MTV likes playing on the ad team

Taking branding a step farther, net creates content for partners

NEW YORK -- John Shea, executive vp integrated marketing and brand partnerships for the MTVN Music and Logo Group, has been at the forefront of MTV Networks' innovative branded entertainment and programming solutions for advertisers. MTV has been one of the most aggressive and prolific networks in creating original programming for advertisers rather than just integrating brands into pre-existing shows. Among some of the more recent programming initiatives MTV has produced and/or aired for advertisers are "It's a Mall World" for American Eagle Outfitters, "Gamekillers" for Unilever's Axe Dry, "Meet or Delete" for Hewlett-Packard, Dew Circuit Breakout for PepsiCo.'s Mountain Dew and "Money Plays Madden NFL '08" for Electronic Arts. For its Video Music Awards premiering Sunday, MTV has also created out-of-the-box marketing tie-ins for several advertising partners including Taco Bell, Herbal Essences, Neutrogena and Pepsi. MTV has also recently started producing more shortform serialized content running as commercial pod takeovers for advertisers like Nike, which is airing the finale of its six-part series about the U.S. women's national soccer team during the VMAs. The Hollywood Reporter's marketing reporter Gail Schiller recently spoke with Shea about MTV's branded entertainment strategy for its advertiser clients.

The Hollywood Reporter: How long has MTV been working with advertisers on branded entertainment initiatives?

John Shea: MTV has been at the forefront of this almost since our birth in 1981. In the very early days, we integrated partners in unique ways around big events. One of the first things I worked on at MTV in the late 1980s was the Coke Island Giveaway, a weekend cruise on a Coke-branded ship with music performances to an island in the middle of nowhere. I think MTV has evolved and innovated ahead of the curve in integrated marketing, but I also feel like the industry and the marketplace have definitely evolved at lightning speed the past five years.

THR: How long have you been with MTV and in what positions?

Shea: I joined MTV in 1988 as director of marketing and promotions. I worked at MTV for 10 years, and when I left I was senior vp marketing. Then I went to work for DreamWorks, where I was part of the location-based marketing team. In 1999, I came back to MTV as the senior vp integrated marketing. Three years ago, I was promoted to executive vp for integrated marketing for the MTVN Music and Logo Group, which encompasses all of the MTV screens, all of the VH1 screens, all of the CMT screens and all of the Logo screens.

THR: How many branded entertainment deals would you estimate that MTV and its sister networks have implemented?

Shea: I would say easily hundreds of deals that would encompass a variety of things including traditional product placement, brand integration, shortform content, longform advertiser-branded content and multiplatform-content partnerships. We've always been in this game and we've always been innovative about it, but in the past five years in particular both the variety of deals that we do as well as the volume of the deals have increased significantly.

THR: Why has MTV been so aggressive and innovative in creating original programming and other out-of-the-box branded entertainment initiatives for advertisers?

Shea: I think what makes us stand out as an innovator is our ideas, and I think our ideas are fueled by the unique relationship we have with our audience and the incredible dialogue we have with them. We know our audience and they trust us. I think the best innovative ideas are the ones that are becoming more creatively driven and more complex in their nature by virtue of new technologies and reaching the audience in new and interesting ways. And I think in order to accomplish innovative ideas, you need to have great relationships with the people who sit across the table from you -- the advertising partners.

THR: What are the best examples of branded entertainment solutions MTV has created for its advertiser clients?

Shea: Some of our best work came out of one of the partnerships we created with Hewlett-Packard around a show called "Meet or Delete." It is basically a multiplatform reality show about people deciding whether they are interested in meeting a potential mate by going through the content on their computer. It was a hugely successful show that originated on mtvU and ran on all MTV platforms. The ratings were great and the advertiser loved it. The ROI on the online pieces of it was through the roof. In June, we greenlighted the second season of "Meet or Delete." Given the show's success in its first year, HP nearly doubled the size of its sponsorship. Another successful longform example is what we did with MTV2 and the Dew Circuit Breakout Tour. This is basically a show on MTV2 that we originated with the Mountain Dew brand. The show, which is going into its fourth season, discovers unsigned bands. The bands submit videos of their performances online and the audience votes on their favorites. Those are winnowed down to live performances that we tape and put on MTV2. The audience votes again, and we find one unsigned band and sign them with a record label. This entire program is branded, with Mountain Dew branding and messaging built into the graphics and the title of the show itself. It has been a big win for us and the Mountain Dew brand and a great music franchise for MTV2. We've worked with Mountain Dew every year to make it bigger. Another example involved a pre-existing show -- the TRL Awards. MSN was launching its messenger service and wanted to compete with AOL messenger. So we had celebrities go to the green room (VIP room) after they were on the air and chat with kids who had signed up with MSN messenger during the course of the weeklong awards show. Unless they had MSN messenger, they couldn't talk to celebrities like Amanda Bynes. We promoted the TRL Awards tie-in on-air. For the launch of the Xbox 360, we created a series of shortform and longform programs that ran over a six-week period tied to things like MTV Gamers Week and a concert with the Killers. We were the single biggest global partner on the launch of the Xbox 360. Lastly, we've had an ongoing relationship with Target, which features a designer every quarter who has made clothing for the store during that three-month period. The most recent of those designers is a team called Libertine. We created a 3-minute, 30-second commercial pod takeover for them. It told the story of two fictitious interns who were working for Libertine and found themselves on the runway. It was a short story we told in their commercial time and promoted significantly prior to it going on the air. In the process, we aggressively promoted the Libertine clothing line at Target.

THR: Which types of branded entertainment initiatives do you think we'll see more of from MTV?

Shea: The Target partnership is one example of where we're heading with the right clients -- creating serialized shortform content. For the American Eagle partnership, we have 12 of those 3 1/2-minuteFRACTION shortform pieces strung together to tell one story as a narrative tied to "The Real World." In this case, they are producing the content, but we are also creating content for advertisers and are moving more and more in that direction. For instance, we're doing a similar deal with Nike to play out in their commercial time leading up to the Video Music Awards. We produced six spots, and the finale of the entire narrative is airing during the VMAs. The overall notion here is that we as an industry and we as a channel are moving more toward collaborating to create storytelling with and through our advertising partnerships.

THR: Has MTV experienced any negative feedback from its viewers with so much branded content on the air?

Shea: Honestly, we have not. I'd like to think the reason for that is we are telling the right stories in the right way and integrating advertising messages in ways that the audience finds compelling. I think we're also working with an audience that is much more receptive to invention and change.

THR: MTV is integrating several advertisers into the Video Music Awards in a number of innovative ways. Can you explain how?

Shea: There are a few things in the VMAs that are particularly interesting. One involves Procter & Gamble's Herbal Essences brand. This year, no two VMA broadcasts will be alike. We're remixing and editing together different versions of the show that didn't make the original broadcast and are airing different remixes each time we repeat it. One of those repeats will actually be a viewer's version of the show that is going to be called "My Fantasy VMAs." Through a sweepstakes contest promoted on our air, Herbal Essences will send one woman to the show who will have a camera and crew with her. She will remix her favorite version of the show with her as the star. It will be a half-hour show presented commercial-free. We're also going to be doing a live spot for Neutrogena during the VMAs from the Neutrogena Fan Lounge, our green room show this year. Instead of breaking from the show to go to a traditional Neutrogena spot, branding will be going on in the green room with Neutrogena at the front end and the back end of behind-the-scenes moments. Lastly, we worked with Taco Bell to create something called the Taco Bell TV Me! contest where we asked our viewers to create avatars of themselves for the chance to star in a Taco Bell commercial. Three of those character avatars will be featured in the Taco Bell spot that will premiere during the VMAs.

THR: Where do you see branded entertainment headed?

Shea: I think we're going to get into more of a conversation about this notion of original production and not so much traditional integration or integration into pre-existing programming. I think more and more, shortform, longform and multiplatform content are going to be co-produced and co-created by media and advertisers together. Some advertisers and networks have a more robust appetite for that and others don't. Our best relationships are with advertisers who are interested in the future. I think we're going to see the industry's silos -- where one ad agency is doing the buying, another is doing the creating and then the media is a place to put that messaging -- will be broken down and reconfigured. I think it's about breaking down those walls in the industry and figuring out what the new game is. I don't know that one wholly replaces another, but I do think that the food chain changes. I don't know if anything becomes extinct in the process, but I do think the process has already changed.