Audi's Gritty Branded Entertainment Drives Sales, Traffic

AudiLook up the FX show Untitled Jersey City Project on, and you’ll see one of the site’s typical pages, listing the names of the director, stars, producers, etc. What you won’t see are the names of the agency (MediaCom), marketer (Audi) and network (FX) that teamed up to develop the original short-form series as a vehicle — no pun intended — for the 2012 Audi A6.

Billed as a “work-in-progress television drama,” the 16-minute show, parceled into two-minute episodes, which ended with a link to an FX-hosted site, aired on Sunday nights last fall during the network’s movie slot. The plot is classic fFX: An ambitious nyc architect with a great wardrobe and silver A6 discovers that his high-profile client, a developer on the Jersey City waterfront, has a secret worth killing for.

The show is classic Audi, too: upscale, stylish, full of flair and drama. But the product plays a supporting role, and a fairly minor one at that. With branded entertainment, entertainment comes first, brand second. “The A6 was part of the hero’s personality. It wasn’t meant to be a product placement,” says Benny Lawrence, Audi’s manager of media/brand innovation. Lawrence is no stranger to branded entertainment: She pioneered the concept when she was a partner at MindShare, working on Sears and Extreme Makeover: Home.

“When a brand is organic or makes sense in the storyline, it’s always smarter, and it always resonates with the consumers,” says Lawrence.

It certainly did this time. The campaign scored 62 million media impressions overall, and 5 million tv viewers in particular. The episodes rated 17 percent higher than the average spot on FX’s movie. And year-over-year sales of the Audi A6 soared 51 percent during that time. The rule of thumb — entertainment first, brand second — paid off.

“You may lose consumers by being too subtle, but you don’t lose viewers,” says Adam Pincus, managing partner and director of MediaCom’s content group. “Ninety-seven percent thought it was cool. They give the brand credit for making something interesting, and for not hitting them over the head with a big bag of brand.”

The “Untitled Jersey City Project” was more than a year in the making. Audi was looking for unique branding opportunities for the launch of the A6, and during planning talks for the 2011 upfront, MediaCom approached FX with the idea of partnering. “We needed to develop breakout ideas, and we wanted to do it with network programming,” says Pincus.

For Audi, it was a natural fit. “FX is a very innovative network,” says Lawrence. “It stands for very smart, sophisticated programming, and we know our customers watch it.” But it had to be the right match for FX for it to work. Pincus met with Eric Schrier, the network’s senior vice president for series development and Joe Shields, director of integrated sales and marketing — and left with detailed notes and a clear idea of the creative mission. The show had to look like fx and feel like Audi. It had to have glamour and grit, intrigue and affluence, style and drama. And it had to focus on design.

Real-estate development, in historically seamy Jersey City, seemed like the perfect setting. The cast of characters flowed from there: sinister client, femme fatale reporter, shadowy federal agent, a couple of goons, and the star, a hotshot architect who spends a lot of time driving through tunnels (in his new A6), taking punches and stepping over bodies.

Pincus, the show’s executive producer, made two critical hires: scriptwriter Peter Mattei (director of Love in the Time of Money) and director Daniel Minahan (True Blood, Game of Thrones, Grey’s Anatomy). Audi, meanwhile, set up a production company, Studio Progress Films. Throughout the development process, Pincus worked closely with both the network and with Audi. At times, the deep collaboration proved challenging. “There were partners with a lot of brands to protect,” he says. “It’s complicated. You have to walk a tightrope to do something that isn’t opinion soup.”

The ultimate challenge occured during production. Shooting took place in Jersey City on July 22, 2011 — the hottest day on record since 1931, with temperatures reaching 108 degrees in nearby Newark. The partners learned an important lesson that day from director Minahan: the secret to beating the heat. (Fill a baby Igloo cooler with ice. Pour Sea Breeze astringent into it. Moisten baby wipes with the cold liquid, and place them on your neck.)

Lawrence credits Minahan with far more than heat relief. “He was phenomenal to work with; he was really interested in the story,” she says. “Finding a director who understands and really got what we wanted to do was what ultimately made it as special as it was.”

Not to mention successful.

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