Major media companies are uniformly turning to branded or native content as a revenue generation strategy. Brands too have become content creators as they seek to engage with major audiences away from the one track focus of major ad campaigns. The Drum's online editor, Stephen Lepitak talks to one media company that has cracked working with brands when he spoke with Funny or Die while visiting New York.
It's a well known advertising strategy that audiences react favourably to messages that make them laugh, so it's no surprise that online media brand Funny or Die (FoD) has become successful in following the branded content wave of recent years.
The Drum meets the company's vice-president of branded entertainment, Chris Bruss in the Manhattan offices of Turner Broadcasting, a minority shareholder in FoD, which since investing has also begun to run its sales operations. The main company, of course, is run out of the former United Artists studio in Hollywood, giving it direct access to some of the most famous names working in comedy and the silver screen today.
We meet in a colleague of Bruss' office in the Turner Building. He has just arrived in town ahead of participating in a panel session as part of Advertising Week New York on the very topic we will discuss – how he and FoD are working with brands to create entertainment.
Bruss claims on a few occasions during the proceeding 40 minutes that he has seen a growing sophistication among brand partners when it has come to content creation. He extends that development to those working with himself and his branded content team on the buyer side also, and as the company has expanded its own content to include web series, live events, comedy tours and non-video, so has its branded offering.
"It’s usually pretty holistic where they show us their TV and print activity and what they are looking for is a piece of content that will fit into that and compliment whatever it is they are doing," explains Bruss of the approaches the company now receives to support advertising campaign activity.
"We all sit in the writers' room and brainstorm to come up with a bunch of ideas and we send our best ones over to the buyer. That could be a media buying agency or a PR firm or client direct work. Hopefully they like one of those, then we refine that a little bit and go through the process of writing a script, shooting it and editing it and taking that piece of content and releasing it in the same way that we would release any other content we were making. That’s the native part of it."
FoD then places that content for a period on its homepage and distributes it through its various social media platforms, including a Twitter channel of over 8.5 million followers and over 10 million likes on Facebook never mind huge followings on Pinterest, Tumblr and other branded platforms it can turn to.
However he admits that despite the results the company has already achieved with brands, engagement can still never be guaranteed. "We've been doing this for a while; we know our audience pretty well and we try to make sure we know the brand really well before we move forward with a job. We never try to throw away money but there have been instances where someone has told us what they wanted and we've offered our own version, and if they say no to that we might tell them not to partner with us. We recognise what isn't going to be well received by our audience."
Bruss offers up a recent example of a campaign for Fiat Chrysler that featured FoD co-founder Will Ferrell as his eponymous character Ron Burgundy from the Anchorman movies promoting the Dodge Durango as a potential branded content archetype for the future.
"They have given us a lot of creative freedom but the brand is pretty fun as well," he says of the brand and its chief marketing officer, Olivier Francois, as well as the work of its agency Wieden+Kennedy.
"We wrote 30 scripts with Wieden. We shot 25 scripts and once everything was edited we had so many different versions of everything that we had around 70 spots. Of those 70 spots, 23 were broadcast on air into people's homes like Ron throwing eggs at a car. In addition, they went online. There were probably another at least 15 to 20 that were online only. That's about 50 peices of content used in total," Bruss reveals, highlighting the flexibility of how such content can be created and shared. He adds that the budget for such work can be divided with the above-the-line budget and can be created at the same time as a TV campaign when all the ingredients are already together in place, although the time to shoot is far shorter, he also concedes.
Creative control and copyright for each piece of work is retained by Funny or Die, however the company is only too aware this does not mean it can go off and does what it likes once commissioned.
"It should be a mutual thing," he says.
"It’s a nuanced process and it does fit somewhere between our editorial content and a brand’s TV commercial shoot. Although our name is on it and it’s going on our homepage. We’re going to use our social channels to reach our 20 million social followers that we have worked our asses off to trust us, and we’re going to say ‘check out this cool thing we made with this brand’ and we want to be proud of that piece of content. You can’t just tell us what to do," he qualifies.
As to YouTube, Bruss says it is not a main priority as a platform for FoD, but it is used as "a second window", with FoD preferring to populate its own website with its video content. Instead the company looks for brands to place their branded content on their own YouTube channel and websites for an agreed period and treat it as part of its own overall marketing collateral.
He also reveals that while Vice Media, another major online video content player, may be a competitor at a base level when it comes to branded content deals, the two have rarely battled for a brief.
Finally, asked where he sees branded content heading, Bruss says that he believes sophistication levels will develop as more brands start to understand the process.
"They don't just come in and ask for anything they like, but they are also going to be assertive," he says. "They understand that it's a two way street and they are getting much more sophisticated in how they are going to distribute content and how they will frame it to their audience as well as our audience."