A diverse group of content producers and creatives were interviewed for this article by new audio post-production service Virtual Sound. Interviewees included Rebecca Denne, Acting Head of Content at ShortList Media Ltd, Neil Shanlin, Creative Director at Flare BBDO, as well as representatives from some of the new breed of content production houses including Gramafilm, Unity & Motion and Hub.TV.

Virtual Sound has developed a new model for audio post-production, designed specifically for the various types of production companies/content producers discussed here. Virtual Sound was born from Thirty Two Music, a music supervision and production house specialising in advertising. The process of developing a new model led them to some interesting observations about the shifting production landscape. These themes were fleshed out in the discussion and all supported the underlying thought behind the topic, which is that we are now in an exciting new era of production, one where high quality content needs to be produced faster and more cost-effectively than ever before. Suppliers of all kinds are having to adapt, resulting in new opportunities for brands and producers alike.

So, what is branded content? And what do we mean by ‘a new era of production’?

There is often much ambiguity about what ‘branded content’ actually means. In the tradition of keeping up with the Joneses, brands could be in danger of approaching their content strategy too hastily, without a full understanding of the myriad new and developing media in play. They all see that there is a growing audience consuming this type of content elsewhere and recognise that other brands are doing it. Many brands approach this new type of content production with an innate understanding of their own ‘brand tone’ and how to carve out their own space effectively, but for those not experienced in this type of fast paced, engaging storytelling, there is a new breed of agency that exists to help steer them in the right direction. A type of agency that promotes a new discipline and which sits outside the traditional relationship between brands and agencies.

Neil Shanlin, Creative Director at AMV BBDO’s content production agency Flare, believes there is definitely a blurring of the lines going on between what is traditionally understood as ‘advertising’ and what is ‘branded content’.

“At the moment, branded content is differentiated from traditional advertising by the break-neck speed with which it needs to be created and the smaller budgets allocated to it, but what is interesting, is that efficiency isn’t killing creativity. We actually find that because it’s branded content, not ‘broadcast’, clients are willing to take a few more risks. So there is an argument to say that maybe, branded content = more efficiency + braver ideas at less cost.”

Several of the interviewees agreed that the restrictions of time and budget were spawning new ways of producing quality content, for example Flare going “off the page and not the reel” when selecting directors, and other attendees in the room saying they focus a lot of time and energy building close, trusted relationships with clients in order to allow for quick decision-making to aid the fast production and release of content into the market.

Kyle Blanshard, head of production at Gramafilm said, “Brands are coming to us with specific challenges around how they connect to audiences who are consuming in a completely different way. They know they need to work differently and they’re looking for content production partners who can turn around high-quality work much more quickly. It used to be just brands realising they need a new kind of partner, but now it’s broadcasters too.”

We typically consider branded content to be ‘not a TV ad’ and ‘not corporate film’ but something engaging that either promotes a brand message or some other popular message to which the brand can ally itself. But more comprehensively, we should also think of branded content in terms of its flexibility across all format lengths and all media. There is potential to provide a much wider range of cohesive media to a brand’s repertoire (or arsenal, depending on how you look at it). As pointed out by David Hunstone, founder of HUB.TV, it is “too narrow a description to talk about branded content in the context of online alone, because it also now lives on broadcast channels such as Cinema and Netflix, and anywhere else we may look”.

People pleasers

It is clear that the way people are consuming and using new media and digital technologies is driving brands towards the production of more ‘content’ and therefore towards greater innovation and the discovery of more effective and exciting ways to engage their audiences.

Of course, people engage with content in very different ways, so understanding people’s content consumption behaviour is very important; specifically what engages who and why.

Taking this to its logical conclusion, video agency Unity & Motion have developed a unique production process focused on understanding human behaviour, believing this to be key to engaging an audience. They create content specifically in response to in-depth psychographics, demographics and social profiles. The type of information is now much more readily available than at any time in history, and increasingly valuable to those that have learned how to exploit it.

The long and short of it

James Hillhouse, founder of Commercial Break, highlighted one route to audience that brands may not be exploiting effectively.

“Just look at the content that came out of The World Cup. All the best snackable stuff wasn’t produced by brands, it was produced by people. It was delivered really quickly, felt natural and was produced to very high standards. Most of the brand content was slow and forced by comparison. If I was a brand, I’d be worried about that.”

Of course, product placement aside, branded content is still a relatively new and constantly evolving field. “Brands often have so many objectives for one piece of content. Our job is to tell a story to our audiences in a way that’s engaging and offers value, while meeting those objectives.” said Rebecca Denne, Acting head of content at Shortlist Media.

Problems can arise when due consideration isn’t given to the many potential media usages for a content film. A brand client might expect they can get ‘cut downs’ from longer pieces of content that will work on social media. Well, maybe, but you better be damn sure it’s in the brief from the outset and that everyone involved is aware of what is required and what it needs to do (is the director getting dynamic shots for five-second cuts on the shoot, what about broadcast formats/aspect ratios?).

The way that branded content video engages and communicates to users is completely different.

In shorter formats there will be no time to tell a story. It just has to work, and work fast. In longer formats the story may be everything, with the branding almost subliminal. A client may decide they expect this after the shoot, but if they weren’t advised carefully at the outset the opportunity may have been missed.

Almost anything can be branded content, as long as people are getting value from it, or feel that they are… but one thing’s for sure, the heritage of advertising hasn’t been about delivering value to people, it has been, in the famous words of David Ogilvy, “to sell, or else”. So now perhaps we sell by delivering value in a nebulously emotive sense, but how is this measured and to what extent is it effective? It seems we are all still working this out.

In recent times, with much talk about bloated agency fees and the long, painstaking creative processes no longer serving brands and agencies who now more than ever need to ‘do more with less’, it feels exciting, if unexpected, that rising up from the ‘dirty’ part of the industry (production) is a new breed of content producer focused on delivering content that is truly of value to people in order to cut-through and engage. It seems that the key to making great branded content is putting the people it needs to serve at the centre of it. Branded content needs to be entertaining and even educating – there just happens to be a brand behind it.

A new era…

The notable increase in music and talent usage fees for digital content, which now has to take into account exactly how a piece of content is promoted and amplified online, means we are seeing media and usage budget allocations that could exceed the production itself. Seems we may need a new model. Perhaps even a return to the German ideal of basing usage fees on the total production budget… it could work, but it requires a degree of transparency with which all parties need to be comfortable. Maybe more transparency is what we need as the definition of branded content continues to evolve and production houses find new ways of collaborating. With all players seeking to optimise profit and produce world-class content for brands, this is an interesting landscape to watch.