Indies, agencies and the battle for branded content

EITF VR booth

The audience was made up largely of “indies” – independent TV production companies to non-insiders. For the last 30 years British indies have bestrode the media industry globally, by being able to innovate with formats on UK TV and then selling the IP (intellectual property) around the world. Now the the digital revolution is disrupting TV – streaming Amazon, Netflix and iPlayer has almost edged out all broadcast TV watching in our house, and I suspect we’re not alone.

Indies, therefore, are looking at new models for generating revenue. One of those will be branded content, a business as old as broadcast itself – “soap” operas were sponsored by soap manufacturers, the Michelin Guide began in an effort to promote driving around France using up tires to find the best places to eat. But what – they ask themselves – will branded content look like in the digital age, and how can we make money from it?

It was a great discussion – and one that the panelists continued over lunch – because the five of us taking part in the discussion had diverse points of view. Although we didn’t manage to get an actual argument going on stage, we definitely had different perspectives. A mega-indie (Samantha Glynne from FreemantleMedia), a broadcaster’s branded content specialist (Jonathan Lewis from Channel 4), a leading branded video specialist (Selma Turajlic from Little Dot Studios), a digital native media company (Brandon Keenen from Buzzfeed) and a digital agency (me, from Brilliant Noise).

Here are the things that stuck with me – of interest to anyone in marketing and digital – as well as TV:

  • Who will win in branded content? Brands, of course.  This was a question from the audience and the nearest to a disagreement we got on the panel. My short answer was: brands. They’ll get what they need, and it may not necessarily be from TV producers. In brand marketing we see a panoply of agency species competing for the branded content budget. Creative agencies, media agencies, in-house agencies, content specialists – TV indies wanting that budget are going to need get ready to compete.
  • That’s different to asking – who will win in content? Consumers. While the bun fight for budget goes on, one very important constituency doesn’t care at all – consumers. Their antipathy to advertising in general (witness ad-blockers and the rise of ad-free streaming) may present indies with their biggest opportunities in the branded content market: they are able to produce high quality content and are more likely to be interested in audience development than reach (the latter being the default obsession of firms with advertising DNA).
  • There’s a big space in between several industries. Everyone thinks they can own it (maybe none will). As ‘branded content’ is claimed by so many competing players for their own, broadcasters and indies alike need to understand that their definition may not be the only one, and their competitors may be unlikely ones. Of the top five digital agencies in Econsultancy’s industry league table, three are management consultancy off-shoots (IBM, accenture and Deloitte).
  • Indies need to develop agency-like business models. There’s no reason indies can’t take branded content budget – and not just as commissions for broadcasters or media agencies. They need to understand the agency model to do this and to have the kinds of capabilities agencies do – including planning, data, distribution and most of, account management. The overhead of handling a client relationship can wipe out profit margins fast – something I heard direct from digital producers in the audience. Indies wanting to get into branded content in a serious way will need to develop internal start-ups and be prepared to spend about three years getting them up to speed. Or they will need to make like the management consultancies and buy agencies in order to get to market faster.
  • The concerns of incumbents can be distractions. As an outsider, I found it interesting that there was a lot of chat along the lines of “what about broadcast” and “is it Ofcom compliant”. For online content, these and other concerns that featured large when developing and selling formats to broadcasters may be distractions from getting to grips with the digital content market.