The Inside Job

NEW YORK On the Independent Film Channel, a short film shows international soccer player Thierry Henry standing in an old, romantic square in Barcelona, Spain, fielding questions from fans. Occasionally, the screen cuts to shots of Henry at play, bouncing a soccer ball on his head or kicking it down an alley. Behind the camera is Spanish actress Paz Vega (Spanglish), making her directorial debut.

The film, part of a series called “Framed,” launched last December and runs through March. Consisting of 30-minute segments showcasing top athletes and first-time directors, it also lives online through a deal with Yahoo Sports that showcases elements such as outtakes. But more interesting than the show’s mix of talent and platforms is its provenance: “Framed” was conceived and co-produced by Reebok Entertainment, the sports apparel brand’s in-house division, which launched this past winter.

Although a handful of companies — most notably Procter & Gamble — have a history of producing original content in the analog space, the industry’s increasing emphasis on digital has encouraged a new crop of brands, including Reebok, 1-800-Flowers.com, Anheuser-Busch and Dell, to commit to in-house content creation.

Brands, of course, have more control over their messaging when they do it themselves. “These divisions are partly about “not leaving it specifically up to an ad agency to say, ‘Here’s what we think your message should be,'” said Mike Goodman, director of digital entertainment at The Yankee Group.

Todd Krinsky, vp of sports and entertainment marketing for Reebok International, added, “There’s so many more ways for consumers to ignore traditional advertising. If you’re going to be on the cutting edge of communication, you need other creative ways to communicate with your consumers.”

“Framed,” Reebok Entertainment’s first project, is produced in partnership with Carat/MY Entertainment and Roadside Entertainment. In addition to Henry, subjects include basketball player Baron Davis, whose short film (they’re about three minutes each) was directed by actress Emmanuelle Chriqui (Entourage), and baseball player David Ortiz, paired with first-time director and commedian Carlos Mencia. Reebok is planning to do a second season, and is considering adding a mobile component.

Another new, in-house content-creation division is 1-800-Flowers.com’s Connect 7 Productions, which launched last month with two YouTube Valentine’s Day video contests. Headed by production industry veteran Bob Nastasi, vp and senior executive producer, the division also has a post-production facility.

In a twist, the online gift retailer is creating content for itself, as well as other advertisers. Nastasi said one of the first projects, a 30-minute branded-entertainment cable show slated to air within the next six months, is for another advertiser, which he declined to name.

“The next wave of e-commerce could be called social media,” said Chris McCann, president of 1-800-Flowers.com. “We’re trying to figure out the best ways to connect to our customers the way they’re connecting with people online.”

The growth of digital platforms spurred Dell to create an in-house content-creation division in late 2006, when it launched Studio Dell on its Web site. Studio Dell creates how-to videos and (non-entertainment) content for consumers on a variety of complicated subjects, such as virtualization (a technique for hiding the physical characteristics of computing resources from the ways in which other systems, applications or end users interact with them).

“We see video as being mainstream … part of the purchase path when [a consumer] makes a decision,” said Bob Pearson, vp of community and conversations at Studio Dell. The videos are being used not to sell a product, he added, but as tools to build brand loyalty. In 2007, he noted, Studio Dell produced several hundred video logs (vlogs) and plans to up that number over the course of 2008.

Last year, recognizing the growing importance of digital content, some of the major media companies created online networks to connect to consumers migrating elsewhere. CBS created the CBS Audience Network, signing multiple agreements with major Web portals including AOL and Yahoo. And NBC and News Corp. jointly created Hulu.com, an online video-on-demand service and video-sharing platform.

Last year also saw the creation of Bud.TV, an online, 24/7 branded-entertainment network from A-B. The brewer was arguably the first advertiser to dedicate a high level of resources — an estimated $15 million — to creating digital content, according to industry analysts. A-B has experienced a good deal of public scrutiny and negativity for its efforts. One of the biggest criticisms was the site’s structure as a “destination” that kept its content on the site. Brian Terkelsen, evp and managing director of Connective Tissue, the branded entertainment division of Publicis Groupe’s MediaVest, noted, “They should have been focusing on great liquid content — content that can travel anywhere.”

Keith Levy, vp of brand management at A-B, said the firm has been addressing such concerns: “The important thing is creating the content and putting it out there — and not being too specific with consumers on how they use it. How they utilize it is an important part of how you learn as a marketer, too.” He added the company would continue to produce original content — capitalizing on its sponsorship relationships with organizations such as Major League Baseball — as well as aggregate from other sources.

Dell understands the need for traveling content. Studio Dell outsources its video components to Newsmarket, a video and archive distribution platform that creates professional broadcast-quality video for journalists.

As more brands begin to delve into the content space, does this mean they’re morphing into media companies? In part, yes. Said 1-800-Flowers.com’s Nastasi: “You can’t just hang your hat on doing TV commercials anymore.”

The move to produce more projects in-house raises another question, one of more importance to the brands themselves: How effective will the messaging be?

Eric Hirshberg, president and CCO of Deutsch/LA, noted that Grey Goose’s branded Sundance Channel series, Iconoclasts — produced by Grey Goose Entertainment — “may not be the most successful effort.” The show, which pairs personalities such as news correspondent Christiane Amanpour with actress Renee Zellweger, is well done, he said, “but I don’t know that people outside of marketing know this is a Grey Goose property. That’s a situation where there’s no natural role for the brand in the content, so it becomes a gift from the brand.” Consumers, he added, need to know where the gift is coming from.

“The word we’ve always tried to use is organic,” noted Reebok’s Krinsky of “Framed.” In constructing the series, the company opted to integrate its product by having its athletes and, occasionally, the films’ directors, wear Reebok apparel. “It’s not blatant,” said Krinsky. “We want to keep viewers engaged.”

While competition could conceivably grow between marketers’ in-house divisions and agencies, collaboration across the ad industry is still considered key by most involved. Reebok, 1-800-Flowers.com and A-B, for instance, utilize agency services for media placement, traditional advertising and areas such as ideation, communications planning and, in many cases, production.

Scott Goodson, CEO and founder of StrawberryFrog, sees the changes being wrought as positive for the industry.

“Thank goodness it’s no longer the traditional monolithic model where you had the holding companies on one side, the clients on the other, with only one way to do things,” he said. “At StrawberryFrog we have developed branded entertainment that’s partially created by us, but moreover, created by consumers themselves.” And, he said, the shop often works with clients that have in-house capabilities. “Often there’s collaboration,” he said. “They’re looking for us to help them, for example, on communications planning and areas they may not have expertise, like brand strategy.”

Added David Lang, president of MindShare Entertainment: “I think it’s great that brands want to increase their level of intelligence and capability in this space. But, I think one has to be a little cautious. To have the right creative with the right executional capabilities and the right leverage in the marketplace takes a lot of people and a great collaborative effort.”