Mark Burnett, flanked by Vimby CEO Dean Waters and Chief Creative Officer… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)
British television producer Mark Burnett turned program financing on its head a decade ago when he brought brands like Doritos and Mountain Dew as sponsors into the expensive, prime-time reality series "Survivor," helping to defray costs.
"Survivor" is considered a watershed in paid product placements, opening the floodgates to a projected $2.75 billion in spending this year on such shows as "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," WWE's "Monday Night Raw," "American Idol" and "Celebrity Apprentice." Before "Survivor," brands got promotional placements in exchange for use of a prop, such as a car, or as a bonus for buying commercial time.
Burnett is now trying to bring that formula to the Web through his investment in the Vimby digital production studio. The Van Nuys venture launched in 2005 with a network of filmmakers around the country who create original, short-form videos for Vimby's website that now also may find a home on other sites including YouTube and Myspace. As part of Burnett's investment in 2010, Vimby began rubbing elbows with such major advertisers as Aflac, General Mills, Macy's, McDonald's, Pepsi and Puma — helping these brands create their own content for distribution on YouTube or on a company's Facebook page.
"Mark Burnett said, 'Guys, we need to build an arsenal, a bigger toolbox, working with General Mills, with Pepsi, doing stuff in a way that's consistent, authentic and involves great story-telling,'" Vimby founder and Chief Executive Dean Waters said of the digital studio's expanded focus.
Under Burnett's influence, Vimby's filmmakers have widened the lens, creating stories not only for the Web but also for TV, as was the case with an MTV special that followed five young women to New York, where they competed to become a Seventeen Magazine cover model. On other occasions, brands pay Vimby to create content that the advertiser can use to build an online community or cultivate greater affinity with its consumers. Macy's Million Dollar Makeover promotion drew 20,000 applicants from around the country, eight of whom were selected as finalists to participate in a reality-TV-styled competition that attracted 1 million new fans to the retailer's Facebook page.
Burnett isn't the first television producer whom brands have sought out to create high-quality, low-cost entertainment for the Web and beyond. Several other veterans from the traditional media world, including former top network executives such as ABC's Lloyd Braun, NBC's Ben Silverman and the WB's Jordan Levin and independent producers like Jak Severson, also are looking to capture audiences as they move to these digital platforms. Big brands are tagging along, in hopes that such proven players can find their footing online.
A significant portion of the U.S. population goes online to check out YouTube videos, update their Facebook status or watch music videos and TV shows through services including Vevo and Hulu. Some 182 million Internet users spent an average of five hours a week on the Web in September and watched nearly 40 billion videos, according to ComScore Inc.
Advertisers predictably are following the viewers online, with spending projected to reach $31.3 billion this year in the U.S. — an increase of 20% over 2010, researcher EMarketer predicts.
As new gadgets and services deliver entertainment to young, digitally savvy viewers, advertisers are scrambling to respond. Initially, brands took a direct marketing approach, focusing on buying search terms to spur sales of particular products. Although search advertising remains the single largest segment of spending on the Web, its growth has slowed as brands look for new ways to connect with consumers.
"Brands are starting to think more about, 'How do we become the destination?'" said Jason Deal, digital director at the Initiative ad agency. "How do we create advertising that draws consumers to us, instead of solely interrupting people" through banners and search ads?
The breadth of online experimentation is wide, from traditional sponsorships and product placements to "branded content" — in which advertisers use entertainment to communicate with audiences in an original way.
Hyundai, for example, attracted attention to its sporty Veloster subcompact car by sponsoring a mash-up, in which five prominent DJs reinterpreted the traditional musical genres of classical, country, R&B, jazz and rock. The resulting documentary is promoted on Hyundai's YouTube channel as well as a series of live events.
"The marketing leadership at Hyundai had the mind-set that we have to become the content that consumers are looking for, not just a disruption," Deal said.
Severson, CEO of Thoughtful Media Group Inc., a digital studio, is seeking to emulate a formula that has succeeded for YouTube celebrities such as stand-up comedian Shay Carl, who has attracted more than 1 million regular followers (self-described ShayTards) and logged more than 14 million views since he began posting videos.