Jan Godsk on defining branded content through awards

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Jan Godsk is a branded content consultant and serial award juror who heads up the BCMA’s Scandinavian Chapter. I spoke to him along with other industry experts as part of my WTF is branded content? It’s complicated article for Contagious. I’ve included our full interview here as part of a series that I hope 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.

We discussed how the various creative awards differ in their definitions of branded content and branded entertainment, and in the ways that submissions are judged.

For example, the definition used by Cannes Lions for their Branded Content & Entertainment category is “the creation of, or natural integration into, original content by a brand.” The Webby Awards definition for their Branded Content category, however, is: “Short films, commercials and video that premiered on the Internet and promote brands, products, or services for commercial purposes i.e. advertising.”

The Cannes Lions definition is interesting because Avi Savar (interviewed here by BOBCM) sees branded content and branded entertainment as having two different definitions that are in essence the two parts of the Cannes Lions definition:

In branded entertainment we are talking about the placement or integration of a product into a format that pre-exists. Branded content on the other hand is the creation of a new format through the eyes of a brand, meaning it’s original programming and the creation of new formats that a brand works with.”

Avi was the president of the inaugural Cannes Lion jury for this category, which Jan was also on, and you can see him being interviewed as part of the 2012 awards below. His distinctions are similar to the ones Jan and I discussed as part of  Best of Branded Content Marketing.

However, in today’s interview, Jan explained that when you try to define these terms, “content” means different things to different people, and so you encounter the same kind of problems posed by asking a question such as “What is art?”

Then there’s the issue of trying to pin down a definition when the approaches are still evolving, not least because of the huge technological and cultural change going on.

But Jan’s thinking is also informed by his experience as a juror. Like Avi, Jan mentioned that jurors spent a lot of time before Cannes 2012 trying to define the Branded Content & Entertainment category, given that it was the first year of the award at Cannes. When they met that first day in the jury room, they started by asking each other, “What should we be looking for?” Jan notes that looking at the work was more important, because that’s when the jury was able to see what is and isn’t great branded content. And that’s why he thinks that the proof is in the pudding, not the description:

It’s a bit like trying to explain an elephant to a blind person. But if you look at what’s actually winning awards then you’ll see there’s some agreement about the best work. This illustrates that juries can see the best examples even though the award shows have different definitions

Jan accepts that there are always going to be some differences of opinion because jurors are people, and as human beings we’re always going to have different tastes, preferences and perceptions about what is good – whether it’s art, literature, cinema, music, or marketing. His point being that you will get different results from one show to another, but if you look at the creative awards as a whole then you will see the cream rising to the top.

Jan also discussed the decision not to award a Grand Prix at Cannes from the 1,200 entries that were submitted in 2014. Jan pointed out this is 400 more submissions than when he was on the first jury in 2012. Therefore, part of the problem for him is that it becomes more difficult to stand out from the crowd and move the industry forward as the approach to branded content becomes more mainstream. However, he thinks the problem is more likely to be about there still being far too many people submitting work that they think is branded content when what they are actually doing is what Avi described as glorified advertising. So, for Jan, the decision not to award a Grand Prix this year throws down the gauntlet, challenging agencies to take a look at the award-winning work that is shaping the category and produce groundbreaking branded content, rather then play it safe with what are little more than longer-form ads.

As part of this discussion, Jan also talked about Volvo Trucks’ ‘The Epic Split’ campaign featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme. It was awarded a Grand Prix at Eurobest in 2013 as part of the client’s ‘Live Test Series’ programme, but wasn’t nominated for an award at Cannes. Jan thinks it’s an interesting example, because it shows how juries can come to different conclusions based on the different perspectives the jurors have about what is branded content and entertainment:

Do you see it as a one-off viral video, or do you see it as part of a TV-like series that was developed for YouTube. I’m split, but the crazy stunts wouldn’t work without a vehicle. So you can see the Volvo Trucks ‘Live Test Series’ as a programme like Top Gear where they are trying to test something, and this wouldn’t work if they didn’t have a truck to do the test. If you look at what they are doing in this context, or a show like MythBusters, then you can see how the premise is similar to TV programming

Jan thinks that the discussion about whether or not ‘The Epic Split’ is branded content is grist to the mill given that more award shows are including a branded content category, with more sub-categories also emerging. He thinks this is a good thing because it means that the discussion about branded content is framed around the best examples in the category and that will sharpen the definition year by year. For Jan, it’s these award-winning cases that are the best way to define what branded content is and isn’t, with the diversity of the international juries playing an important role in shaping this consensus.

This is interesting because, as mentioned in BOBCM’s interview with PJ Pereira, one of the key drivers of adoption of branded content is the stand-out examples that create a delineation of the boundaries between the award categories. It’s PJ’s belief that we’re in an industry that is supposed to be continually changing because it should be about doing things differently. That’s why he thinks being too focused on definitions gets in the way of evolving the category more dynamically by benchmarking work against the best examples, particularly those groundbreaking precedents that move the industry forward.

Jan seems to be echoing this sentiment, so perhaps what is being postulated here is a pragmatic solution for both showcasing the best examples and enabling what’s good to evolve within the definitions of branded content and entertainment framed by the award shows, as the most innovative work naturally continues to blur the lines between the different disciplines and award categories.

Check out the other interviews in this series with PJ Pereira, Scott Donaton, Avi Savar, James Morris and more.

About the author

Justin Kirby is a strategist, writer, and speaker, and is a Lecturer on both the BA (Hons) and MA Advertising courses at London College of Communication. Justin has a 20+ year career in industry as a digital strategist, producer and entrepreneur. He’s been writing about the impact of interactive technologies on business and marketing since the early 90s, and his books include ‘Connected Marketing: the viral, buzz and word of mouth revolution (2005) and the Best of Branded Content Marketing’ (BOBCM) series he conceived and has been curating since 2013. Justin also chairs and speaks at conferences around the globe, judges awards, and consults brands and agencies.