Thursday 29 September 2016

'That's up next - but first, a word from our sponsors...'

From the very first soap operas right up to 'The Toughest Trade', branded content is marketing gold-dust, writes John McGee

John McGee

Published 13/03/2016 | 02:30

Known in the industry as advertiser-funded programming (AFP) or branded content, The Toughest Trade forms part of the bank's overall sponsorship of the GAA Club Championships. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Known in the industry as advertiser-funded programming (AFP) or branded content, The Toughest Trade forms part of the bank's overall sponsorship of the GAA Club Championships. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Viewers who tuned in to watch The Toughest Trade on RTE2 last Tuesday night will have got an in-depth look at how other sports compare with the gritty and sometimes knuckle-busting reality of playing hurling for the local GAA club.

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The first instalment of the two-part series featured Tipperary hurler Brendan Maher, from the hurling hotspot of Borrisoleigh, swapping the dark week night training pitch for the sunnier climes of Adelaide, where he took up a week-long residence with the local cricket team, the Strikers.

Meanwhile, former England cricketer and Ashes winner Steve Harminson traded in his bat for a hurley after he was dispatched to Maher's club to learn the ins and outs of one of the fastest and most skilful games in the world.

While it made for riveting viewing, The Toughest Trade was not made by the RTE Sports department. Nor was it a syndicated programme from one of the big sports networks. Instead, it was co-produced by the Dublin-based advertising agency Rothco and the independent production company Motive Television.

What made it different to other programming, however, is the fact that the concept was developed and funded entirely by Allied Irish Banks.

Known in the industry as advertiser-funded programming (AFP) or branded content, The Toughest Trade forms part of the bank's overall sponsorship of the GAA Club Championships, which is now entering its 21st year.

With over 2,130 GAA clubs around the country, it is one of the biggest corporate sponsorships around, with an estimated investment by the bank of €1.5m a year.

AIB, of course, is not the first brand to fund a programme on TV. Using a pre-existing TV format, Bank of Ireland provided the finance needed to make the Irish version of Dragon's Den while the discount retailer Aldi funds the making of the popular TV3 programme The Restaurant. Not to be outdone, last year Lidl weighed in with funding for the popular RTE series The Taste of Success.

AFP is by no means a new concept in the marketing world. As far back as 1937 in the US, detergent titans Procter & Gamble underwrote the cost of Guiding Light, a radio drama aimed at American housewives, giving birth to the term 'soap opera' in the process. Other brands followed suit and very soon AFP became a small but integral part of business models for both radio and fledgling TV companies in many countries, including Ireland.

At one stage, the maker of Winston cigarettes, RJ Reynolds, even had a commercial arrangement with the producers of the cartoon series The Flinstones - and Fred and Barney, the hapless heroes, were often seen in TV ads extolling the virtues of smoking Winstons.

How times have changed.

While AFP never really disappeared, it was somewhat banished to the fringes of the broadcasting and marketing world for many years, as increased regulation in the form of advertising codes took root, while the lines of demarcation between the in-house commercial and editorial departments became more pronounced.

In recent years, however, AFP has bounced back into fashion as content-hungry brands, cash-strapped broadcasters and a more innovative advertising and media sector have pushed the boundaries beyond the straightjacket of the 30-second TV ad into a new realm of possibilities for any brand that has an advertising budget to spend.

While the rulebook for successful AFPs is still a work in progress, brands and broadcasters need to be mindful of what is acceptable from a viewer's point of view, particularly when it comes to the level of commercial messaging that comes across.

With the exception of AIB-branded training bibs that were visible in the Borrisoleigh's dressing rooms, the narrator of The Toughest Trade barely mentioned AIB during the programme. This is in stark contrast to the Aldi-funded The Restaurant, where the retailer's brand and products feature prominently throughout the programme.

This doesn't make it wrong either. Given the nature of Aldi's business, it is probably more acceptable for it to promote a cheeky Merlot than it would have been for AIB to promote car loans or mortgages.

"The broadcaster's relationship with its viewers is paramount, as is the importance of a well-told and powerful story," says Jill Downey, managing director of Livewire, the sponsorship agency that negotiates with broadcasters on behalf of brands. "AFPs will only work well if they take into account the viewer and their expectations. But it can't be an ad for the brand, so it's a question of getting the balance right."

While TV is still a powerful medium for delivering audience reach, the recent growth in AFP has also been strengthened by the increased use of social media platforms. Once upon a time, AFP used to begin and end with the programme; now, it just begins as brands like AIB and Aldi, leverage the power of social media channels like Twitter and Facebook to keep the momentum going way beyond the end of the programme with additional content, conversation and engagement.

And this, as we know, is marketing gold-dust.

Contact John McGee at john@adworld.ie

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