Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Brands take the direct route

By Kate Bulkley

Broadcast News

For Broadcast July 01, 2010

As the number of TV programmes funded by advertisers continues to rise, brands and their agencies have become proactive in suggesting ideas for content, as Kate Bulkley reports.

Not only is there more advertiser-funded content on air than ever before, but both the brands and commercial broadcasters are becoming savvier in how they work together.

Already, the likes of Red Bull, Britvic, O2 and their agencies are approaching broadcasters directly with content ideas - but does this relationship threaten, or at least reshape, the role of the independent TV producer?

Katherine Marlow, content partnership planner for ITV, admits that it is sometimes better when the commercial department talks directly to the brands first, because if an indie producer brings a show to the table fully funded, the broadcaster’s commercial department has less flexibility.

“It’s a really complicated process so sometimes it’s better if we can go direct to the brand,” says Marlow.

ITV has worked with O2 and Apple’s iTunes on event-led TV programmes, including O2-backed Countdown To Midnight for ITV1, and the iTunes Festival for ITV2.

“Our ambition is to develop direct partnerships with brands because of the leverage they can give us in terms of access to talent or whatever it may be,” Marlow adds. “We’re having a lot more client-direct conversations and, in some ways, that can work better for us because they can be more open about their assets, like their mailing list or what they can do online.”

For their part, independent production companies will always have, at the very least, a basic role in the production of advertiser-funded programming (AFP) because, under Ofcom rules, brands cannot directly produce TV shows.

Additionally, indies such as Tiger Aspect, RDF and Shine are already developing sophisticated commercial departments to cultivate relationships with brands and agencies (see Tiger Aspect case study below).

According to the media agencies brokering deals for their brands, the relationship dynamics between broadcasters, brands and indies are changing - but not in a way that gives one more control over the other.

Group M Entertainment, part of WPP, is a co-producer with Shine for Five’s Don’t Stop Believing, and the company is also involved in the distribution of the show internationally.

“I don’t see it as one side gaining and one side losing. It’s more like a collaborative spirit in the marketplace,” says Richard Foster, managing director of Group M’s content arm.

However, Channel 4 director of sales Andy Barnes warns that, as welcome as they are, these relationships require careful balancing and co-ordination. Late last year, an ad-funded programme almost clashed with an over-arching sponsorship Channel 4 had with another brand - a situation Barnes has remedied with the institution of a new monthly meeting between the commissioners and the commercial side of Channel 4.

“The interest in AFP is coming from all sides, so what we are trying to do is make sure the right hand knows what the left hand is doing,” says Barnes.

Return on investment

ITV’s Marlow thinks that brands are beginning to understand much better the way in which television programming works, and the result is that they want a bigger piece of the pie.

“If an AFP series comes back, brands generally want more of a stake in it because they took the initial risk to fund it. They are certainly showing a lot more interest and are being a lot more savvy about it.”

She adds that in the indie/brand/broadcaster dynamic it is still important for the broadcaster to maintain editorial control. “The brand needs to be a good fit with the show and not a cheap media buy. We also need to maintain creative control - we can’t have a brand’s colours creeping in or holding a particular mobile phone. The point of the brand is to have funding in place and we, as editorial, decide on the format and who creates it.”

One brand that has pioneered the direct approach with broadcasters is Red Bull. The drinks brand is now funding the third year of Red Bull’s X-Fighters World Tour on UKTV’s Dave channel.

The programme is a six-event, global freestyle motocross series, including one event in London on 14 August. “It is a really collaborative brand to work with because it starts from the grassroots,” says Sally Quick, head of commercial partnerships at UKTV.

According to Quick, the brand deals with the broadcaster directly and thinks of itself as an independent producer that does everything short of filming the event itself (a job tasked to production company UMTV).

“It wants to own the genres that it is are in,” she adds. Not that indies should be quaking in their boots just yet. Red Bull is something of an anomaly. The drinks brand owns hundreds of events and produces hours of programming for its online channel and its European satellite TV channel.

Red Bull also has its own media unit, Red Bull Media House, which employs about 200 people. Its media venture has become so large that the company is now split in two - the ‘cans’ business and the ‘media’ business.

“We produce high-value content,” says Christie Poulos, head of Red Bull Moving Image in the UK. “This is about spending our advertising money in a different way.”

Red Bull’s operation has many admirers in commercial broadcasting circles. “Red Bull is in a league of its own,” says Mark Cullen, founder and chief executive of ETV Media Group, a company that works with brands and broadcasters to create content.

“I think it has succeeded because it always tries to think differently, and has used its marketing budget to side-step its bigger competitors with events and ideas that are now successful properties in their own right.”

Changing perceptions

Cullen adds that Red Bull’s Air Race is an example of something broadcasters will now pay real money for, rather than seeing it as AFP “and, therefore, something to be sniffy about”.

According to Simon Podd, head of sales at RDF Contact, while some other big brands may start to claim greater creative control over their programming, the majority still need production companies with which to partner. “You might see other brands going down this route, like Adidas or Nike, which have access to talent and a close relationship with consumers. But the majority need a production company to partner with and produce a show and part-own the IP - and making programmes is what we do best.”


When Tiger Aspect’s director of commercial partnerships, Claire Heys, first saw the brief describing what diet-pill company Alli wanted to achieve in an ad-funded show, she thought of Cook Yourself Thin, which the indie had already made for Channel 4 in 2007.

The show was subsequently reformatted to fit the daytime tariff of £30,000 per half-hour, and a 15 x 30-minute series began airing daily last month in a 2.55pm slot on C4, ordered by daytime commissioner Helen Warner.

It took just six months from the original brief by the brand’s agency, Mediacom, to the first TX.

Mediacom has an established relationship with Tiger Aspect, and Heys knew that Channel 4 was eager to open up parts of its daytime schedule to advertiser-funded programming, thus saving budget for peaktime commissions.

Alli received sponsor bumpers and the brand was integrated into the show’s title sequence. The commercial deal included online components on C4’s website, VOD, international sales and repeats.

While Heys did meet with the brand manager at Alli, she stresses that the brand remained at arm’s length once it understood what Tiger wanted to achieve.

“The brand does not have a role once we go into production. The agency and the brand get updates, but that’s it, because we are making the show for Channel 4,” she adds.

Cook Yourself Thin, completely funded by the GlaxoSmithKline brand, has been doubling the slot average, consistently attracting an audience of more than 400,000, and, at its peak, hitting 600,000.

Heys reveals her department is fielding twice the number of briefs for brands than a year ago. She “lands” one out of 10 conversations with brands or agencies, which, she points out, is a hit rate not dissimilar to commissioning without brand funding.

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