Branded: A Fine Whine at Mad+Vine

Is branded entertainment going through a mid-life crisis? Judging by some of the sound bites at last month's Madison + Vine conference staged by Advertising Age in Beverly Hills, it appears that some of the leading proselytizers of the be revolution have traded in their rose-colored glasses for a few sessions on the analyst's couch.

It's hard to believe that nearly five years have passed since former Coke honcho Steve Heyer trumpeted his visionary manifesto for a brave, new branding world at the inaugural Madison + Vine event. The manifesto would mix the gene pools of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, for the mutual enrichment of both sides. Heyer laid out a scenario where advertisers would jettison the entrenched model of renting entertainment equity, in the form of 30-second TV commercials, in favor of creating their own in partnerships with the film, music, and TV industries. It had the same rhetorical flourishes of Reagan's "It's Morning in America" shtick from the 1980s.

"Collaborate or Die" was Heyer's incendiary challenge and everyone in the room at the Beverly Hills Hotel that sun-soaked February day lapped it up. And then guys like us, in our past lives as M+V editor and contributor, respectively, spent the next few years turning up the volume.

Fast-forward to last month, where a more sober tone prevailed. We dispatched the unofficial third member of the MPG Entertainment cabal, Jason Kanefsky, one of our top TV-buying execs at the agency, to L.A. to take the temperature on the state of the revolution.

Kanefsky, our resident killjoy, was struck by all of the hand-wringing: "One of the issues that was raised was just what is branded entertainment anyway?" He reported that branded entertainment was described at the conference as an "ever-evolving grab bag with no clear center."

Mark-Hans Richer, Pontiac's marketing director, was dubious about the validity of the term "branded entertainment": "Define a commercial. What's a show? What's a community? None of these terms means much now. They're mutating, and they will mean even less tomorrow." Richer must be talking to our friends at the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As), which recently changed the name of its branded entertainment committee to the entertainment marketing committee of which, by the way, we're active members.

Richer, who keynoted at M+V, didn't mince words in taking marketers to task for not capitalizing on the opportunities that exist for brands in the entertainment industry. He faulted advertisers for both a lack of discipline and a lack of courage. Richer was a driving force behind such headline-grabbing initiatives as the automaker's underwriting of the 2004 USA Network original film "Last Ride" co-starring Dennis Hopper and its GTO, as well as the G6 launch and giveaway stunt on "Oprah." Richer dismissed the snake-oil metrics of third-party vendors, who remained nameless during his homily, and said that spikes in brand awareness and recall metrics don't mean squat if they're not accompanied by sales.

"You can't be accountable to metrics that don't prove anything," Richer said, adding, "Find better ones, the ones that correlate with business results, both short- and long-term." Hmm. While we agree with Richer's basic contention that ROI on sales is the ultimate referendum on the success of any marketing program, we think he should cut marketers and their agencies, as well as content companies, some slack when it comes to accountability.

We hate to bring up the overused Wanamaker bromide - the one about half your advertising being effective but not knowing which half - but a lot of traditional advertising that's deemed "successful" has tenuous links to strict ROI definitions or sales. So for non-traditional entertainment marketing efforts, we beg to differ with Richer; we believe brands should be given credit just for taking chances and trying something new and that spikes in "softer" metrics like brand awareness and recall shouldn't be pooh-poohed. Richer deserves a lot of credit for being out front on these efforts, but a lot of brands don't have the scale and budgets (i.e., the cover) that Richer does at gm to take these kinds of risks. Let's not discourage them further by holding them to such strict accountability standards.

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