Brand funded content is the key to saving Australia’s TV production companies

As TV's traditional funding sources continue to dry up, long form production companies have been forced to search for new sources of income. Essential's Chris Hilton's recent experimentation with brand funded content proved an eye-opener into the burgeoning Australian market.

Pure production companies – as opposed to agencies – usually finance their content production budgets through traditional funding sources – licence fees, distribution advances, tax credits and third party investment.

However, as any long-time Mumbrella reader will know, the funds available from these sources are now in serious decline. In order to offset this, TV production companies need to find alternative funding models for some of their content.

Many long form production companies have historically refused the opportunity to dilute their goal of serving audiences first by also having to serve the needs of clients with different objectives.

In the radically altering media landscape, this attitude needs to change. And it is changing. 

Brand funded content certainly wasn’t on the agenda for Essential Media when we formed the company in back in 2006. But the tell tale signs of change were there, and we have been searching for opportunities in this space now since 2012. Our first brand funded production, Sammy and Bella’s Kitchen Rescue, is now finally on air and online.

How could it have taken five years? The answer is, I believe, a combination of the wrong strategy, not enough investment and the lack of maturity of the market here in Australia.

Our production company’s initial forays into the brand funded content world saw it partnering with an agency which believed it could unlock the marketing purse strings of different brands for some shows that were already on the slate. The plan – well trodden by now – was to also produce ancillary short form digital content that would more directly address the needs of the brand. 

The initial slate of three shows all with top talent attached were: a scripted comedy travelogue across Australia (to pitch to car brands), a dog–human relationship show (to pitch to pet food and pet retailers) and a cultural travelogue through underground Asia (to pitch to mobile phone brands). All three had sizzles or pilots as proof of concept but none of these projects saw the light of day. Five years ago it seemed to come down to the fact that the individual agencies managing those brands had other plans that trapped a higher margin of the available funding for themselves   

This initial experience also revealed that the availability and timing of brands’ marketing expenditure was rather fickle. Trying to mesh that with the availability of talent, timeslots and other partner brand funding made it a complex matrix with low odds of success. To crack those odds you need a fat pipeline of ideas – as you do for traditional forms of long form content. This requires investment.

At industry conferences in the USA over the past decade there have been plenty of case studies presented of successful brand collaborations. Why couldn’t we do that in Australia at the time? It seems to me that the comparative size of the US and Australian economies made it that much harder to find the funding for premium shows from our comparatively low population base (and resultant lower marketing budgets).

Product placement is a mainstay of American TV. AMC

More recently, our production company has had success in directly securing brands that agreed to support specific developed concepts, so we were getting closer. But we then run into the minefield of the networks ad-sales people having relationships with the same brand managers who had other ideas about what content their advertising clients should be funding. This is a tricky, but necessary, area to navigate – sorting out the potential conflicts of interest between ongoing media spend relationships and the granular detail of what’s required for an individual show. This is where having the right strategy is key

It seems brand funding of content has now finally matured in Australia and successful models have been established. It was always going to take time for brands to trust in the process and see the results. But the digital disruption of old TV business model has accelerated it.

Better Homes and Gardens is a well-known example of brand funded content

At a time when video content is king and engagement is everything, it’s a natural fit for traditional long form production companies to extend their skills into this landscape. These producers have one advantage to offset the disadvantage of not also being an agency. That advantage should be the experience they have gained in narrative storytelling. Blending narrative with brand objectives – especially where product integration is involved – is a creative challenge that long form producers are best equipped to tackle.

From this newcomer’s perspective, with the right strategy and sufficient investment, brand funded content clearly presents a new opportunity for traditional production companies to successfully grow their businesses or to offset the decline in funding from other areas. Everything is being disrupted – including us. Letting go of traditional models and creating hybrids may just be what ensures our survival.

Chris Hilton is CEO and executive producer, Essential Media and Entertainment.


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