The future of branded storytelling, in a $25m Mosman mansion

What is the future of branded storytelling? And how can media agencies facilitate interesting, experimental conversations between publishers and CMOs? These were just some of the questions explored by Group M and its partners - including News Corp, Seven West Media, and LinkedIn - at last week's Next M experience. Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby attended, and spoke with some of those presenting partners, to find out what the value of such an industry event is, and why it was held in a mansion on Sydney's north shore.

I’m standing on a terrace – one of multiple – in a Mosman mansion worth $25m. That’s how much it’s currently on the market for, Group M’s CEO Mark Lollback tells us, but WPP’s media agency arm is renting the sprawling home as the location for Next M, the new iteration of what used to be called mLab.

The inaugural Next M promises to be a window into the “future of branded storytelling”, and if the windows of this house are anything to go by, the view looks pretty good. Glance down and you’ll see the home’s private pool and full-size tennis court. Pan up and the Harbour Bridge, Opera House and Anzac Bridge are in full view.

The view from the main terrace. Below the balcony lies the tennis court and swimming pool

And Next M itself is just as large and impressive in scale as the mansion in which it is set: Two days, cut into four sessions run by four media agencies (Mindshare, Wavemaker, Mediacom, and Essence). Seven partners, presenting the same 20-minute presentation 24 times to small groups of chief marketing officers and media. In pulling key clients out of boardrooms and conference rooms into an elaborate, immersive education on branded content, Next M itself becomes a model for how to tell a commercial story in an interesting setting.

What follows is a Cluedo-esque tour of both the mansion and what branded content could look like when working with partners such as Seven West Media, Verizon Media’s Ryot Studios, and News Corp: a reimagining of ads as experiences that don’t disrupt, but enhance.

Dining and lounge room: Seven West Media

Our first stop is the open-plan dining and lounge room, where Seven West Media shows us what 2024 homes could look like. A drone delivers a package ordered via Amazon Alexa, and we don virtual reality headsets to be greeted by a virtual assistant. She’s standing on a Fijian beach, pulling up flight and accommodation offers, asking whether we’d like a VR tour of the hotel or the snorkelling experience. Underwater we go, and as our heads turn, a turtle pops into view.

But is this realistically what homes across the country will look like in five years, or just multi-million dollar mansions on Sydney’s north shore?

A lot of Australians have devices in their homes, but it might be one or two. In five years, as prices go down, access to multiple connected devices [will go up], you’ll see the democratisation of a connected home, versus it being something only seen in new homes or more expensive homes,” Lachlan Kent, Seven’s head of strategy, explains.

And it won’t just be smart speakers. “What’s the phone going to be as a connected device inside a home in five years time?” Pacific’s commercial director, Nicole Bence, asks.

The Seven West Media team, including (L-R) Pacific’s Nicole Bence, Seven’s Lachlan Kent and Pacific’s Deahn Weber

The first, and easiest, step will be branded content integrated into already-existing TV shows. Kent demonstrates how a sponsored My Kitchen Rules recipe could work. He asks Alexa to call up the recipe on the TV screen. It’s in partnership with A2 milk. Then, Kent asks Alexa to add the ingredients to a shopping cart – the machine repeats the list, mentioning only one brand: A2.

If Seven is right, this way of connecting brands and consumers through trusted tentpole programs could be closer than we think.

Trust is the big word there because talking to devices feels foreign,” agrees Kent.

“But, very quickly what we’ve seen through a lot of research is once everything’s connected, it feels like you’re talking to your home.

It’s about meeting consumers and brands where they are, though.

Everyone’s still on a curve at some point. So you’ve got certain clients who feel really comfortable and they love that longer-form advertising in that branded content space and then you’ve got others who are still very wedded to traditional brand assets and not necessarily feeling as comfortable,” Bence adds.

“I suppose for me, getting them to think that there is going to be an ecosystem of content required in 2024, whether you like it or not, because that purchase chain is going to look very different. So whether you’re integrating your mascara into the show, whether you’re getting consumers to review it, you’re going to really need to understand that whole journey and what role do you play at each point? Because if you’re not, a competitor will be.”

Home cinema: Cinegame and Val Morgan

Next, we’re shepherded into the home cinema, where Mikkel Hagedorn, Group M’s Nordic head of innovation, presents Cinegame. It’s what it says on the tin – a branded game played before a movie, offering a prize to the winner (think a coupon redeemable for a Big Mac, if you’re McDonald’s).

We play a Ben and Jerry’s branded game through an app that prompts us to turn our phones horizontally and converts them into joysticks, our Facebook profile pictures as our avatars (yes, the app wants you to login via Facebook so advertisers can grab your data).

Hagedorn acknowledges the strangeness of encouraging people to use their phones in a cinema. But people are scrolling Instagram or checking Facebook during the ads anyway, why not lean into that and ensure a user is engaging, uninterrupted, with an ad?

Cinegame will roll out in the Australian market, in partnership with Val Morgan, in 2020. The key to its success is that, in other markets, 78% of audiences don’t think of it as an ad at all. It’s branded content experienced as something else, something better.

It’s a four-minute ad, explains Hagedorn, that people literally clap for. What more could an advertiser want?

Kitchen: News Corp

The heart of the home is reserved for News Corp, which stresses that its 126 regional brands reach 8.2m Australians each month. Ads placed in community media are trusted more, national client and commercial director Heidi Sayers says, which only reemphasises the importance of the Boomtown initiative.

We all know that 40% of Australians live in regional Australia. Currently, only 10% of the media spent is in regional, but I daresay that opportunities like these that are going to help Boomtown … hopefully, in a few years time, we should be at our 40% share,” Sayers says.

News Corp’s Suzie Cardwell and Heidi Sayers

And with travel lift-out Escape launching in 20 major regional titles on 14 January 2020, Taste launching across regional Australia, and Australia’s Best Recipes launching in metro community titles, Sayers hopes CMOs walk away from Next M with a sense of the commercial value of regional Australia, even if it seems geographically and culturally disconnected from their current setting.

News Corp titles on display at Next M

Not only just for News Corp, but for the whole Boomtown partnership committee, we all see it as huge value to be able to have a conversation with over 200 clients over these two days, CMOs, heads of marketing, and be able to have a conversation around regional in a beautiful home in Mosman. It’s worked very well,” Sayers says.

“When it comes to these types of events and storytelling, I think that we’ve actually really lifted the bar for our own brand, for News Corp to be able to engage in these types of immersive experiences for clients.”

A tennis court and sci-fi laboratory

Verizon Media’s Ryot Studios takes the most experimental approach to the brief – converting an empty room into a lab that becomes the set for a performance on creativity and craziness. Creatives go into a Matrix-like ‘dream sleep’ to come up with ideas, the actors revealing Ryot’s four-part recipe to success – insight, creativity, innovation and distribution, in that order – through the lens of a real-life brief.

The Ryot Studios performance

The NRL’s League Stars program, encouraging kids to “smile and sweat” by getting into rugby league, runs a drill on the tennis court. They’ve seen the success of NAB’s Mini Legends program, and know they can take League Stars to the next level with a corporate partner on-side.

LinkedIn is the least impressive of the day, presenting research on B2B marketing revealed at Ad Week instead of specifically zooming in on branded storytelling. However, it was better than Facebook and Instagram, which didn’t let us in at all. A “global media ban”, we’re told.

Group M’s digital strategy and investment officer, Venessa Hunt, hopes clients leave Next M feeling like they’ve seen something different, something elevated from the mLab of old, which was focused on technology and innovation.

Hunt led the effort to conceive and execute Next M

“To me that’s now a baseline. I think that’s stuff that we should be doing every day all day and we don’t need one event once a year to do that,” Hunt says.

“So we actually put out a brief to our clients and to our content divisions inside the agencies and said, what are the 10 things that your clients are asking you about all the time?”

Next M is Hunt’s brainchild, and while the process was long – 12 months from concept to execution – and the brief for the events team difficult – a house, near the water, with at least eight spaces, and lots of natural light – she thinks it’s paid off.

The event itself has probably taken six months of logistics and the last six weeks has really been the most intense part of that, with kind of building things for the house. Obviously an event like this or a space like this is not that easy,” Hunt explains.

“People think it’s really different to everything else that happens in the industry and that’s the bit that makes me really proud. We set out to create something that was different, that was new, that we could bring to our clients that they couldn’t see somewhere else or they couldn’t do themselves.

“And I think we’ve really achieved that. So, for me, the best bit of feedback is where they go, ‘Can we do it again next year?’ and I’m like, ‘Sure, I’ll start that tomorrow’.”


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