With attention having been firmly focused on the digital space of late —first Google (GOOG) snapping up DoubleClick, then Yahoo! (YHOO) buying Right Media—the pressure has been mounting on other players to come up with some news of their own.
The time is now for Microsoft (MSFT), which is currently hosting its annual client summit in Seattle, bringing together its key advertisers. Amid rumors swirling of potential takeovers of the likes of 24/7 Media or aQuantive, three major players in the world of advertising took the stage on May 8 to make an announcement of their own.
Maurice Lévy, chairman and chief executive of Publicis Groupe (PUB); David Droga, creative chairman of New York City-based creative shop Droga5; and David Kenny, CEO of Digitas (both subsidiary companies of Publicis); were out West to talk up the launch of Honeyshed, a new Web site aimed specifically at providing only branded content. And though official word said that Microsoft wasn't doing anything but acting as host for the announcement, it's unlikely that its interest in the proposal is merely an act of selfless generosity.
"Life of the Party"
Honeyshed intends to erase the line between branding and entertainment altogether. But its content won't be traditional online advertising. No banners. No rollovers. No 30-second spots. Instead, it will provide a mix of live programming and character-driven sketch shows paid for by—and promoting—sponsors, which will collaborate with Honeyshed to come up with suitably entertaining concepts aimed at the ever-capricious but nonetheless influential demographic of 18- to 35-year-olds. According to sources, content partners already associated with Honeyshed include video production company Smuggler, as well as executives from Viacom (VIA), Condé Nast, and Microsoft.
"Honeyshed is a broadband destination that celebrates the sell," says Andrew Essex, CEO of Droga5, who was left to field calls in the agency's offices in New York City and who describes the venture as "MTV meets QVC." "There's a lot of so-called branded content out there, but it doesn't have many places to live," he says. "It gets lost on YouTube or it's like bud.tv, a brand in isolation. In contrast, this is totally transparent and completely entertaining. It's overt advertising based on the idea that people love brands. They just don't necessarily love it when brands interrupt or deceive them. This will make brands the life of the party rather than the uninvited guest."
So far, Publicis, Droga5, and Digitas have invested between $5 million and $10 million in developing the project, which they hope will allow them to tap into the projected $19.5 billion that will be spent on online ads this year, according to an eMarketer report from February, 2007.
Living in the Real World
The biggest conundrum, of course, is whether consumers really do love brands as much as those working for brands and their agencies do. And even though transparency has been a buzzword in marketing for a while, will viewers really choose to navigate to a site with such blatant consumerism at its core? Unlike sites such as eBay (EBAY) or craigslist, this still seems like something of a one-sided deal.
In its favor, viewers within this demographic have responded favorably to branded programming in the past. Axe Deodorant continues to produce branded TV shows through agency BBH (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/24/06, "Bet You Can't TiVo Past This"). And just as transparency is a key factor in the new world of Web 2.0, so too is the idea of an ongoing, evolving relationship between brand and consumer (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/9/07, "It's the Conversation Economy, Stupid,"). To tap the trend, Honeyshed will have live chat facilities and (as yet undefined) social-networking capabilities. It's all, as Essex puts it, "relationship marketing."
The juxtaposition of various brands within this virtual mall (Essex refused to give details of which brands will be in place by this summer's official launch, saying simply that it will be an "impressive" roster) is certainly an interesting twist that might just give Honeyshed an edge over the ambitious yet underperforming bud.tv. It's also recognition that consumers aren't monomaniacal, and that brands need to live in the real world, even in the virtual space.
A Forward-Looking Model
Brand mash-ups aren't always easy for control freak brand managers to contemplate, but they can be successful. Think of the acclaimed Nike + program, a collaboration between Apple (AAPL) and Nike (NKE) that allows runners to use products from both companies and tap into a whole new world of sport and culture. The unexpected brand adjacencies that will occur within this curated space might just bestow a glow across them all.
While the site has been in development for the past 10 months, details of how the content will be organized still remain scarce. Crucially, the question of how other agencies will be enticed into taking part in an arrangement that might put their clients in direct contact with rivals remains unanswered. And with promotion of the site apparently set to rely on word of mouth and the ability for users to e-mail fragments of programming, the pressure is on to create top-notch content that can genuinely break through.
But at the very least, Honeyshed is looking forward—unlike another deal announced May 8 between cable operator Cox Communications and Walt Disney's (DIS) two big TV networks, ABC and ESPN. In this plan, those networks' programs will be available on demand to Cox subscribers, but the viewers' fast-forward button will essentially have been disabled so they can't skip through the paid-for advertising.
Rather than face up to the reality of the contemporary media landscape (any programming available, any time, in pretty much any format), this comes straight from the fingers-in-the-ear, "I'm not listening" school of thought that chooses to ignore reality in a stubborn attempt to retain a status quo that left the building some time ago. Not only does this approach seem disrespectful to viewers, it almost encourages them to reach for the off button. And this, of course, will only aid the likes of Honeyshed as well as other spaces that are at least attempting to engage and entertain.