Marketers used to make ads to sell products. Now they’re creating whole TV shows

Presenters Laura Woods and Adam Smith in Carling and Sky Media's In Off the Bar show, in December 2016

Authenticity is a popular word in business these days. The best way to be a leader, according to PR guru Richard Edelman, is to be "authentic, genuine, speedy, somehow of the people," as he explained to CNBC at the launch of his agency's annual Trust Barometer in January.

And it's also a concept that came up a lot at last month's Advertising Week Europe conference in London, especially around branded content - a type of article, video or TV show made by a brand in the hope of communicating with people in ways beyond traditional advertising.

Consultancy group BCG expects spending on this type of content to increase from about $10 billion in 2014 to $25 billion in 2019 in the U.S. alone, while technology company Knotch has just launched a search engine for online branded content, so companies can see what their competitors are doing.

Presenters Laura Woods and Adam Smith in Carling and Sky Media's In Off the Bar show, in December 2016

In the U.K., meanwhile, Sky, which broadcasts shows such as Game of Thrones, Billions, and Big Little Lies, as well as having its own sports and news channels, has a ten-strong team working with businesses to come up with program ideas that will feel authentic for its audience, as well as subtly communicate a brand message.

It is the job of Sky's head of creative solutions and branded content Jason Hughes to find ways for companies to do this in a way which its audience of more than 10 million in the U.K. will find authentic. It has worked on program integrations with brands including Budweiser, haircare brand Tresemmé, Xbox and Expedia over the past few years.

Getting branded content right

Hughes talks about how brands need to have "permission" to create certain types of content. "Why is the brand there, what are they doing, what is their heritage or history in that space? I think that then that cuts through more with the consumer," he said during a panel at Advertising Week Europe.

His team is currently working with British beer brand Carling on a soccer show called In Off The Bar, a Friday night program set in a pub, where fans often watch the sport with their buddies. This works for viewers because football culture is intrinsically linked to beer and pubs, so the connection between the brand and the topic is seamless.

Sky and Carling's TV show In Off The Bar being filmed at a U.K. pub
Alex Cousins | Sky Media

However, it has traditionally been the role of the advertising agency to work with their clients to lead brand strategy, so how does this work when it's the media owner that has the expertise in making programs?

"There is always a bit of a formula for this, which is the collaboration from all the different stakeholders. So you need a media owner focusing on what they do best, a creative agency focusing on what they do best, and a client focusing on what they are trying to achieve," Hughes told CNBC in a separate discussion.

Other broadcasters are looking at slotting brands into programming in ways which don't feel like awkward add-ons. Comedy Central is running a series of two-and-a-half minute branded content spots once a month, instead of a series of shorter ads.

Each spot puts a different brand center stage in a comedy skit that revolves around a hand model character, and viewers are okay with this kind of advertising because it's funny, Comedy Central executive Chris Ficarra told CNBC in February.

Erich Lane in Comedy Central's Handy series, in a spot featuring jeweler Zales

Get it right and broadcasters can go beyond a traditional TV audience: Sky's In Off The Bar is broadcast on TV as well as simultaneously on Facebook Live and YouTube, and three pre-match shows reached 1.1 million, according to Sky's latest statistics.

Does it work?

However, more needs to be done so that brands can work out the impact of co-creating such shows with broadcasters, Hughes told CNBC.

"We all need to get better at measuring it, if you take it back to when product placement started or was regulated, seven or eight years ago (in the U.K.) the way that you could model it was, well what is the exposure on screen and how does that work? But that's only probably one part of the equation.

"But there is a lot now around quantifying soft metrics…You have to look at things like 'loveability,' how much do I love this piece of content, is this content working for us, is this something I want to do? And I think you've got to maybe look at how you approach that type of metric into branded content in future, but that's probably a long way off."

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