“It Just Has to be Good”

August 9, 2013 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Thinking branded content in a jargon-free interview with Caspar Delaney.

Caspar Delaney knows branded content pretty well, even if has a problem with the phrase (unfortunately nobody’s found a better one yet). As Executive Producer at RSA Films, he’s worked on some of the most high-profile online film projects for brands.

In 2010 he produced the innovative Parallel Lines films for Philips, which asked several successful directors to interpret the same six-line script. They were a YouTube sensation and met all the commercial criteria that Philips had set, and picked up a Grand Prix at Cannes.

Two years later he worked on a series of online promotional films for Ridley Scott’s sci-fi blockbuster, Prometheus. Unlike trailers, these gave fans anticipating the film a chance to view exclusive content and get to know a bit about the characters in advance of the film’s release.  Two D&AD pencils and a Cannes Gold Lion followed.

Most recently, Caspar produced a short film called Desire, starring Damian Lewis, made to promote the new Jaguar F-Type. Of course it features the car driving fast through the desert, but it’s certainly not a commercial. It’s 13 minutes long for a start.

We caught up with him to ask where he thinks branded content is heading, now it’s no longer in its infancy.

The Beak Street Bugle: Why should brands make online branded content?

Caspar Delaney: Gate crashing a party is never as good as being invited. What advertising has done is gate crash people’s living rooms. And brands continue to see the value of it: despite the huge changes brought about by new technology and proliferating media, it still makes business sense. It still works. But it’s a lot more difficult to get it right than it was in the good old days when one spot in the middle of Coronation Street would get you eighteen million hits. Most ad money is spent on brand advertising, which is not designed to get you leaping out of your armchair and rushing off to the late night shop. It’s designed to make you feel well disposed to the brand; to establish and build a relationship. When consumers are invited to seek out a film and they accept the invitation, a two-way relationship is created which is stronger and more durable than the gate crashing model could ever hope to achieve.

Now I’m obviously not suggesting that branded content is about to replace TV commercials. But there is a whole generation out there that is already spending more time on Facebook and YouTube than watching TV. That can only mean that branded content is set to take a bigger slice of the marketing cake.

BSB: You’ve got some impressive numbers on the branded content you’ve worked on. What are the important factors in getting the hits?

CD: The objective is for the content to go viral. People tell their friends to check it out and the word spreads. This is clearly not going to happen if the content doesn’t have something special: creativity, originality, topicality or combinations of these and other qualities. That’s rule one. If you don’t get that right, nothing else matters.

But no matter how good it is you can’t just put it out there and hope for the best. You need some finely crafted PR to get the ball rolling. Of course it helps massively to have celebrities. Damian Lewis was in our Jaguar film. He’d just won a Golden Globe, was on the front page of most lifestyle magazines, if not most newspapers, around the world at the time, which of course was an incredible advantage. It created an amazing buzz and he delivered an audience.

Similarly with Prometheus. If you can say “this is about Ridley Scott’s upcoming movie” Ridley fans around the world will seek you out. If they then find that one of these short films stars Guy Pearce and another one Michael Fassbender and yet others Noomi Rapace and Idris Elba, then the whole thing begins to take on a life of its own. Long before Prometheus was premiered untold numbers of people felt an engagement with the movie and were frequently acting as unpaid cheerleaders for it.

Of course, once the dust has settled and everything has gone to plan it would be easy to conclude that Damian Lewis or Ridley Scott’s name more or less guaranteed success. After all, TV commercials have always used celebrities to grab attention. And even the most awful, irritating commercials (which sometimes feature celebrities) can achieve a modicum of success simply by gate crashing the audience and hammering the brand name into the viewer’s brain by sheer repetition. But with branded content a celebrity can only be a jumping off point. If the film doesn’t have enormous appeal in its own right then it’s dead in the water - it won’t go beyond its initial audience. And if you get it badly wrong a volatile and capricious internet audience may ensure that it does more harm than good.

BSB: Why isn’t everyone creating online branded content?

CD: Well, it’s still evolving and many brands are holding back, trying to work out how it might work for them. But for others (Philips, Prometheus and Jaguar are all good examples) the benefits are a lot more obvious because of their target markets.

Philips is a cutting edge tech company. Many if not most of the people it needs to reach are moderately heavy internet users: the type of people who would be aware that these films were coming up and were waiting to see them.

Likewise Prometheus. The Alien franchise has a substantial fan base and again they were the type of people who were tech-savvy, online a lot, and would appreciate being given little back stories to this sci-fi world that Ridley and the writers had created. So we were confident that it was going to hit the people it was looking to hit.

And lastly, Jaguar – the target market was young, predominantly blokes, and the kind of people who were internet users, media-savvy, could be targeted by PR and so could be expected to see the films.

BSB: Other than audience, what factors make a difference?

CD: Traditionally, we’d call it brand advertising, almost lifestyle advertising. It certainly isn’t retail advertising where you’re talking to specific consumers about specific products, shouting a price at them. It is creating a kind of general cool about the product, which requires less precise targeting. You can be fairly sure that if it’s hitting tens of millions of people, it’s doing its job.

The kind of brands who are investing in it at the moment can see its value. But if you’re a slightly timid or less than brave client in charge of your marketing budget and your media or production spend, having to rely on quality and whether it stands on its own feet can seem too much of a gamble. This, incidentally, is also why the budgets for online films are probably, pro rata, smaller than even the squeezed budgets on commercials.

At the moment it’s still the brave advertiser with an obviously appropriate product who is doing it. But in the future, there’s no reason why a soap powder can’t make it pay.

It just needs to find its feet in a business model, which it will as it evolves and we get more examples and clients and brands see the value of it – see that it’s working for products and brands outside of those we’ve been talking about, which it will.

BSB: As a filmmaker, what benefits does this kind of work offer?

CD: What this new opportunity does is give the brand a longer time length to play with narratives – just to do something more sophisticated, really, and free them up from the restrictions of 30 seconds 40 seconds 60 seconds.

Supposedly wise words are spoken about the optimum time length for online video.  But I am unconvinced. It is widely believed, for example, it shouldn’t really be much more than ten minutes. Two reasons are usually given. The first is based on technology and [the speed of] streaming, which is simply not true anymore. But the one I really disagree with is “you won’t keep people’s attention online for more than...” And people say this with such authority as if it’s a scientific fact. Maybe I’m naïve, but I’d like to come to a position where they’ll be disappointed that it’s only ten minutes long.

Of course if a good story can be told well and efficiently in only ten minutes, only make it ten minutes; if a story requires it to be told efficiently and creatively in 20 minutes, do it in 20 minutes. And if you’re doing it well you’re going to keep your audience.

Obviously TV always had its restrictions because of scheduling and people’s lifestyle habits. Films have also had objective reasons for being a certain length. And it wasn’t to do with whether people get bored or not; it was to do with people going out of an evening and when they were going to eat and when they were going to get home to go to bed. Nowadays people have boxed sets and the internet, iPads and smart phones. They decide for themselves when and where and for how long they watch. The old criteria no longer apply.

BSB: But you’re not going to stop making commercials, we presume?

CD: I think branded content will sit happily alongside traditional advertising. I certainly don’t think this signals the death of traditional advertising and TV commercials, which of course still turn out innovative, creative, clever, smart, funny work. And there’s no sign of that stopping soon. But opportunities abound now for promoting online and making films for online, rather than the traditional paid-for media.

It’s a great opportunity for companies like RSA and the directors and producers that are here because the smart clients, the smart agencies and the smart brands realise that to invest their trust in the best filmmakers and creative people can give them a real edge in today’s ever more competitive markets.

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