The first panel at Monday's Branded Entertainment Forum held in New York debated that point, with Frank Cooper, chief consumer engagement officer at Pepsi, agreeing with his media collaborator, Michael Davies, president of Embassy Row: not yet. Jae Goodman, chief creative officer of Creative Arts Agency, argued that there have been successful product integration programs on TV even if no single program has convinced marketers to throw away their plane tickets to the upfront.
Cooper, who has spent the last two years relaunching Pepsi around optimism and positive change as well as consumers' participation in things like Dear Mr. President and Pepsi Throwback, said the problem has as much to do with corporate culture as media opportunities for brands.
He said his own job title -- chief consumer engagement officer -- says a lot about where Pepsi stands on branded entertainment and marketing in general. "We decided to change the title from CMO because that's the future of marketing: engaging consumers in meaningful experiences," Cooper said. "We felt we are in a brand marketing crisis. We saw that we had declining return in marketing investments, really getting less for the same expense. That led us into different kinds of storytelling -- different stories beyond 30 seconds." He pointed to Mountain Dew's "Dewmocracy" program as a standout example.
Embassy Row's Davies, who noted that his TV production company has been working on branded entertainment with Pepsi for the past 11 years, said the big story is that there has not been a real hit in branded entertainment yet -- no single example of a branded entertainment program that reinvents the paradigm of collaboration between brands and producers and how the media dollars flow.
"I just don't think there has been a game-changer, [one] that has changed the relationship between networks and marketers, that has moved people to shift dollars out of conventional [marketing] and put it into branded content," he says. "We can show examples and work, but no 'wow.'"
In response to an audience question on brand ownership of intellectual property (IP), Cooper and Davies said that until brands get ambitious about owning it, they won't be truly engaged in the platform.
Said Cooper: "I started as an entertainment attorney, so my first thought when I came to Pepsi was to look at whether there was a system set up for IP. We actually started a small project where we owned the content, and when we got a check in the mail nobody knew what to do with it. So we set up a separate entity for IP ownership. What will really change the game is [when] ownership of IP offsets marketing cost."
He added that structural problems are behind branded entertainment failures. "The walls have to fall so brands can talk to the producer, director or writer -- where the action is. "The problem is fundamental: you have large corporations full of MBA students taught to manage risk, not creativity."
Cooper, who this year pulled Pepsi out of the Super Bowl for the first time in years, says Pepsi's percentage of upfront dollars is at an all-time low. "Those dollars are being held back waiting for strategic relationships that add value to our brands." He said that does not mean the end of Pepsi's commitment to :30s.
On deck for Pepsi is a branded entertainment project that embodies a lot of what Cooper talked about from owning IP to value-added content. The short film project, "Legend of Talladega" by Terry Gilliam from "Monty Python" fame, will focus on NASCAR and its mythology.
"The brand is barely integrated into the content, but people will understand we are the studio behind it. If the content is great and the brand has provided a platform for great content and creators to do their thing, there will be conversation."