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Baby Cow’s Henry Normal: TV comedy has a problem and advertisers can solve it

Henry Normal takes to the Ad Week lectern

For all that ‘branded content’ and ‘storytelling’ have become industry buzzwords, one of the UK’s most successful comedy producers has urged advertisers to put their money where their mouths are and invest more in quality programming.

Henry Normal, whose production company Baby Cow was behind TV hits such as Gavin & Stacey, The Trip and The Mighty Boosh, told an audience at Advertising Week Europe on Wednesday that surprisingly few brands approach him about working together on content.

“We’ve got a problem with scripted comedy,” Normal said. “The budgets are getting less and less. 14 years ago when we made our first show for the BBC, Human Remains, we were getting more than we get today.

“We need advertisers’ help to solve that problem. All the programmes we’ve ever made, I don’t see why there shouldn’t be advertising in them. I’d put ads in them now.

“But in 14 years I’ve hardly spoken to any advertising people whatsoever. It would be great to talk. My door is always open.”

According to Normal, it is not just advertisers who have been slow to capitalise on content marketing and product placement, but also the television networks.

“It is being done very aggressively in cinema but TV is quite reticent,” he said.

“If you look at ITV at the moment the only product placement they’ve really got is in Coronation Street. It’s very limited. They are afraid of upsetting people I think.

“We’ve done three ad-funded shows in 14 years. In the next 14 years I’d love all our shows to be funded by ads.”

Instead of seeing content marketing as a quick-fix, Normal encouraged advertisers to play the long game and invest in quality shows that will have lasting appeal.

“Imagine if you put an ad for Walkers Crisps in Fawlty Towers, Only Fools and Horses or Dad’s Army. You’d have had a lasting campaign seen by millions.”

At the session hosted by UM Studios, Normal was asked whether all brands should consider content marketing and, if so, how they should take their first steps.

He responded: “There’s a million stories. As long as it’s a good story, it doesn’t matter what the brand is. With discussion we can find a story that fits the brand and a brand that fits the story.

“It’s all about trust. You’ve got to go to a producer you trust and trust them to do it.

“If you sell a programme to Sky or the BBC they trust you to do it. They don’t watch over us all the time. If you fuck up they don’t come to you again, so you don’t fuck up.”

One of the few advertisers to have sought out Baby Cow is Foster's, the lager brand which bankrolled the return of Alan Partridge in the web series Mid Morning Matters, and ultimately gave the character a new lease of life.

“Foster's came to us and said what have you got," Normal recalled. "We had a problem and they solved it.” From there, Alan Partridge returned to TV screens with two original Sky commissions and the North Norfolk Digital DJ then made his big screen debut in Alpha Papa.

Normal revealed that one of Baby Cow’s latest commissions is to produce a film about the tennis star turned fashion trailblazer Fred Perry.

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