Here’s the Problem with That Content Studio You Just Built

By Guest 

This is a guest post by Brian Tolleson, head of content at BARK BARK.

Great branded content is really tough.

I’ve been in this space for over fifteen years and the biggest mistake I’ve made, or seen other people make, is thinking that it’s simple: that if you just build the right machine and rent a cool space in Brooklyn, you can churn out effective branded content. This flawed assumption has also given rise to one of the greatest plagues of our time, “The Branded Content Studio,” second only to “programmatic advertising” in its destructive capability.


(I went to a programmatic conference recently where some salesperson actually said, “And then you just render the creative and all of your marketing is automated!”)

Render the creative. That’s where we are. And we wonder how we end up with painful “brand films” as pre-roll to terrorist videos on YouTube.

It’s easy to play armchair quarterback with Pepsi’s recent Kendall Jenner disaster created by their internal Branded Content Studio, The Creator’s League. My apologies for being opportunistic, but I think CMOs and marketers need to deeply process this moment. There’s been much discussion over what went wrong: corporate insensitivity, lack of women in advertising, a complete misunderstanding of what actual diversity means … all of which are probably true.

But I’d like to put most of the blame on the very concept of an internal Branded Content Studio.

There has been so much focus on finding the eyeballs with the pipeline, the media, the bucket, etc., that we forgot that what use to fill up the pipeline/media/bucket matters more than ever in so many ways, matters more than ever.

We’ve told ourselves that we can build internal brand studios with a bunch of new college grads and laptops who don’t have much content experience or knowledge of diverse storytelling genres. We pat ourselves on the back each and every hour of the day, thinking we can just “make stuff” and everyone will watch it and love it—voluntarily! We can just “render the creative,” hit send on our programmatic buy, and win.

This is not how content gets made. At all.

I’ve worked on Academy Award-winning movies, and I can tell you that real entertainment arises from deeply experienced professionals working in an inspiring, collaborative, challenging environment of their own creation (not a corporate cube). Real content creators are driven by passion, and taste, and such a discerning sense of what is meaningful to an audience, that they would never put their name on that Pepsi thing. In fact, that’s the one major difference … real creators have names.

There’s a reason that the lots at Universal and Sony and Paramount aren’t full of content farms. These studios have instead made deals with the most diverse and interesting content creators on the planet. Studios secure proven experts who know their genres and their audiences incredibly well, and they support those creators with resources and insights. In advertising, we are entering the era of content—and we need to look a lot more like studios than farms.

You cannot build an internal Branded Content Studio and serve anything more than your own ego. To build a real “studio” you need experienced creators with diverse opinions. You want the people making content for you to challenge your assumptions. Because if you breathe only the stale air inside your very own content farm, you might find yourself apologizing to Kendall Jenner, and to all of America, one day after you hit “send” on your “rendered creative.”

My takeaway: Let’s put creators back in charge of content creation.brian tolleson