winter / 2014

The magazine of branded content
Mike Wiese's strategic approach to brand videos at JWT has clients up out of their seats
Jan 6, 2015

I’m at the J. Walter Thompson offices in Midtown Manhattan to meet with Mike Wiese, head of original and branded entertainment, and I’m swallowed by the layout: a couple thousand square-feet of glass partitions and video walls, a ceiling reaching three stories high, a terraced conference area, an overhead heat lamp that looks like a future-retro prop from Sleepers. The space, a warehouse of luminous pastels, projects enough confidence to earn my vote as “Most Likely to Close a Deal on its Own.”

“Content marketing, for me, is about turning brands into entertainment brands.”

Despite this whiff of a 21st-century Mad Men set, I’m not expecting a starched-collar Don Draper to materialize, and he doesn’t: Wiese arrives in a pair of high-top sneakers, well-worn jeans and a fleece jacket. Big and lumbering, he looks more like a football coach. We retreat to a couple of low sofas in an alcove overlooking Lexington Avenue, and in his soft-spoken tone he politely begins to talk about content and its place in the storied JWT ecosystem.

Quite simply, from his perch, informed by a film school background and nearly 20 years of agency experience producing scripted and unscripted TV series and brand extensions, he views content from a “big-brand” lens—if it doesn’t create a following, it’s not worth doing. Think The Lego Movie (“Possibly the best branded content ever,” says Wiese. “Simply a great story, rooted in what the brand and product is about—enabling imagination and connecting with the kid in all of us.”)

“Content marketing, for me, is about turning brands into entertainment brands,” says Wiese, whose JWT client roster includes Macy’s, Nestle and Rolex. “Ideally, they’ve created a base of fans that are looking for that content, hopefully on a recurring basis.”

“We [should] think more about what audiences want to watch and spend time with, and less about the brand or product attribute and how that gets showcased.”

The operative word here, one that made repeat appearances in our conversation, is “fans,” and it’s an instructive one, as many content marketers think in the more abstract terms “audience” and “consumer.” “Fans” sounds warmer, more aspirational. We all know fans. In fact, most of us are fans of something, even if it’s just ourselves we’re fans of. Besides, when’s the last time you referred to yourself as a “consumer”?

In the first few minutes of our conversation, Wiese, who oversees branded content creation primarily for TV and YouTube, had briefed me on the challenges of episodic programming, in the language of “always-on” and “always relevant” channels.

Wiese works in a “real time” world, making content that “connects the audience to what’s really happening, in their world,” he says. “How you do that is create programming that’s native to where those people are living and experiencing their life. YouTube’s a good example of producing for a platform where you’re not just going to put up content for content’s sake. It needs to be produced with a very specific mindset of how that audience is interacting, participating and sharing that content.”

As an example Wiese notes that the first decision a creative team needs to think about when producing video is how the host interacts with the camera. It’s the key to creating fans, he says, and the way to get there is through testing. “I think testing for the future will be driven by test and learn platforms like YouTube,” he says. “You can produce some programming, a single episode of something, put it in a private or public viewing setting and get some real-time reaction to it. If it works you come back and you release more. If it doesn’t work you take it down or you just bury it in the platform and you move on. It’ll be less about committee meetings and more about let’s just get it made and let the focus group be the audience. These platforms, the YouTubes of the world, and other social platforms, allow that real-time feedback to tell you if you have something. And they don’t lie.”

“I think testing for the future will be driven by test and learn platforms like YouTube.”

This real-time feedback, be it for big-ticket agency or otherwise, plays a crucial role on the path to ROI. Back in the ‘90s, says Wiese, when he was working a project with Chrysler, the ROI metric was “Does it move metal?” He still believes “Does it sell?” is the ultimate metric. “Does the content move the needle?” he says. “When I did the project with Chrysler years ago, their reaction was ‘Does it get the car off the dealership lot?’ or ‘Does it get a test drive?’ And I think the metric we all need to be focused on is ‘How does the content create a call to action?’ The best entertainment, for instance, prompts you to go to the theater or makes you go to iTunes to download it or it gets you to share it with your friends which drives the purchase funnel. So I think brands need to apply a similar sentiment. In branded content, especially digital, you can layer the calls to action throughout.”

As our interview wraps up and Wiese rises to leave, he continues talking, as if he’s in TED Talk mode. “So, if we think more about what audiences want to watch and spend time with, and less about the brand or product attribute and how that gets showcased, we’ll win in the long term because we’ll have more people following us, watching us, spending time with us.”

I thank Wiese for his time, appreciative of the insight that re-casts “audience” and “consumer” into “fans.” For me, that’s time well spent.