David Lang faced a hurdle when he was appointed chief content officer of MindShare Entertainment.
It was one thing to bring to the new job a robust Rolodex—after all, as a senior VP of development and production for Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video, and as producer for The Rosie O’Donnell Show, he had collected a deep bench of talent.
“A television producer creates a show that people want to watch.”
But what he didn’t bring was a thesaurus.
“When I came here,” says Lang, “people said, ‘Oh you know branded entertainment,’ and I was like ‘What’s that?’ They’d say, ‘Well, you’re a writer–producer-director guy who did shows with clients attached. It’s just kind of what you did.’ I said, ‘I guess, sure, I can do that. You’re saying I did that? OK.’”
This was in 2006, and as “branded entertainment”—Lang's preferred term—hadn’t reached critical mass, there was a “jargon hurdle.”
“I translate that now to creating content that people want to watch. It’s not that different.”
But he did have ideas—and that Rolodex. Early on in his tenure, In The Motherhood, a series of mom-centric webisodes for Sprint and Suave starring Jenny McCarthy, Chelsea Handler and Leah Remini, scored 5.5 millions views in its first season and was picked up for broadcast TV in 2009, the first branded content to do so.
For Dove Calming Night, he enlisted Penny Marshall to direct a series of webisodes for Dove body wash. Starring Felicity Huffman, the series digitally threaded the actress into vintage sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver, The Munsters and The Brady Bunch, interacting with the TV moms of yore as she asked them about the secrets of motherhood.
“Sometimes a brand manager’s knee-jerk reaction is to make content into advertising.”
“A television producer,” says Lang, “creates a show that people want to watch. I translate that now to creating content that people want to watch. It’s not that different.”
Still boyish at 51, Lang, sitting in MindShare’s Midtown offices, projects a self-effacing, no-nonsense charm—a helpful attribute for encounters with a CMO or brand manager who needs, err, guidance.
“Sometimes a brand manager’s knee jerk reaction is to make content into advertising,” says Lang. “It is our belief that advertising tells a consumer what to buy, while content tells a consumer what a brand believes, what a brand stands for. There’s a very big difference. When you do a multi-platform content campaign, there are times when the brand is primary, and there are times when the brand is secondary.”
“It is our belief that advertising tells a consumer what to buy, while content tells a consumer what a brand believes, what a brand stands for.”
To Lang, it’s all framed by consumer behavior, expectations and experience. He uses these terms when speaking with a new client, a tactic that has elicited its share of indignant responses. “One brand manager asked me if I’d ever heard the phrase ‘He who has the gold makes the rules,’” says Lang. “He said to me, ‘I have the gold. I’m paying for it. Why would I ever be secondary?’”
Lang replied, because consumers want it that way. “So it’s really important for us to have honest conversations with brands to say, ‘if you put your brand front and center in this situation you will turn off your target consumer; if you play a secondary role you will gain major points with them.’”
“I’m not saying that the brand goals and objectives aren’t met, but branded content is not about the brand, it’s about the consumer.”
That approach, says Lang, has worked for eight years now, with about 250 projects annually. “I’m not saying that the brand isn’t present. I’m not saying that the brand goals and objectives aren’t met, but branded content is not about the brand, it’s about the consumer.”
When Lang mentions that 91-percent of his clients re-sign for another project, the figure seems to linger in the air without any need for clarification. “We sit inside a media agency,” he says flatly. “We’ve learned to be very ROI focused.”
While talent and resources are crucial to a positive outcome for a client, Lang says it’s also important to understand the endgame of the creative journey. “Every year, clients will ask, ‘What’s the big idea?’ We’ve heard it for decades. For us, that’s only part of the equation. The other part is, ‘What’s the execution? Where is it going? Why, how, and what’s the sequence?’ We believe it’s important to develop the distribution strategy at the same time as the creative, because they influence each other—where it’s going to be placed and who you’re trying to reach is going to infuse what you create, and how you create.”
“When I push myself out of my comfort zone, that’s when I know an idea or program has really big potential.”
That said, Lang believes the best ideas occur in collaboration. That's where the Rolodex comes into play. He can wrangle talent from his days in TV—he can tap director Gail Mancuso, of Modern Family, or writers from The Colbert Report or Frazier to work on projects.
“When I make myself nervous about an idea then I know I’m on to something,” he says. “So when I push myself out of my comfort zone that’s when I know an idea or program has really big potential.”
After eight years in his role at MindShare, the TV exec in him remains. Since rolling out digital product has allowed him more flexibility than producing for TV, the father of two teenage boys says that he now has time to take his kids to NBA games. “When I’m working late, and somebody asks, ‘Why don’t you go home?’ I say, ‘I’ve got to do this for tomorrow, the client needs to see this cut tomorrow.’ They say, ‘Just ask for another day.’ I’m like…‘You can do that?’ As a television person, you know, an air day’s an air day and that ain’t movin.’”