The Jury's In: the challenges of evaluating your branded content

Last year, the jury of the Branded Content & Entertainment(BC&E) category at Cannes Lions didn’t award a Grand Prix. As curator of the Best of Branded Content Marketing (BOBCM) ebook series, Justin Kirby, ‎VP, strategic content marketing at Tenthwave Digital contacted the people judging this and other international award shows in 2014 to find out more about the challenges they faced when evaluating BC&E nominations and what work they considered to be excellent. Kirby found from their feedback that there was still a lot of debate about what is and isn’t branded content, and how it’s different from advertising. This year, Kirby was invited to join The Drum’s inaugural Content Awards jury – given that there was no BC&E Grand Prix awarded at Cannes again this year – he chose to explore how the category had evolved over the year by speaking to others working in the sector. Here's what they told him.

As Somethin’ Else’s MD Steve Ackerman points out, it’s worth noting that BC&E is a relatively new category with a smaller pool from which cream can rise to the top: “With anything new the quality threshold can move very quickly, but it can mean that you’re starting at a lower place initially when compared to other more established categories like TV, Print and Outdoor advertising.”

Interestingly, Somethin’ Else describe themselves as a hybrid of ad agency and production company, which provides a glimpse of not only the different perspectives that come to the category judging table, but also the evolution of the agency model.

Little Dot Studio’s VP Nick Cohen represents another aspect of the disruptive nature of the category: his company is a content producer that’s also a new breed of broadcaster, distributing content across multiple platforms.

His feedback explains why branded content is necessary now: “I think [the BC&E awards evaluation process] is about what makes [the content] something the audience would seek out and engage with, rather than something that works well as a piece of interruptive communication.”

Cohen is on the same page as Pereira & O'Dell’s Co-founder and chief creative officer, PJ Pereira who thinks the best way of defining branded content is “something that’s worth the consumer’s time” rather than the buying of their time. This stretches the definition too far for others, because it could include a 30-second spot. Yet the secret to Pereira & O’Dell’s multiple award-winning success – including one of only two BC&E Grand Prix awarded at Cannes to date – is that they play through lines rather than create work that fits neatly into award categories.

Cutting across lines seems to characterise the category. BBDO Worldwide’s chief creative officer, David Lubars, who was president of this year’s Cannes BC&E jury, thinks the the award transcends category, because it represents what the industry now does in response to the way our consumption of content has changed and continues to do so.

He states: “It’s a hard category to define, and one that is inherently messy and foggy with no clear horizons because it’s horizontal.”

However, this horizontal nature can create confusion about what work should or shouldn’t be entered. For example, Lubars mentions that there would have been a Grand Prix awarded if Wieden & Kennedy London had submitted their ‘Other Side’ campaign for the Honda Civic Type R. It's reminiscent for Lubars of what he was trying to achieve before it was technically possible when he led the team behind BMW Films in the early 2000s, which was a defining moment for what has become the BC&E category.

Doug Scott, president of the BC&E jury at Cannes last year, reinforced feedback from Lubars about far too many entries being just long-form ads. This might be the result of what advertising is becoming, but it doesn’t represent what Scott thinks branded content is and where it should be heading.

“There’s more content being created today than ever before and we are seeing this grow year over year, but what we’re not seeing is the creativity being stretched in the way it has been with previous Grand Prix winners," claims Scott. "Not enough time is being spent developing original content that has a distinct brand narrative and extends across multiple consumer touch points. More importantly, agencies need to realise that branded entertainment is something that a consumer should seek and share rather than just gets posted, promoted and supported by a media buy.”

It’s interesting to note that Scott, who was former head of Ogilvy Entertainment, has moved to talent management specialist WME | IMG – another part of the changing media landscape that’s being redefined through the mergingof the advertising and entertainment worlds.

This fusion is reflected in the broadness of the Cannes jury make–up, which includes agencies, broadcasters, production companies and technology companies. Yet the winning work at Cannes and other international awards ismore often than not what Mediacom Beyond Advertising’s global head James Morris describes as “big culture moment ideas” that are executed across multiple platforms.

Video-based content lies at the heart of these campaigns, and this is reflected in the new Branded Film, Content & Entertainment award category that our Best of Branded Content Marketing partner, D&AD launched this year.

Award-winning examples set the standard by which content work is judged by brands, but in reality it’s only a thin slice of the breadth of work that’s being created. This is why the more content publisher/platform orientated world of ‘content marketing’ can seem very different from what’s considered to be excellent in the BC&E category. For example, not one of the people listed in reports about Top 100 content marketing influencers has ever served on an international award jury. That may just be a matter of time, particularly given that most publishers have now launched branded content divisions, but certainly publishers have been under-represented as jurors in the category to date.

But how one compares editorial-style content to more video-based branded entertainment isn’t immediately obvious, despite the rationale being the same, as Guardian Labs MD Anna Watkins explains: “We believe that successful branded content should be evaluated in terms of the unstoppable nature of the story through engagement, influence and shareability.”

In theory, sub-categories should help make the awarding of different content approaches more straightforward, however they often only add to the confusion by overlapping with other major categories and not always representing the reality on the ground, given branded content’s ubiquity and rapid evolution.

The Branded Content Marketing Association’s (BCMA) CEO Andrew Canter, who also sits on the Cristal Branded Entertainment Academy, thinks the Academy model may help address this:“Cristal has both an academy and a jury, the difference being that the academy has a more permanent group of experts from across the industry that advises on how to keep the category relevant as it grows and evolves. Its role also includes awarding the Grand Cristal with the Jury President, agreeing best of show from winners already chosen by the jury rather than shining a light on that one great, genre-redefining example like the Cannes Grand Prix.”

All these issues about the challenges juries face are a reflection of an industry having to rethink what it does, how it does it and why. It's this aspect of award shows and the BC&E category that’s most interesting to me. Anathea Ruys, who heads up OMD Fuse Asia Pacific, captures some of this when talking about the experience of judging the category at Cannes this year: “It was great to have such a broad group of people with different backgrounds and focuses, because it meant there was a lot of good debate about what everyone was looking for.”

Ruys thought this was really useful, because what is and isn’t a great example of branded content is not always cut and dried, especially when you’re judging sub-categories. Jurors have to look at a lot of work, hence She recommends that anyone trying to improve their chances of winning awards by entering work into multiple sub-categories should clearly explain the work’s specific relevance to each sub-category.

Judging by these views and the huge take up of content marketing services, not to mention the appearance of so many service providers within just a couple of years, the industry maybe on the cusp of where marketing is heading next.

Justin Kirby is VP, Strategic Content Marketing at Tenthwave, curator of the Best of Branded Content Marketing (BOBCM) ebook and event series, and jury member of The Drum Content Awards.

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