Advertisers are warming to branded content, but UK regulations muddy the way it can fit into the mix, says Andy Fry
As IKEA prepared to dip a tentative toe into the murky waters of advertiser-funded programming (AFP), leading multi-channel broadcasters Flextech and UKTV unveiled a dedicated unit that will offer AFP as an alternative to spot ads and sponsorship. (Marketing, 12 and 19 May).
These developments come as the Branded Content Marketing Association (BCMA) is predicting the market for AFP, or branded content as it is also known, will increase more than fourfold in value from pounds 5m to pounds 22m this year.
It is not a huge amount when compared with the pounds 4bn a year spent on spot ads in the UK nor the pounds 100m earmarked for TV sponsorship. However, the fact that Nike, Nokia, Heinz, Renault, the COI and Carling have backed AFPs recently suggests the erosion of mainstream audiences by digital TV and personal video recorders is generating a groundswell of interest.
AFP is not a new concept, having been around since the dawn of US commercial television. But there has been a lack of clarity in the UK over how it fits into the media mix.
Part of the problem is that most clients have unrealistic expectations.
To many, the ultimate AFP play would be to finance a popular piece of terrestrial real estate, such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, then control all the airtime surrounding it. Most clients would also want to promote products during the show and retain the necessary rights to replicate the strategy in foreign markets.
There are various reasons why this AFP model doesn't work in the UK.
For a start, UK regulation severely restricts product placement. While US movies and TV shows are often part-funded by advertisers in return for product placement, Ofcom rules prevent brands from blurring the editorial/commercial line.
More importantly, the chance of hitting the bull's-eye at the first attempt is low, says ITV head of branded content Gary Knight. 'Lots of producers come to me with AFP ideas and I have to tell them how tough the world of programme-making is. ITV has a lot of talented programmers looking for ideas and even they can't guarantee success every time.'
Expensive flops such as Back to Reality (Five), Boys and Girls (Channel 4) and Trouble in Paradise (ITV) show how tough it is to get it right.
For a client to get exactly the right vehicle, it would need to develop a raft of shows in the knowledge that many wouldn't cut it - and that's before its marketing objectives are shoehorned in.
But there are those who see a strong role for branded content. Clare Heys has just joined Flextech and UKTV joint sales house IDS as head of commercial partnerships. She aims to have a slate of prime-time 30-minute AFPs on-air within 18 months. 'Channels such as Living, Trouble and UKTV Food lend themselves well to AFP as they have very clear editorial propositions,' she says.
In return for funding, Heys says clients …