Branded: Now That's Entertainment

They had to go ahead and do it, didn't they? They just couldn't resist. Despite the legions of naysayers who questioned the wisdom of extending the saga of the cranky but lovable Geico Cavemen from 30-second ads to a half-hour sitcom, ABC Entertainment honcho Steve McPherson went ahead and flashed the greenlight.

Based on the lame clips that introduced the show at the ABC upfront in May, I'm wondering if he's having any second thoughts. Geico may be so easy that a caveman can do it, but trying to develop the next "Friends" or "All in the Family" - at great peril to a beloved brand personality - is a risky proposition, to say the least.

One press report noted "buyers nearly universally predicted [Cavemen] will be the first show on any network to get canceled."

Overall, this year's upfronts were humdrum, as the networks took a speed-dating approach to trotting out their new schedules, ushering buyers in and out in under an hour. With all of the posturing about commercial ratings and DVR-plus viewing, look for a long and protracted negotiation process that could drag well into the summer.

Last year the networks made a big deal out of their digital offshoots, but this year, while NBC touted its new online partnership with News Corp., it seemed that the networks are only focusing on monetizing their primetime schedules on the Internet - and not creating original Web content.

At least one marketer, however, is taking matters into its own hands. Packaged goods manufacturer Unilever is out front, leveraging the Internet with original content. While arch-nemesis Procter & Gamble is more apt to beat its chest in the press about new media, Unilever has arguably walked the walk more than its Cincinnati-based rival.

Everybody knows about the great digital work for Unilever's Axe brand, which included Webisodes and videogaming. A current effort for Suave, "In The Motherhood," illustrates the company's continuing enthusiasm for original online content. In a partnership with Sprint, Unilever has created a series of five-to-seven minute comedic Webisodes featuring "King of Queens" star Leah Remini on the rewards and challenges of being a mom. The shorts are at and have been promoted on msn's home page, on daytime TV and in People.

The Webisodes appear within a community environment with message boards and gaming. The other impressive aspect of this campaign is the user-generated content component. Unlike the flotsam and jetsam that dominate YouTube, Suave has taken the best anecdotes from real mothers and cleverly inserted them into the storylines of the shorts.

The end result is funny, acerbic and entertaining storytelling with the same production and narrative quality of a primetime network show. "Webisodes [in the early days] were written by ad agency creatives whose egos got in the way," explains Kevin Townsend, CEO of production company Science + Fiction, who produced the Leah Remini shorts. "We made a concerted effort that we work with established long-form content creators. Every time we write a Webisode, we want the quality where the piece could be looked at as a backdoor pilot for network TV." Townsend collaborated with Mindshare Entertainment executive David Lang in putting together the writing team, which included Jordana Arkin, a former "Will & Grace" writer, and Joan Weiss, whose credits include "Everwood" and "Gilmore Girls."

Townsend, who used to work at George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic, founded Science + Fiction in September 2001 as a dedicated branded programming and production outfit. It was a cataclysmic time for the advertising industry as well as for the country. And after six years, Townsend has built an online video track record, much of it on the back of Unilever with projects for Degree, Dove and Caress. He has attracted top-shelf Hollywood talent, including "Grey's Anatomy" star Kate Walsh and the producers of Fox's "24."

"When you look at 'In The Motherhood,' there's no media buy beyond the awareness campaign. Even with Leah Remini involved, it's still more cost-effective," says Townsend. "Unilever is all about margins. They're not going to take a flyer unless they know there's ROI. With those guys, we're beyond the experimental phase."

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