David Lang, the Entertainer

NEW YORK Branded entertainment is one of the ad industry’s fastest-growing sectors. According to Veronis Suhler Stevenson, the sector grew roughly 15 percent in 2007 to $59 billion and will reach $84 billion by 2010.

In November, MindShare promoted David Lang, 45, to president of its branded content division, MindShare Entertainment. If there were any doubts that the agency’s leadership believes branded content is a top priority for clients, MindShare North America CEO Scott Neslund put them to rest when he described the sector as a “cornerstone” of the agency’s offering to clients.

Q: Did they give you a big fat pay raise to go along with the upgraded title?
A: No comment. But I’m very happy.

MindShare CEO Scott Neslund describes branded entertainment as “a cornerstone” of the agency’s offering. Is it really that vital to clients’ strategies?
The whole area is growing by leaps and bounds. It has raised its level of visibility and is definitely more important within the agency as a whole and to our clients. Four or five years ago we couldn’t do what we’re doing today.

Was branded entertainment a cornerstone of the offering when you arrived two-and-a-half years ago?
No. A lot of things have changed in that time: broadband hitting critical mass; fragmentation; clutter has worsened. There is a lot more noise, and marketers are looking for new and different ways to reach their consumers.

Cornerstone implies that it’s not really an option, doesn’t it?
In this new world, having a strong offering in the branded content world is really important and critical and is something you can do for clients to make them stand out in the marketplace.

How many MindShare clients are doing it?
Many of the major clients—everybody from Unilever and Sprint to American Express to IBM, to just name a few. With Unilever alone I think we’ve worked with eight or nine brands. So it’s been a lot of different companies and cultures and a lot of fun.

What’s the most challenging project you’ve done and why?
“In the Motherhood,” because we brokered a marketing partnership between two of our biggest clients, Sprint and Unilever. It was challenging because we were dealing with two companies, two sets of approvals and two different cultures. So bringing them together, producing great content and achieving each company’s goals and objectives made the process much more challenging but, in the end, that much more rewarding.

Do you have any other projects in the works combining two clients?
We do have a couple in the works, but none that I can speak to right now.

How did you get into content production?
I was a sociology major at UCLA, but I got all my practical experience outside the classroom. I was sports director of the UCLA radio station and did two years of play-by-play for UCLA football and basketball. I was also sports editor of the paper, The Daily Bruin. After school I was an on-air sportscaster in Fort Smith, Ark., and then I got into producing for TV.

What was your first production job?
At that same station, for a sports final show. At the end the show there was a segment for expanded features, and I loved doing them. What happened was I caught this storytelling bug. They were three minutes long and I wondered, “What if there were 30 minutes or 60 minutes to tell a story?” Then I got a job at Universal Television, and that’s how I crossed into the entertainment world. Ever since then, storytelling, writing, producing and directing have all been huge passions.

Who’s your favorite film director?
I love Spielberg. I just think he’s done fabulous work.

What’s the difference between producing traditional and branded content?
Nothing. They both have to be quality, compelling entertainment for the target consumers. It doesn’t matter who underwrites. What matters is that you’re producing high-quality stuff that consumers are not only engaged with, but that they’re enjoying.

It wasn’t that long ago that Hollywood producers by and large rejected incorporating branded messages into their programs. Is that still the case?
No. In the past people were afraid that by putting a message in there you’d take the purity out of the creative or the vision. I think we’ve proven over time that you can create compelling entertainment that incorporates a brand message or position without hurting the quality of the content. There will always be some who will be against it, but we rarely hear that anymore. We have top-notch writers, producers and directors wanting to do business with us because, fortunately, they see the level of what we do and they know they will be involved in a great piece of work.

Where do you get your creativity?
From my mom. My mom is an accomplished composer. She was a child prodigy. She’s a musician and composer.

You were a producer for The Rosie O’Donnell Show. How many years did that take off your life?
I worked for the Rosie show for one year. She was great to me, she really was. I worked in her field department doing set-up pieces, and that’s how I won my Emmy.

Before joining MindShare you were at Broadway Video, Lorne Michaels’ production company. What did you do there?
I created and executive produced television shows. Lots of stuff for cable. I wrote and directed documentaries, produced music shows, comedy, talk, reality, all sorts of stuff. What I love the most is telling great stories and the creative process of bringing that to life. Broadway Video was a great place to work and a great platform to create and produce.

Who are your mentors?
My grandfather. My mom’s dad, no question. He was one of the most special human beings I’ll ever meet. Smart, compassionate and kind.

What did he do?
He was a lawyer. He was 10 minutes away from me growing up in Marin County, Calif. I spent a lot of time with him.

How about your mom and dad?
They have been a tremendously positive influence on me and are two people I deeply respect.

Did your family try to steer you in a direction career-wise?
No. My dad never pressured me to be a doctor or anything like that. Both my parents just said do what’s going to make you happy.

What’s the most fun you’ve had working on a project?
Well, let’s break it down. In college, doing play-by-play for UCLA-Notre Dame basketball in South Bend or doing play-by-play for the Rose Bowl. Those were absolute highlights. As a 21-year-old kid being able to do that, and you’re sitting next to guys who are 40, 50, 60 years old, it makes you feel extremely lucky. And traveling with a team for two seasons, both football and basketball, is just an experience I will never forget.

How about post-college?
At Broadway Video we were doing a music special with Paul Simon and John Mayer. I was with the two of the them before the show, and they were just riffing and rehearsing and going through the classic Paul Simon songs. And I was watching these two brilliant musicians in their own little world. It was fascinating.

How about at MindShare?
Blowing up a truck with an 80-foot fireball. That was fun. It was for [branded micro-series] “The Rookie” for [Unilever’s] Degree. That was like I’m a little kid and I’m blowing up a truck.

I’m assuming you did that in one take.
Yes, there was no second take. All cameras were rolling.

Which medium best lends itself to practicing your craft?
I don’t think one is better than another. It depends who the client’s target audience is and what their goals and objectives are.

Which producer/director have you had the most fun working with?
That’s a hard one, but Penny Marshall was a kick and a half, absolutely brilliant. She directed Dove’s “Calming Nights” with Felicity Huffman. Going back to her house and seeing her sports memorabilia collection is something I’ll never forget.

What’s the most ridiculous branded content proposal to ever land on your desk?
Too many to count, I couldn’t even pick one. Some of the stuff we get isn’t quite based on insights or analytics or brand positioning, so sometimes they get a little wacky.

What’s the best piece of branded content you’ve seen, outside of your own agency’s work?
I would say BMW Films. For its time it was amazing. Think about if someone were to do that today how different it would be because of how different technology and broadband and the world are.