I've been this way since 1996. That was the year I joined TV Guide. Steve Reddicliffe, the newly minted editor of what was then the largest circulation magazine in America, had lured me away from Variety with the promise of a weekly column he dubbed “The Robins Report.” Six years at the “Bible of Showbiz” as its TV editor had burnished my brand with the industry -- or at least Reddicliffe thought so, and he wisely exploited it. Using my name in the column sent a message and didn't cost him a cent. He knew I wouldn't be the most-read column in TV Guide. Still, if I did my job, it would get the message to the networks and studios -- who represented a huge part of the magazine's revenue -- that Reddicliffe had someone working for him who understood their business.
It was during that period that I wrote about great examples of branded content, where advertiser, audience and network all won. Remember the AT&T Lifeline on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” How about the branded content/product placement that had those first “Survivor” contestants wear Reebok togs on its premiere season, sending the shoe and apparel manufacturer’s market share soaring? Indeed, CBS chief Leslie Moonves famously greenlit “Survivor” for an August launch only because of the prepaid support of Reebok and Frito-Lay, so there was no way the network wouldn't make money in the slow season.
I left TV Guide in 2004 to take the reins as editor in chief of Broadcasting & Cable magazine. I was fortunate enough to take my brand with me, and “The Robins Report” had a new home at B&C. In that column, I often wrote about great branded content success stories, such as the Ford music videos featuring “American Idol” contestants, and Home Depot's support of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." Producers, media buyers, networks and advertisers were finding innovative ways to partner and cut through the clutter, making compelling programming that was relatively DVR-proof.
For the past year I've been writing for Forbes.com. Repeatedly, stories I've been drawn to are terrific examples of branded content cutting through the clutter and forming that virtuous circle. One great example was a campaign by Clear Channel Outdoor and the Polaris Project during this year’s Super Bowl, with electronic screens in Times Square and elsewhere in the metropolitan area putting a glaring spotlight on the issue of human trafficking. It was a classic case of Clear Channel doing well by doing good.
In preparation for this column, I spoke with Doug Scott. A few month back, Doug joined William Morris Endeavor/IMG to head up its branded content division. A pioneer in the field, Doug did groundbreaking work in his last gig at Ogilvy Entertainment in the service of such clients as Hellmann’s, with a campaign featuring such superstar chefs as Mario Batali and Bobby Flay.
Doug believes -- and I wholeheartedly agree -- that the key to branded content’s working, forming that virtuous circle between producer, audience and advertiser, is “story.” Another essential element: taking advantage of technology and the wonders of social media and its ability to listen to the crowd. Don't take a position based on a small sample of a focus group. Be bold and hear the good, bad and indifferent, that “70 million people can tell you what they think of your brand in 24 to 48 hours.” If you are too manipulative and lack credibility, the audience will quickly call bullshit. I couldn't agree more, as I hope you will read here in the coming weeks.