native advertising (a term he dislikes partly because it's really just branded entertainment to him). "If print resists that way, you'll see advertising [continue to] fall."

Encouragingly, at least from the perspective of Mr. Donaton, companies of all stripes today—from energy-drink makers to credit-card companies—are producing content. And, increasingly, people want to consume it. Red Bull has become a full-fledged media company, with its own channel on Apple TV; epic viral videos such as Felix Baumgartner's jump to Earth from a helium balloon in the stratosphere; and a magazine called "Red Bulletin" that's sold on newsstands.

"This is what brands have to do now," Mr. Donaton said. "It's not competing with other marketing messages. Consumers only have a limited amount of time. Brands have to create something worthy."

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