From building its own digital network to high-end production and creative, this studio's branded content proposition fits its name.*comment*
Imagine, if you will, that you snared the tech smarts of a new media digital startup, the savvy of veteran Broadway and movie producers, the 'tude of a bunch of viral video funnymen and the packaging smarts of an experienced global distribution exec, and then tossed them into a room full of creatives and told them to make some branded content for advertisers and agencies.
Sounds like the pitch meeting for a great cable reality series, the set up to an off-color joke or the inner workings of a company called Big Block.
We've written about them in our Special Feature section before, when we focused on their skills in the automotive space last year. (You can check out that profile here.) Since then the company has grown well beyond its roots as a design company specializing in car brands, blossoming into a broad-based entertainment, media and ad content studio. As such, they've moved boldly into the branded content arena while simultaneously preparing to launch a string of digital entertainment ventures.
When I asked Big Block President Scott Benson if the studio's development of original entertainment and their efforts to grow their branded content side were part of a combined overall strategy, he answered, "Absolutely. Brands are eager to work with people who understand their need for measurement, both in the form of KPIs and ROIs, and they require a team with a holistic approach from quality content to the feedback loop inherent with digital distribution channels. And that's what we are uniquely.
"There's a need today for brands to offer up the right content experience for today's uber-connected consumer, Benson continues, says, "and this encompasses everything from live entertainment to video, from gamification to interactive. So if you're a company that just does live action production, you can't solve all of a client's issues. With the collective of talent and capabilities we've assembled here, we can meet virtually any client need. We can expand deeper into the consumer experience, which is a vital area for brands."
"The key to making this work – and in turn making it a smart ROI decision for a brand – is the quality of the creative itself," adds Big Block Managing Director Kenny Solomon. "It has to be entertaining and authentic, or else it smacks of being an ad." That's why BB has teamed on the branded content side with a crew of young writer/directors who bring solid entertainment chops to the party.
This group, which has already produced some lauded branded content projects, includes talents like Josh + Vince (aka Josh Ruben and Vince Peone), who came out of CollegeHumor.com and are in demand to help propel brands into the topsy-turvy world of viral mania. Another notable member is Director Paul Trillo, a tech whiz who's created some arresting work for brands such as Microsoft, for whom he shot "Living Moments," a short that takes viewers on a dizzying journey.
Director John Poliquin and the teams of B+W and GHOST+COW round out BB's New York-based content creation roster. "These are all new media storytellers who thrive in a collaborative culture and whose impact on advertising and social media provides almost unlimited opportunities for brand integration," says Solomon.
Big Block's roots are in creating automotive content, and they've applied this skill admirably in the branded content space. For example, their "Chop Shop" project for Hyundai was an AICP Next Award winner last year. It let fans of "The Walking Dead" offer up online suggestions on how they'd outfit a customized zombie-killing Hyundai, which the carmaker went out and built. The vehicle was displayed at Comic-con and other venues, generating an immense amount of social media interest not to mention a fair share of fanboy lust.
Another major achievement in the branded content space was their work on Nissan's launch of its Le Mans prototype, a central part of its Super Bowl 2015 TV campaign. This included an interactive web experience produced with digital agency Critical Mass and directed by Trillo. Titled "Meet the Machines," it's a 'frozen moments' look at the Nissan Nismo racer as it flies around a curve at a track, shot at a breathless thousand frames per second.
Other branded content projects of note include an award-winning Save the Children PSA created by Josh + Vince as part of a Mother's Day campaign last year. Designed to call attention to how many mothers and children die each year from preventable causes, "The Most Important Sexy Video" features sultry models reading lines at an audition that suddenly veer from 'come hither' to calls for action. The pair also teamed for an integrated project for The Via Agency for Greenpeace campaign titled "#Clickclean" that features their friend, the comedian and musician Reggie Watts, while the team of B+W shot a documentary on Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for Sports Illustrated that gives viewers an intimate look at the legendary NASCAR scion.
A big side of BB's brand offering is what they're doing to create an accompanying distribution platform for their content. Stephanie Sanborn, Big Block's President of Digital Content, joined the company earlier this year, bringing with her a background in audience development and digital distribution. "Her role is to lead the charge for us in the intersection of content development, brand integration and entertainment, says Solomon, "with an emphasis on how we package it and how we approach it from the distribution side."
Formerly with Deluxe Entertainment, Sanborn is not the kind of professional you'd typically find at a production company, with her easy discussion of things like audience aggregation, but once she gets going she's kind of spellbinding. Her description of Big Block's plans for building and utilizing new digital and mobile networks is especially impressive. One network, aimed at millennials and designed to build audiences for the handful of digital features they've got in the pipeline, will be available via a mobile app and goes by the name Pass the Nachos (or the PTN Network, as Solomon called it). When it launches later this year it will have brand partnerships in place and offer a mix of 'freemium' and paid subscription content.
They're doubling down on this MCN venture by creating content peppered with social media stars, Sanborn explains, using sophisticated listening tools to essentially build their creative around topics and personalities that have built-in audiences. This allows them to present a more or less turnkey proposition to brands: high-quality creative content, produced at budget, cast with proven social media faves as well as mainstream celebrities and distributed on a custom-built platform that assures all the analytics and activation opportunities you could shake an Emmy at.
Currently Sanborn is leading BB's multiplatform campaign for a soon-to-be-launched consumer electronics product that will alter how people generate power and has the potential to be transformative in developing and impoverished countries. The scope of this work will require everything from documentaries to short web videos to building a global mobile and social media platform. "Brands and marketers require greater control of their cross media executions and audience development," she notes. "By design, our brand partners are able to seamlessly tap all of our capabilities."
Backing up this creative and distribution power is Big Block's team of EPs, who boast a wide range of advertising and entertainment credentials. Corwin Carroll heads up the New York office as EP, recently promoted from his role as Head of Production. A multi-faceted producer who's worked in everything from live action, VFX and post production to coding and development, he held multiple roles at Ogilvy's in-house production company, Eyepatch, before freelancing at numerous other agencies.
Scott Prisand, Jamie Bendell and Tom Pellegrini lead Big Block's entertainment ventures, and the trio is well versed (pardon the musical pun). Their group produced the well-received Off Broadway run of the musical adaptation of "Heathers" and has Broadway plans for "A Family Thing," a new play by "Orange is the New Black" writer-producer Gary Lennon.
Prisand, a 17-time Tony Award nominee, has among his Broadway credits "Rock of Ages," "Legally Blonde," "Bombay Dreams" and "BKLYN the Musical." He'll soon be partnering with Def Jam founder Russell Simmons on a new hip-hop musical (as recently reported by Variety and The New York Times), and served as producer on the feature film version of "Rock of Ages" as well as the indie favorite "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," which he co-produced with Pellegrini.
Solomon says Big Block's broad structure allows them to quickly assemble the right content creation, production and technical talent for each job, pulling from across its spectrum of expertise. In this model, Carroll and the New York content creators partner with Prisand, Pellegrini and the creative, production, development and design teams in Santa Monica to produce work both for agencies as well as directly for clients.
Going forward, the studio plans to unite all of its divisions – previously broken down by entertainment, live action, design and media – under a single banner. "All of our skill sets are blending, just as media forms are," Benson says. "We no longer felt the need to call out our specializations; rather, we're all just Big Block." It's a subtle but significant move, he adds. "Our collective knowledge base is a force multiplier, which greatly amplifies the value of the content Big Block is able to offer to all of our clients."
Solomon says this is basically about going full circle. "You can create great content, but then what? Particularly in the branded content space, clients want to know where it's going to live, who's going to see it and what they're going to do with it once they've seen it. The capabilities we're building here will let us take them on a round trip, so to speak. And having these other parts of the equation in place is not just important, it's critical."