Interview with UM’s Scott Donaton

- in 2014, INTERVIEWS

I recently spoke to UM‘s Chief Content Officer Scott Donaton. He’s the former editor of Ad Age, author of Madison and Vine: Why the Entertainment and Advertising Industries Must Converge to Survive, and President of the Cannes Lions Branded Content & Entertainment Jury in 2013. The interview was originally conducted as part of series of interviews with other industry experts that I put together for my WTF is branded content? It’s complicated article for Contagious.

It’s hoped that the series will prompt further discussion about what branded content is and isn’t, and how is it is different from branded entertainment, content marketing and all the other related terms being bandied about like native advertising.

Scott sees Branded Content, Branded Entertainment, Content Marketing and even the likes of Native Advertising as being part of the same content spectrum and thinks the beauty is that there’s no one clear definition of what it is:

Broadly speaking, it’s all about what does a brand have to say that’s of value to an audience and what are they ways that they tell those stories.

He explains that there’s also whole number of ways that people are using technology and innovation to tell stories and create experiences now. For example, Scott mentions that within the UM Studios Group there are people working on initiatives that would be more recognizable branded content, such as TV shows, web episodes, or short films. At the same time, he says there are people creating music experiences like a live venue for Jack Daniels in the UK, and even working with Oculus Rift Virtual Reality technologies. Scott thinks all of these are legitimate ways of helping brands communicate their stories in new ways to an audience. However, in the context of an award show he thinks it becomes more difficult to decide what fits in one category and what doesn’t, although he points out that this does vary from award show to award show:

Many of the things we think about as being really great pieces of content are often being awarded at shows such as Cannes by seven, eight, even nine different juries, all legitimately.

That’s why Scott thinks that it’s easy for a branded content jury to say something is also film, or is also print, or is also experiential, or whatever other category it might also legitimately belong in. The challenge, as he sees it, is for a branded content jury to look at a body of work through a different lens than another jury might be using for another award. For Scott, there’s no one answer to this, but he understands that one of the ways this year’s jury at Cannes addressed it was to look at whether there was a storyline that runs through the work. There was a similar conversation when he was president of the Branded Content jury in 2013 about the Red Bull Stratos jump by Felix Baumgartner:

There was an initial feeling before that jury was convened that it was the favorite that was going to win the Grand Prix. But not only was it not entered, we had a conversation as people who do this for a living about what was winning in our jury and by the end of the week we realized that had it been entered then it might not have actually won anything because, amazing as it was and as much as we had all admired what it had accomplished, it wasn’t really necessarily a story.

So when you are looking at this kind of brand story telling Scott thinks it’s partly about seeing whether there’s a narrative thread that pulses through the various elements of what a brand does. This is one of the filters that he thinks branded content juries are trying to put in place, but it’s never going to be an easy task particularly when it comes to awarding a Grand Prix:

My philosophy is more along the lines of what happens at the Olympics, where whoever wins the event or race didn’t necessarily break the world record but they still won the gold medal for that year. It’s my belief that there’s always something you can point to and say that was the best example even if you don’t think it was of the same standard of something that won that award the previous year.

We also discussed content marketing, which he thinks is becoming distinct from what is being called branded content and closer to what’s now being called native advertising, or social and shorter form content. Scott sees this as also being valuable and something that marketers are increasingly using. So when it comes to working with clients he thinks everything from a 140-character tweet to a full length documentary, and everything in between, is legitimate in this space.


When it comes to the branded content category at Cannes he doesn’t think we’ll see native advertising or social only content winning awards any time soon, even if social is likely to play a part in what wins. But Scott does see the lines beginning to blur when you have work like Oreo’s ‘You Can Still Dunk In The Dark‘ Super Bowl Tweet that are being seen as really brilliant marketing on one hand, and when you also have people who are now creating 30 second spots that are examples of great storytelling on the other. That’s why Scott thinks the problem of deciding where one category begins and ends is one that’s also spilling into other juries:

If you are traditionally a jury judging the best TV commercials at Cannes you are awarding a 30 or 60 second spot, but what do you now call the increasing number of campaigns that have 3 or 5 minute accompanying films at their launch even if the primary expression of the campaign is still a 30 or 60 second spot?

Scott thinks things are only going to get trickier because the way things are heading in marketing are not necessarily going to fit easily into the categories of award shows. That’s because he sees the definitions in the real world for what a brand calls what, is actually going to get murkier. He’s OK with this because he thinks what’s being called branded content or content marketing may just be called marketing in future. In fact, he thinks there may not even be the need for specialist units because as with any new thing that comes along there are reasons why specialist are needed, but ultimately it will become just another tool that is used by marketers to engage audiences.

This prediction may not be aligned with the natural inclination of award shows to introduce new categories for any new discipline because of the increasing number of entries it generates, as well as mutually beneficial opportunities for agencies to win awards. But as Scott points out, many of these categories didn’t exist 10 years ago, so it’s not a big surprise that there are campaigns that are winning more awards than ever before. What he thinks is significant though, is that examples like Dumb Ways to Die for Metro Trains by McCann Melbourne and the Beauty Inside for Intel/Toshiba by Pereira O’Dell are being considered by so many juries as being the best work in those areas. As mentioned in my interview with PJ Pereira at Pereira O’Dell, it’s interesting that it’s these stand out examples that also are driving the adoption of branded content. Perhaps, it’s the way that the work blurs the lines between the different disciplines that provides a clue to both winning awards and what’s on the horizon.

Scott has recently been appointed as Chief Content Officer at DigitasLBi, and you can see the BOBCM case study of their Xperia Vs the Northern Lights campaign for Sony here.