On Branded Content – In Conversation with Ernie Schenck

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“The era of one-way dialogue is over,” says branded content consultant, creative director, and author Ernie Schenck. “Looking at the screen has evolved. There are so many options.”

And Ernie should know. His storied career includes working on some of the world’s most prestigious brands, including groundbreaking campaigns for John Hancock and Liberty Mutual. A co-founder of Pagano Schenck & Kay, he was later executive creative director at Hill Holliday/Boston. Today he is a contributing editor of Communication Arts, and in the last few years, he’s turned his attention to branded content.

Content, as we all know, means many different things to many different people. From a banner ad to a blog post, 140 characters to a two-hour film, content is everywhere. It’s deep and it’s shallow, thought-provoking and often dismissible, personalized and irrelevant. Adding brand into the mix adds layers of complexity.

I asked Ernie about that, and how can brands get it right. It’s been almost four years since we’ve worked together, in my former role as managing editor at CA. In those four years, I left publishing and he embraced branded content. To say catching up was long overdue is an understatement.

Content is such a bland word; how do you define it?

It’s a terrible word. It feels generic and cheap. But the way I look at it is, well, if the train has left the station, I’ve got to be on board.  There’s no one definition for it. Content, as I personally define it, is long-form stuff that has some meaning and substance to it. But then there’s the dark side. The hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts and Instagram shots that agencies and clients are pumping out into the atmosphere every day. The snackable with little to zero nutritional value.

Why is it so vital for brands today?

It’s funny but it used to be that creatives were the ones who, knowingly or not, seemed to think of advertising as entertainment. We might not have admitted it, but yeah, if you couldn’t be taking meetings with Spielberg then you could at least be creating these funny little commercials. What’s cool is that people are demanding stuff that’s entertaining and if I can make a connection between that and whatever it is you’re pushing, okay, fine. It’s more nuanced. Brands are going to keep making commercials of course, but the successful brands—the ones that aren’t in denial—are going to understand that if you’re not willing to entertain me, I’m gone.

What makes branded content a success?

In the end, branded content is like anything else in the current landscape of advertising. If a short film or a podcast or themed experience is going to work for a brand, it must convey the essence of that story, some underlying theme or belief, onto the brand itself.

Tell me about the pitfalls of branded content.

Because there’s still so much skepticism out there about how content can be successful, there’s a tendency, and it’s understandable, to get a bit too heavy handed on the branded side of the equation. It’s such a tightrope that you walk. Too heavy on the entertainment side and really, what’s the point of a brand being involved? It gets lost. Too heavy on the branded side, though, even a tiny bit, and you’re going to be shut out in a heartbeat. BBDO walked that tightrope well in its podcast, The Message for GE.  Because the storyline flowed organically out of actual GE technology, it worked well.

Should the brand always be part of the story?

Well, it is branded content after all. So yes, the brand must be part of the story. But like I’ve said, its place in the story must be as organic and as seamlessly positioned as possible.

How do you measure success with it?

The tough thing to swallow for a lot of clients is that they need to redefine their definition of success. Branded content isn’t going to move cars out the door or create a sudden demand for a new sneaker. In my opinion, branded content is joined at the hip with a brand’s purpose. For brands such as Patagonia or Disney or Harley Davidson, there’s a higher purpose than just making money. Propagating that purpose is where branded content can be most successful.

What are some examples of brands getting it right?

I mentioned GE and The Message.  CAA’s done a great job with Chipotle.

Can you tell me about a standout project you’ve done and why you think it works?

A couple of years ago, an agency in Istanbul brought me in to develop an interactive documentary that commemorated the Battle of Gallipoli, one of the bloodiest chapters in WWI. Sons of Gallipoli was different in that we told its story from the point of view of two mothers who had sons in the conflict. It worked because it got down into an emotional place that rarely happens with most films like this, which tend to be all history and no humanity.

Brands now sponsor movies. Is this the future of branded content? If not, where is it headed?

Truthfully, brands have a long way to go if we’re talking about feature films. It’s one thing to do a series of web episodes or a VR experience or something like that. But when you’re talking about feature films, all the challenges of making short content are made exponentially more difficult. You must remember that with short form, you’re still pretty much in the marketing space. But with a two-hour film, you’re now competing against other movies. If you can shoot a film like Moonlight and somehow have it branded at the same time, that is a huge accomplishment. Again, it’s extremely hard to pull off. I mean, if you look at the Transformers series or the Lego movies, that’s kind of easy since the brand is the story, everyone knows it and they’re cool with it. But it gets a lot harder when your goal is to produce an Oscar winner that just happens to be underwritten by Land Rover or Bank of America.

All that said, I do think there’s an enormous future for branded content in Hollywood. But it’s going to require a deep and intuitive understanding of where that line is between brand and entertainment. I’m also tremendously excited about VR and AR. We haven’t even begun to fully exploit the potential of both for branded content experiences. Can you say “holodeck?” We’re going to see something like that in short order.

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  1. Love these insights into branded content and film. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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