Viacom Is Creating a Full Division Devoted to Branded Content

Neils Schuurmans, Dario Spina will run the new unit

Viacom is doing at scale something that TV entertainment companies—especially those with a wide footprint in the unscripted world—are relying heavily on for growth: It's creating a full division devoted to branded content. (The Nickelodeon family of kids' networks isn't a part of this—those channels operate under very different advertising rules.) The new group is called Viacom Velocity and will work closely with the marketing divisions of every adult network in the Viacom portfolio, including Comedy Central, MTV, VH1, Spike, TV Land and BET.

The original content part of the unit—creative solutions, run by Neils Schuurmans, formerly evp of marketing and exec creative director at Spike—will serve partly as a think tank for new ideas. One example is Comedy Central's recent half-hour prime-time special with Kevin Hart—called Serve & Protect—which led into Hart's new movie with Ice Cube, Ride Along. The other part of the venture will be working with existing talent. Evp Dario Spina will head the integrated marketing half of the equation, working on content that "weaves in and out of our existing programming," as Spina puts it. Both involve a significant amount of production oversight, as well as air traffic control between very different brands.

"This is something we've been doing informally for the last few years and it's really reaching a tipping point of scale," said company ad sales head Jeff Lucas, who is also refreshingly frank about why the company is announcing the new unit now: "As we're approaching the upfront, we want to make some noise to get out there and broaden it." Indeed, it's a good time to formalize this setup—throughout television, it's harder every year to sell clients on a purely spot-based buy. Viewers skip ads, they pirate, they wait for the DVD set or the streaming air date, or they buy by episode on digital. But Lucas says this is the way forward. "We've spent years investing in content based on deep research," he told Adweek. "We can get closer to the creators of that content than anyone." (Both Spina and Schuurmans report to Lucas.)

Network executives at several companies have been trying to do this on different levels for years—a few years ago at NBCUniversal, Lauren Zalaznick (who left the company late last year) instituted cross-network demo buys for women and Hispanic viewers that forced the sometimes internally competitive NBCU family to play nice together when it came to pleasing ad clients. Ad sales president Linda Yaccarino created a "client solutions group" with similar aims in October.

Discovery purchased Revision3 last year in a bid to create more deeply branded properties that aligned with its existing linear networks; thus far its Animalist and Test Tube digital platforms (half-siblings of cable channels Animal Planet and Science) have yielded several sponsorships. And Turner has Funny or Die and a particularly deep client-network setup at Adult Swim—with the exception of reality, comedy content is the easiest to integrate.

But Viacom has been doing this sort of thing well and for a long time: Spike, in particular, has been a focal point—it does Dick Clark-style countdowns to the release of new Call of Duty games, and the whole organization united to promote Relativity's raunch-comedy anthology (which is poised to sweep the Razzies this year). Hey, the money's green.

So how will Schuurmans assemble the new team? "Some of it is just realigning people, but some of it is definitely bringing people in," he said. "It's just about rallying those folks and saying, okay, you're now working on dedicated creative content." And there are plenty of people at the company that were already working on just that. "The thing was that we felt like we were reaching a threshold in need of … dedicated creative resources."

The new group will have not only the traditional integrations and branded shows, but an entirely new group called Viacom Echo, assigned to disseminate branded product across social—and traditional, if possible—media. This is one of the least conventional ideas in the unconventional unit: have a social media strategy across your portfolio, rather than simply for each network. Spina said that the purpose of the structure is to give ad clients primacy: "Usually we have our media discussions first, and then we talk about what a custom campaign should look like," he said. "At the heart of all of this was the thought of bringing a marketing or content discussion [to] the fore."

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