Brandchannel interview with BEN’s CEO, Gary Shenk

By  Gary Shenk
On 10/13/2016

In May, Corbis Entertainment (an offshoot of the Corbis image-licensing business founded by Bill Gates) relaunched as Branded Entertainment Network, or BEN. The stated goal of the rebrand was to “access and turn premium entertainment content into measurable advertising opportunities.” Turns out, BEN has been pretty good at it.

In the beginning, BEN found many brands were interested in product placement, but experimented gingerly. But the company says that 93% of brands that experimented with BEN’s services once not only ended up coming back for more but came back with a higher level spend.

While BEN works with brands interested in premium TV programming like HBO’s Silicon Valley (Chevy Volt) and Showtime’s Ray Donovan (Heineken), it’s now one of the biggest players in the social media/brand integration space.

We spoke with BEN CEO Gary Shenk about assuring quality brand placements, the role of user-generated content and the explosion, power and regulation of brand integration with social media influencers.

brandchannel: BEN allows brands to select projects by budget. Does that create challenges to make sure the product placements are appropriate?

Gary Shenk: That’s never really a risk for us because the type of contact that we operate with makes sure the brands have a good experience. We’ve been in this business longer than anyone else and we recognize that when it’s authentic and seamless, brand integration can catch lightning in a bottle. If it’s not authentic and it’s too overt it can have a detrimental impact on brand.

We would never do an integration that crosses that line. We’re always working with premium content and we always give them the creative leeway to make the magic happen onscreen. Doing it that way has a price attached to it. The reality is, the price is much better when compared to traditional advertising in terms of effectiveness. But it does cost money in order to do that level of integration.

We’re never going to say to a brand, “Oh, you only have so much budget, let’s go into some second-rate content.” We would never do that because it would be detrimental to the brand and our service. Rather, we would ask, what are the brand’s goals? What is the budget and what can we do that will have an extremely positive impact with that amount of money? And in the case where we can’t do that, we’re not going to do the project.

brandchannel: Speaking of doing this longer than anyone else, you got your start clearing rights and creating, basically, what the kids today call mash-ups. Recently Reddit said it would allow brands to “sponsor” content created on its network where brand mentions and mash-ups are ubiquitous. How big an opportunity or a risk is it for brands to draw attention to user-created content?

Shenk: I think that is a bit of a risk for brands. Our strategy is to work with social influencers who are proven in terms of their authentic connection to audiences. We have relationships with 30,000 influencers across platforms. We’re working with proven quantities. We know what they are and they know how to connect to their audiences.

While we allow them creative leeway to weave their magic in their own videos, we do have several points of control. We establish basic messaging points that we want to communicate and after they have done the video with the brand we do ensure that it is consistent with out guidelines before it gets posted. I think it’s important to work with proven influencers and to have control too make sure the brand messaging is going to be communicated the way the brand wants.

If you leave it completely up to users, in some cases really good stuff can happen. But there is a real risk of bad things happening.

brandchannel: You mention social media influencers. That’s a huge growth area for product placement, one that has led to a lot of rule-making and regulations. Is there a level at which product placement in social media is a little self-destructive? How do you deal with everyone doing it maybe not so professionally and it spilling over?

Shenk: Working with social media influencers is the fasting-growing part of BEN. Influencers predominantly means YouTube but it also means Snapchat and Twitch and Facebook and Instagram. Influencer product integration is incredibly effective. The level of engagement between the audience and the content is much higher than traditional programming. The audiences are also much more loyal to that producer.

The influencer is called an influencer because they have a much higher ability to impact an action by their audience whether it be liking something or ideally going out and buying it. That said, in order to do it well it’s critical to follow best practices. We call it the “magic triangle” where you have consensus between the brand, the audience and the creator. They all need to be at the table equally, with none of those three imposing itself on the others.

And disclosure is incredibly important (for) a paid promotion by a brand. And not only disclosure in the video itself but also in the footnotes of the video. We’ve found that showing a disclosure actually makes the authenticity of the integration even more effective. Product integration in social media is destructive when it’s not done well and it doesn’t play by the basic rules. I’d argue that when you abide by the rules, [social media integration] is the most effective of all the integration channels, especially in the millennial demographic.

brandchannel: Does BEN have any plans to become a production house and make its own content and shows?

Shenk: That came up just this week. Increasingly we are meeting with clients who are doing a lot of their own branded content production, and certainly premium branded content, like BMW Films, traps lightning in a bottle.

But for now, we are playing in the space off other people’s content and enabling seamless integration into that content. However, clearly there is synergy from a client’s perspective to offer brands not only that seamless integration in other content but also production of their own content that they can own and distribute themselves. That’s something that we’re going to be exploring either via partnerships or through organic evolution.

Gary Shenk, CEO of Branded Entertainment Network