Is the industry holding branded content to an impossible standard?

Comparing the industry's work to favorite shows and movies is a natural reflex, writes the jury chair of Campaign US and PRWeek's inaugural Brand Film Festival

Cannes, France 2013. The camera stares at Sir John Hegarty, president of the Film Lions Jury. Off screen, the reporter asks: "The Beauty Inside," one of this year’s film Grand Prix, also won a Grand Prix in Branded Entertainment & Content. Do you think it can compete with a big TV show like "Game of Thrones"? His answer was clear: "No way!"

One year later, I met him in another jury. I told him we met on stage before when he gave Pereira & O’Dell the big statue for "The Beauty Inside." With a big, almost innocent laugh, he told me the story about the interview. It could have been awkward, except I totally agree with him.

The following two years in a row, no Grand Prix was given in Branded Content & Entertainment, which threw this world in a downward confusion spiral. Are we already in decadence, when we barely started? "There simply wasn’t anything up to that standard," said, one way or another, both presidents of the jury. That was the problem. The "standard."

Not giving a Grand Prix in Branded Content & Entertainment two consecutive years is a very delicate decision for such a young and fragile industry. But it also reveals the complexity of setting a mythical standard for the perfect idea, ignoring the circumstances of the category. Industries evolve and they often use the recognition they give to leap forward. Compare a Cyber Grand Prix from 2000 with this year’s and you will see what I mean. Ideas grow, and they need recognition at each step to mature. "But interactive is all about technology," one may say. So try matching a random movie from the early days of silent cinema with "Birdman" or "The Revenant." It’s hard, if you look at them in the current world’s eyes. Of course, eventually, there will be Chaplins, or a rebellious "The Artist," but in most cases, if you don’t consider the circumstances in which each production happened while looking for genius, you will usually find none.

The trap in this argument is it’s easy to see circumstances capsuled by a specific time period. It’s much tougher when two different environments develop within the same moment. "The Beauty Inside," for example, still haunts me as the ghost of what may be the best work I will have ever done. But, as Sir John Hegarty said, it isn’t perfect. It can’t compete with "Game of Thrones," or "Star Wars"… you name it. And you will, because listing your favorite shows and movies to be compared against any piece of branded content is almost a natural reflex. They are all running at the same time, after all, the circumstances seem the same.

But they are not. One is an industry with decades of experience, with an established ecosystem and economy capable of fighting its own, multiple technological revolutions. The other is a group of pioneers who have just realized that consumers have way too much control to be interrupted and want to find the right balance between brand and fun. Since both branded content and its "unbranded" siblings are competing for the same time from regular people, though, a common ground, fair comparison pattern must be found.

Having been in multiple juries with agency, entertainment and marketers, I want to believe that task is doable. As long as we look at branded entertainment in the context of other productions by brands and the overall entertainment options in this overloaded world -- the regular material you watch on TV, theatres, streaming, radio, bookstores, online… If a jury looks at all that and feels we can still convince someone to spend time with this idea, that’s a good beginning. If after the audience watches (or reads, plays, experiences) this content they are still glad of the time they spent on it, we then have a massive victory already.

All we have to do next is pick the best among them, every year. After all, if we want to be like entertainers, let’s do it for real. You’ve never seen an Oscars ceremony where the host says "and the Oscar goes to… nobody!" No matter what, even if the best actor or actress, a best movie or director doesn’t live up to previous year, there is still a winner. Trying to be tougher than the Academy seems at least very arrogant of us.


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