(Photo: Geoffrey DeStefano).
By Roxy Szal, California Business Journal.
With the AT&T-Time Warner merger, Disney’s acquisition of Hulu, and Hollywood’s rush to subscription based streaming services media buying opportunities are consolidating.
And with a tidal wave of choices—channels, content and ways to watch—audiences are fragmenting, forcing brands to get creative or become drowned out.
The key for these brands’ survival, says Geoffrey DeStefano, founder of Brand Programming Studios, exists at the intersection between marketing and entertainment.
“Marketers talk about ‘consumers.’ Entertainment talks about ‘audiences,’” he says. “They’re the same people. We’re trying to do the same thing.”
DeStefano started in advertising in Chicago and Tokyo with the Leo Burnett Agency, where he had access to a variety of clients, from McDonald’s and United Airlines to Kraft and Procter & Gamble. He eventually became the youngest vice president regional director in the agency.
Soon, DeStefano caught the eye of John Feltheimer, then CEO at Sony Pictures Television, today CEO of Lions Gate. Feltheimer was looking for someone who “understood brands” to join his team back in L.A.
“It was the mid-nineties. Things were changing in the television side of the business. I knew brands and advertising, so I thought, ‘That’s where I should be.’”
DeStefano accepted and was back stateside by 1998. He spent the next few years making moves in the entertainment industry, from Sony Pictures to Warner Brothers and Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions. He saw his jump from advertising to Hollywood as an opportunity to learn the dynamics of storytelling—to “build a foundation,” he explains. He also hoped to find solutions to a problem he’d begun to identify.
“The problem I saw was, you’ve got this big marketing industry, made up of brands, companies, agencies and media buyers. Then you have the entertainment business: the film and television studios, networks and cable channels. The only place where these two businesses really connected? A junior-level media buyer and a junior-level ad sales person.”
That low-level connection between these two behemoth industries became the space where DeStefano saw massive opportunity.
“You didn’t have the strategic and creative people talking to each other,” he says.
DeStefano had found his niche: as a successful executive with a deep understanding of brands and storytelling, who “speaks both languages.” This holistic perspective helps him and his clients weather the ever-changing media and entertainment landscapes.
Gone are the days of one-off commercials, standalone newspaper ads or even a viral video, he says.
“We’ve now passed the tipping point, where brands need to think more like programmers,” DeStefano says. “They need a programming strategy in order to link their marketing, advertising, retail, experiential and events strategies.”
As CEO of Red Bull’s creative agency, DeStefano tested his “brand programming” theory. He oversaw creative and media during the explosion of Red Bull in the U.S. with the beginning of its entertainment and content strategy and extreme sports campaigns that laid the foundation for projects like Felix Baumgartner’s supersonic freefall, still one of the most popular videos on the Internet.
Next, DeStefano served as president of Dumbdumb Entertainment, Jason Bateman and Will Arnett’s brand-driven production company. For Orbit, Dumbdumb created an edgy web series highlighting dirty situations and how Orbit cleans it up, and for Denny’s, a series of unscripted mini-videos called “Always Open.” Dumbdumb’s content, devoid of explicit sales pitches but oozing with personality, further blurs the line between commercials and movies.
DeStefano’s company Brand Programming Studios spearheaded Nutella’s “Spread the Happy” campaign, short films highlighting real people making the world a better place. Tapping into connections from the entertainment industry, DeStefano premiered the series at Tribeca. The campaign won the Brand Film Festival award was nominated for a Shorty award and also grabbed Ellen DeGeneres’ attention.
“She loved the content,” he said. “And it was aligned with her brand. It wasn’t like saying, ‘Hey, Ellen, could you please do an ad for Nutella?’ It’s not that kind of an engagement.”
In fact: It’s better, cheaper and more cost-effective. And it works: Post-campaign, Nutella enjoyed an 18 percent increase in year-over-year sales.
But DeStefano warns clients not to fixate on the bottom line.
“As a company,” he explains, “you need to be thinking about what you’re giving back to that audience you’re trying to sell to. My model really looks at how you build, maintain and monetize an audience. Your marketing’s got to have a sense of purpose. It’s got to somehow inform, entertain or engage. They’ve got to want to watch it—support it, talk about it, pass it on to friends.”
Another warning from DeStefano: Be strategic with the use of influencers and celebrities.
“A lot of brands are going, ‘I want to work with this influencer,’” he explains. “Then the influencer does a mugshot with the brand. But influencers are often not trained in the art of persuasion, engagement or storytelling. So it becomes disposable content—here today, gone tomorrow.”
Instead, DeStefano recommends brands start with the content and platform, then invite relevant influencers to come interact—but on the brand’s terms.
“You need to be in charge of the content,” he says. “It’s your brand. Don’t abdicate that. Create a content platform—some sort of series, a film, ad or event—and invite influencers to come participate. If they’re aligned with who you are and what you’re about, they’re going to want to promote it.”
Which is exactly what DeStefano did for PBS, when the network put out an open call last year: help us reach low-income millennial parents. Forty-nine agencies submitted their ideas. DeStefano’s team won with a pitch for a six-part mini series called “What’s Good.” It shows how science is everywhere: It’s a breakdancer spinning on her head. It’s clothes in the washing machine. It’s sound waves from a DJ’s beats traveling to your ears.
“Everybody featured in the series—with the exception of the kids—are influencers in their own right,” DeStefano says. “We had control over the story, they participated in what we were shooting, and it was influencers talking to their own community in their own language. Then, they promoted it themselves.”
In the end, the series won the Webby award in the science and entertainment category, beating out big names like the BBC and National Geographic.
As more companies sprint toward a streaming content model, a la Netflix, DeStefano is wary that brands—and the millions of dollars their executives allocate toward marketing—will continue to be overlooked or misused. Opportunities to reach customers will only keep shrinking, so brands need to get even more creative and social.
“The beauty of the digital and social world is it allows us to create content,” he says, “and to build our own audience. Brands have great stories to tell. We just hope to be working with more and more clients, telling those stories, speaking both languages and continuing to grow.”
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