Kevin Townsend On The Spot

When the managing partner and founder of San Francisco-based Science + Fiction watches television, he doesn’t pay much attention to the advertising. Yet the branded entertainment executive, 46, has been blending brand message and TV content in such high-profile projects as The Rookie: CTU, a co-marketing partnership between Fox’s 24 and Unilever’s Degree Men, for which he wrote and executive produced original content. A former vp at Lucas Digital, Townsend, married and the father of four, is also a retired member of the Guardian Angels. –Q: Consumers are getting savvy about branded entertainment. Should we expect the same fast-forwarding they do with spots?

A: The new 800-pound gorilla is somebody that’s half copywriter, half scriptwriter—a person who can balance marketing and advertising with character development. Those are the people that hit the sweet spot, so you won’t get people flipping through branded programming.

Are big agencies stumbling in the branded-entertainment arena?

The reason Science + Fiction exists is because the big agencies have not responded. Advertisers turn to them for solutions and, this is a generalization, the big agencies said you should do more 30 second [spots]. … It’s not about online or DVD or television, it’s about the skill set to create engaging stories and characters that have longevity. … They have stumbled.

Can you point to some examples?

You look at Crispin. They do good stuff, but you would hope that some of the bigger agencies would have reacted a lot sooner. I think advertisers just finally said, “You know what, forget it.” More than two times we’ve been brought in to create programming and the creative agency has been asked to step out of the room [after being told] your presence here is more destructive than it is helpful. … That’s because advertising agencies are unprepared for the tectonic shift that happened. … Look at the latest Degree-24 stuff—there’s a support advertising campaign, but the major distribution platform is online and that’s controlled by Unilever.

I was going to bring that up because it’s driving traffic through a spot on network TV.

Well, I would beg to differ. I’m not going to discount the validity and the effectiveness of the campaign, but I think that to say that’s the main reason or the only reason would be to underestimate the online social networking aspect. Degree and 24 share an audience and … once we tap into that audience, then the great thing about what’s been created is it’s very portable. I can tell you about it and you can tell your friend about it and I can access your network and his network. …The strength of online is your ability to create concentric and almost never-ending distribution channels.

How do you work with the agencies?

To the extent that a creative agency will understand that this is our world, not their world, we’re happy to work with them.

What inspired you to get into advertising?

I started in the commercial production business and I had the good fortune to work at Industrial Light & Magic [a division of Lucas Digital]. They didn’t work on run-of-the mill commercials, and we ended up having deeper relationships with the advertisers and agencies. In the mid-’90s, as I started to work with advertisers more, I realized that they were not 100 percent informed as to the changing technology. I kept up my contacts because I knew they were going to need solutions. … In 2001 we looked at the marketplace and we said what it needs is a hybrid between an advertising agency and a film studio.

Your first branded entertainment was for Red Bull. What was the financial structure?

Well, I can answer that question in general. The value of your company is based partially on your revenue, and partially on your ancillary revenue and value. So if I had intellectual property, and I do on everything that we create, then there’s partial ownership that’s always discussed on every project that we do.

What’s the most disappointing trend you’re seeing in branded entertainment?

People thinking that brand inclusion is branded entertainment …. That’s Hollywood’s dark little secret. They’ll open the door just wide enough to grab the check and then slam it again. They want the money, they don’t want the inclusion of the advertisers. … The challenge here is find the appropriate middle ground.

Besides your own, what’s the best branded entertainment agency out there?

Some of the big holding companies like Interpublic and Omnicom have branded programming groups, and they were smart to be early in and leverage the power of being at the intersection of the brand in planning.

What’s the most overrated advertising campaign out there now?

I don’t know—I don’t watch them.

What’s your dream assignment?

A brand to say, “We want to make a feature film that is completely story driven.”

What would you be doing if you weren’t in advertising?

I’d probably be coaching football and boring kids with stories. I firmly believe that my ancestors were guys who were carving things on cave walls or typing things out on a telegraph. I just happen to have a better digital palette than anybody else, so I’m able to tell stories in a better way.