When Otto Bell makes branded content, he asks himself, "Is it harder to tell that story when you remove the brand?" If including the brand makes the story stronger, he knows he’s "onto something" and the content will be successful.
The former OgilvyEntertainment creative director and director of the critically-acclaimed documentary film The Eagle Huntress launched CNN’s Courageous more than two years ago, producing branded content for clients ranging from Volvo to Nike.
The chief creative officer and his team of 30 have gone all out this year, making more than 14 hours of "commercial replacements" – two or three-minute movies that run in place of a handful of 30-second spots.
However, the 36-year-old Briton sounds most fired up when he is talking about the feature-length project Courageous undertook with Volvo. As part of CNN's livestream of the solar eclipse in August 2017, Courageous shot live ads in 4K VR from multiple locations across the U.S., which featured interviews with experts in science and space.
"That was the biggest live VR event in history. We did 5.6 million streams in an hour and 45 minutes," Bell says. "We’re excited about what this represents, which is a move into live advertising."
It’s a move that happens to suit CNN rather well, given that it broadcasts live more than 80% of the time.
In Bell’s view, it has all been a matter of following the "trade winds."
"[Branded content] is something that clients were demanding, in that they were asking for more meaningful, wide-ranging relationships with editorial outlets, not just ours. They were looking to go beyond a media-by-the-pound relationship," Bell explains.
But that was not the only relationship that needed rewiring.
The simultaneous rise in subscription streaming services and ad-blockers had made the public far more demanding of brands than in the past, Bell says. "So the ads they do see are even more painful, noticeable, interruptive, even more of a speed bump in people’s lives."
Good branded content is not a silver bullet, but it recognizes "a real desire for some kind of value exchange," Bell notes. "Are you going to deepen my understanding of something? Are you going to provide me with some kind of utility? Are you going to make me laugh?"
Looking to the future, he thinks audiences will expect advertisers to take moral stands more often as well. "Look no further than the Super Bowl last year [and Budweiser’s tribute to its German immigrant founder]. Consumers want to know what brands stand for, where their profits are going, and how they are participating in the world," Bell explains.
He also predicts that branded content will embrace a much wider variety of styles and formats. He is optimistic about the market for branded series or feature-length movies, following in the footsteps of The Lego Movie and Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World.
For Courageous’ part, Bell says its biggest successes have come from "open briefs" where the client has set out a broad list of objectives and they have hashed out the best course of action together.
It helps that he has more than 50 platforms to play with, ranging from traditional TV channels to Snapchat.
"I can be a little bit channel agnostic in terms of coming up with the right answer, so what a brand needs to meet its objectives might be a short film of an event or a social-media takeover – or all of those things working in concert," Bell explains.
But he insists, it is almost always a collaborative process. "We pride ourselves on getting to the right answer with the client."
Bell dislikes the high-handed style adopted by some advertising agencies, where there is "an ugly tendency to demand the client takes a back seat" while they – the experts – get on with things.
"We spend a great deal of time on the front end going through casting options, everything," he notes. "These brands spend years and years and millions of dollars, shaping and honing their brand image. If you are going to ask them to loosen the reins, you’ve got to talk through that."