"Twelve to 18 months ago, these deals seemed to be gaining momentum," says Levin, CEO of the 5-year-old Generate, part management/talent agency, part straight-ahead TV producer, and part branded entertainment shop. "But largely in the last three to six months, it has begun to pull back."
Coming out of the recession, TV marketers believed they needed to take chances in order to succeed, such as doing big branded entertainment deals. That focus has lessened, according to many observers, including Levin. TV marketers have seemingly gone back to what they believe works best: traditional TV and media marketing.
"In 2010, you might get fired for not trying new things," he says. Now things have returned to somewhat older ways: "No one gets fired for buying 'American Idol.'"
But Levin believes this is a mistake -- that in an age of fractionalization of media and tremendous shifts from baby boomers to younger consumers, many marketers -- especially with legacy, older brands -- need to invent new ways to get viewers engaged.
"Advertisers are seeking a return and to have greater control of their content," he says. "But they are not taking advantage." All this is something branded entertainment can do for them.
Still, Levin says a number of companies are forward-thinking when it comes to branded entertainment, for traditional media and new digital platforms. This includes Procter & Gamble, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Pepsi, Clorox, Coke, and some of the spirits brands like Grey Goose, to name a few.
Moving to engage consumers -- especially young consumers -- was a major part of The WB network, where Levin was CEO, as well as its programming chief. The young-skewing mini-network eventually became the CW. His network experience was the impetus to form Generate.
Over the past three years, Generate has produced 30 multiplatform branded entertainment campaigns, plus entertainment projects for cable.
One of the most visible was its TV production work for the advertising /programming vignettes it worked on for Group M's Mindshare Entertainment clients -- specifically Unilever, in connection with AMC's "Mad Men."
These vignettes were set in a 1960s-like advertising agency -- similar to "Mad Men" -- where creatives pondered campaigns for six brands: Dove, Breyers, Hellman's Klondike, Suave and Vaseline. They ran in commercial breaks during "Mad Men."
Among Generate's recent efforts are an overall TV production deal with CBS Paramount Studios; production on a cable TV series, two series in pre-production, and a four-comedy TV special deal through a joint venture with Warner Bros. Records; as well as continuing to build on its 175-client management business, which includes nine talent agents.
Branded entertainment projects are a key and profitable business for Generate. But because of its diversified businesses, it believes it can weather downturns in the market -- through recession or otherwise -- that put other companies in trouble.
Levin says branded entertainment is a massive juggling effort -- delivering to marketers' needs, as well as talent and distribution partners. "We recognize there are a lot of different masters to serve," he says.
But it has been a tough road of late in putting these deals together -- for all producers.
Many brand marketers have backed off from integrated branded entertainment deals -- pacts that can take months to put together. One reason is the lack of consistent metrics when it comes to looking at specific brand ROI for that media investment.
"It's a fair criticism," he says. "Brands can be spooked with bad experiences. But it just requires more work. If brands don't demand innovation in media they are going to lose the next generation of consumers."