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Channel 4 jostles for branded content budgets on social: ‘We can’t leave money on the table’

Extreme Everest with Ant Middleton, an example of Channel 4 branded content

4Studio, a new in-house unit from Channel 4, is making a grab for the social-first branded content budgets currently claimed by the likes of Vice, BuzzFeed and LadBible. Jonathan Lewis, head of digital and partnership innovation at Channel 4, explains why he thinks it has a right to play with the digital natives.

4Studio is built upon the foundations of the slightly-less catchy Digital Creative Unit and launches at a difficult time for industry, with TV advertising spend likely to have halved. Furloughs and production cuts look to stem the hopefully short-term bleeding, but Lewis says he doesn’t want to ”leave money on the table”.

“The key thing for us at the moment is to stimulate the market in every way we can. Over the last 10 weeks, content creation for brands is one of the stronger areas of interest we’ve seen.”

The studio is tailored to engage the channel’s younger viewers, its future audience, while we’ve already seen a hint of what’s to come through linear branded shows Extreme Everest with Ant Middleton (Berrocca); Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds at Christmas (Age UK) and Suzuki’s All Star Driving School.

In taking on more briefs from brands and creating oven-ready formats, Lewis is supported by Sophie Lloyd, the former lead creative for branded entertainment at Mother who joined in January to take a hands-on role in linear, digital and social branded content. She previously helped deliver branded content campaigns for Stella Artois, Uber Eats, The Grand Tour (Amazon Prime) and the Elvie Breast Pump campaign in 2018. Matt Ford reports into Lloyd as the Leeds-based studio’s commercial lead, his past as commercial director at Unilad and spells at Vice and Social Chain are all indicative of the market Lewis plans to attack.

Why social?

4Studio looks to work with Channel 4’s commissioning team to create shows tailored for Channel 4’s (currently decade-high) young audiences. Beyond that, there are a few more lures, including the fact a social show is cheaper than one on linear or digital.

“It gives younger brands in particular the opportunity to actually afford a series of TV shows on Channel 4, and they like the scale of what we’re offering on social,” explains Lewis. Primarily these will run on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Snap, with no TikTok shows planned just yet.

In May, Channel 4 said it reached more than 100 million Facebook users, including 81% of 18-24 year olds and 74% of 25-34 year olds in the UK. In that time, it had more than 800m YouTube impressions. So social scale is not a concern.

Lewis points to its youth-focused, short-form factual series True Stories as an example of how it reaches this audience. It has hit 46m impressions across Facebook and YouTube since launching in February, and without getting dragged into the semantics of what a social ‘view’ is worth these days, that is huge.

While TV ad prices are historically low, it is clear that many brands are facing production issues right now, with animated spots and Zoom or at-home shoots, quickly growing old. 4Creative has been offering free use of its services to get clients over the line. So it appears there may be a surge in brands with content needs as Channel 4 looks to lower the barrier to entry and broaden the funnel of potential clients. After all, a social-first branded content show might next season find itself with a primetime spot if it delivers. “It is a two-way street and a new way to get brands involved at lower values.”

The expansion into social-first branded content is an obvious flex for Channel 4. For years, social media advertising has drawn spend from TV. Now Channel 4 is looking to recoup some of that. But digital natives such as Vice, BuzzFeed, LadBible and Jungle Creations won’t be pleased to hear of the new competition.

The move has been in the works for a while, however, with Lewis explaining: “We didn’t want this to be a small add-on, it could become central to the overarching future strategy around digitalization.”

Reluctant to criticise his new competitors, he points out that Channel 4 has long had a strong record on the content front and, more recently, on the branded content front. Its talent, IP and access will all be a draw. But it will be looking to stand above the standard market fare of virality (usually reliant of food, cats and hacks).

Channel 4 is selling content with a “strong sense of purpose at its heart”, says Lewis, and it may find that the ruthless viral machine isn’t overly fond of these ambitions. But, with the power of C4 behind it, perhaps these shows will find their audiences.

While its new rivals look to ramp up their agency-facing sides, having already mastered virality, Channel 4 is coming in the opposite direction. “We turn over more than £1bn of ad revenue a year, we’ve quite strong credentials in the ad marketplace and have relationships with all of the agencies – so why can't we just extend that out with an additional opportunity?”

Cooling down the fighting talk, he adds: “We’ve seen this market evolve over the last 12 to 18 months and seen that there’s a potential opportunity and space for Channel 4 to coexist in this market.“

Whether the budget pool is deep enough or whether this is merely lip-service to co-existence remains to be seen – you need only look at how The Hook, a smaller digital publisher making compelling, comedy branded content, went into administration and snapped up by Brave Bison to see that the market is more ruthless than ever.

If you’re keen for a look at 4Studio’s output so far, it soft-launched with a campaign for the National Citizen Service with five-minute films tailored for teens about hot topics like food waste and music therapy. Watch it here.

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