The Future of Branded Content


I use Google Chrome for nearly all my browsing and like many people I use extensions like Adblock and Adblock Plus. Though, I honestly didn’t install these initially with the intention of blocking video ads but instead to block “pop up” ads. Still, I get served skippable ads on YouTube, and have to disable the adblockers in order to watch content on certain sites. I’m subscribed to the version of Hulu with ads yet most of the time I am instead served this static screen pictured above. Personally, I’ll sit through ninety seconds of a blank silent screen over almost any ad. No question.

Ad software and ad blocking software will continue battling it out for a while, but the ultimate takeaway here is that ads suck and we know it. Our company is active in buying a fair amount of online ads on behalf of our clients while personally I do my best to avoid online ads at all costs.

“My particular peeve is pre-roll. I hate it. What is even worse is that I know the people who are making it know that I’m going to hate it. Why do I know that? Because they tell me how long I am going to have to endure it — 30 seconds, 20 seconds, 15 seconds. You only have to watch this crap for another 10 seconds and then you are going to get to the content that you really wanted to see. That is a model of polluting content that is not sustainable.” – Bradley Jakeman, President of Pepsico

With traditional “lean back” television ad distribution, ads were played before content to a captive audience and that was the model that paid for production of said content (and could serve as a convenient time to use the bathroom). One of these thirty-second spots on primetime television can now run a brand $400k and there’s no way to know who’s watching it on the other end. The costs are prohibitive, the creative is limited, the format is unappealing, and the results are almost impossible to track and attribute to any real sales metrics.

Subscription services like HBO and Netflix don’t rely on ad models in order to create original content. Companies like Apple and Facebook are now jumping on the long-term investment of quality original content. Ad targeting online can be as granular as advertisers are willing to pay for, which means there is a wealth of of audience data, a wealth of insights, technology and targeting abilities – but a lack of high quality talent-driven original content being sponsored by brands in order to capitalize on those insights and those targeting capabilities.


skip this ad


“Is this ad relevant to you?”

When Hulu introduced their feature during ads where you could say “yes” or “no” to the above question, the idea was that you could help tailor the kind of content you had to sit through. Personally I clicked “no” anytime I was served something other than a movie trailer with the hope that I would eventually only be served movie trailers.

If I see something like the Geico Caveman pop up on my screen I’ll click “skip” immediately, almost by instinct, but if I were offered a sponsored piece of content that was engaging and worthwhile (such as “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” for instance, “brought to you by” an Acura or Geico, etc), I may actually choose to watch the entire piece of content, end up entertained rather than annoyed, and have a better association with that brand for not telling me to just buy something. We’re not talking about product placement. We’re talking about brand sponsorship of high quality original IP.

We are far from the first to boast exploring the digital future of native advertising. South Park and John Oliver have both made great arguments for why there shouldn’t be advertising dollars hidden behind content such as news. We do agree with this logic, though if done transparently brands can sometimes help tell stories that matter to both the brand and the audience. For example: NYT writes a piece about repealing Citizen’s United that Ben & Jerry’s pays for simply because B&J genuinely care about the issue. Similarly, Expedia did a campaign recently with a temporary installation at a hospital that consisted of doing something wonderful, filming it and sharing that moment. That’s the formula: provide value and show something meaningful or at the very least entertaining.

We also aren’t the first to come up with the idea of a sponsored web-series. What we did was to put together a digital strategy solution for creative, production and distribution to combine compelling content with opt-in media, social amplification and data driven audience insights. Our high level access with top talent, creative, and software allows us to provide our clients with customized creative and distribution recipes based on data.

Look at what Red Bull does: by having a channel of great, fresh content running all the time, they are able to push content across all platforms while providing value for their audience. This is how brands should be thinking from a content perspective.