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Lessons from Kids at Play - an original branded content creator

Kids at Play is a Hollywood-based creative studio

The lines between branded content and entertainment are being continually blurred, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One of the companies making those lines a bit fuzzier in a good way is Kids at Play, a Hollywood-based creative studio that develops and produces television, digital, film and commercial content.

While not everything produced at the company is branded, Kids at Play is one of those companies that helped grow that genre and is able to play both sides of the entertainment coin, from syndicated and scripted shows to ad-driven branded content.

Driven by a passion for pairing strong talent with compelling stories, Kids at Play's in-house team of producers, writers, directors and editors focus on producing talent-driven projects and have created series, including Tiny Commando featuring Ed Helms and Zachary Levi, We Need Help with Cheryl Hines, Anthony Eats America starring Anthony Anderson, and others featuring talent such as Niecy Nash, Mitch Hurwitz, Judy Greer, Rob Riggle, Gillian Jacobs, Rachael Harris, Key & Peele and The Sklar Brothers.

Most recently the company produced 150 half-hour episodes for the syndicated talk show Me Time with Frangela, starring Frances Callier and Angela V Shelton, currently airing for the Gray/Raycom station group. Also, it created the bizarre scripted comedy series Rhett & Link’s Buddy System, Season 2 for YouTube Premium, among many other shows featuring genuine Hollywood talent.

Driving the growth of the company is founder and chief executive officer, Jason Berger, who started the Kids at Play in 2006 after working his way up the entertainment ladder.

From sleeping in cars to the executive office

After graduating from the University of Colorado, Berger said he got in his car and drove out to Los Angeles. “I lived out of my car,” Berger tells The Drum. He started humbly as a forklift driver on the Universal lot, while in his spare time he was moonlighting as a production assistant.

Being driven to succeed in the industry, Berger started doing some executive developing and worked on shooting sizzle reels for series and helping produce some shows.

At the same time, Berger says he has “always been close with creative directors in ad world”. He met CPB's Alex Bogusky in Colorado and stayed in touch with him. His brother was in the advertising industry with Ogilvy. “I was closer with creatives than producers and account people," he said.

Berger looked for a niche and saw a need for high-quality content. Working with others, he saw that he was not going to be able to do content for the budget they were being offered, especially with the red tape that goes into shoots. It was then that YouTube was starting to become something and Berger saw that the conversations in the industry were about CPMs (cost per mille, a term used to denote the price of 1,000 advertisement impressions on one webpage).

With the money starting to move into the digital space, Berger went out and bought gear and essentially became a one-man production show.

“I did interstitials for Mazda ... [video] banners you’d see on websites. Basically, I was the only one doing that. They were small paydays but the money was good for only one person – it kept me alive for a few months,” says Berger.

After that, he did some original programming for National Lampoon while subsisting off bread and tuna. As his profile grew for his online spots, he became a “go-to shop for that kind of content." His persistence paid off as he expanded his focus and his business, first creating original programming for clients and pilots sold to various platforms.

“We started original programming for AOL and YouTube, doing all the production for it,” says Berger. He worked with talent like Key & Peele, Judy Greer and others, forging relationships along the way. From there it switched back and forth to television and feature films, but he wanted to maintain the branded content space and use his relationships with creative directors to build that space.

Now, Kids at Play features a full-time staff, editing bays, and relationships to pick and choose the projects they want to produce with the star power to bring in viewers. The company creates some original programming that is heavily branded, like Lexus promoting a new car that could live on a Vicom platform, with the auto brand underwriting the series.

“It’s always about taking the entrepreneurial route of creating content, and blurring that line as much as I can. People want content. If it’s good content, it’s good content,” he says.

Partnering with brands and media

Kids at Play currently collaborates with writers, directors, producers, agencies, brands, and other entertainment companies to produce its programming. This includes partnerships with YouTube Red, Disney, FX, Comedy Central, Pepsi, Xbox, LG, Old Spice, Dunkin Donuts, eHarmony, Ogilvy, Spike, Bud Light, Vevo, Purina, Intel, Smirnoff and many other brands and media outlets.

While Kids at Play has worked on traditional big spots for Budweiser and Corona, those brands aren’t spending as much. Plus, Berger states that those big spots, especially Super Bowl efforts, can be exhausting. “All the legalities that come with traditional spot – you get beat up. In my world, I’d rather get Super Bowl eyeballs for not a Super Bowl budget. But I love doing the traditional stuff,” he says.

Berger thinks he has an advantage doing interstitials for brands and digital branded series, since he knows the creative brand side.

“Folks like Alex [Bogusky], Jeff Benjamin [Barton F. Graf], Andrew Keller [Facebook], Rob Reilley [McCann] ...they get it. The entertainment and brand industry hasn’t given them enough credit. These people shape the way that people think,” Berger says.

He sees opportunities for brands to be even more creative, and says they should look to those agency creatives to guide them.

“Brands are starting to understand. Consultancies are now guiding some of those conversations. It gives brands another way to look at content and gives them access to it. The same goes for networks now.”

In an era of cord cutting, brands have to figure out a way to be more nimble with their messages, Berger says, and a company like his can look at the data, with real time analytics, to make quick changes to the creative while keeping the message relevant. “(That) made me want to have all my stuff in house. We can look at the numbers and edit based on real-time…Brands are starting to get with it. That’s the next phase. There is tremendous opportunity for creatives.”

Berger is fortunate to have good relationships with the talent he uses in his films and branded content, and that talent knows that Kids at Play can give them opportunities to go beyond just being a character.

“The talent is realizing a chance to flex their creative muscles. They can come behind the camera and direct something, or write something that’s going to be made. They can control their destiny a little bit more,” he says.

The fact that these shoots often involve shorter amounts of time makes it less stressful on their schedules. “We do all the heavy lifting so they can have a good time." He notes that the company has worked with people like Eriq Lasalle, Taran Killam and Joe Manganiello in the director’s chair to help build their brands.

Berger states that Kids at Play is “platform agnostic”. The content, he says, will dictate where it can live. “I like that idea. It’s why we never took an overall deal somewhere…There are benefits from having your own pipeline, but being agnostic allows you to cast a wide net.”

Even though we’re living through a time of consolidation, with everyone getting squeezed monetarily, Berger sees plenty of opportunity.

“I love working with agencies and having that crossover,” he says, adding that he and the crew at Kids at Play are “still having fun.”

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