The Godfather of the Branded Web Series Reveals His Secrets to Success
Before Chipotle’s “Farmed and Dangerous” and IKEA’s “Easy To Assemble,” there was “The Temp Life,” the web’s first-ever branded series, which was launched in 2006 by professional actor and producer Wilson Cleveland.
Since breaking the mold of online entertainment, Cleveland founded UNboxd, his own creative digital studio, where he produces original series for brands, networks, and companies. Most recently, he has acted in and produced “Leap Year,” a comedy about techies competing to fund their startup. The show is sponsored by Hiscox, an insurance company looking to reach that same demographic.
I caught up with Wilson to dig deeper into the process of creating his shows and to see what advice he has for companies and creatives that want to embark on similar projects.
Do companies come to you with the creative concept for their videos in mind, or are you coming up with the idea yourself?
What we do is I’ll go to a client and figure out what their biggest issue is, in the sense of what is a story that’s not being told, or not being heard, or the story that you can’t necessarily tell with PR—which is generally, “We’re so awesome, and we serve this audience.” You can’t always tell every story you want to tell through a third-party medium.
We were one of the first companies to do this, in 2006. We had a client that was one of the largest temp agencies in the country, and they said, “We really want to get it out there that you can be a full-time temp, and that that can be a great career.” They were looking for a sort of younger generation to come in, and they had a lot of open jobs, and they weren’t getting very many people. People weren’t understanding that temping can be a reliable job.
So we were like, “Well, don’t forget that temping kind of sucks. And most people don’t really like temping. So what if we made a sitcom about crappy temp jobs?” The idea was: We’ll get in their good graces by making fun of ourselves and the fact that temping isn’t always awesome. But the company’s message will be: We can do something better for you. That ended up becoming a show called “The Temp Life” in 2006. It ended up having five seasons. It was the first branded web series—really ever.
So we go in and we find, what’s the story not being told, and we tell it in a different way. We tell it visually, through the premise of the series.
Have you had issues where you think that something you’ve written is funny and relatable to the audience, but the company isn’t so sure about the idea?
For the companies that are getting the show, there’s no product integration and there’s no true content marketing. You might get “sponsored by whoever” with a logo at the beginning, and that’s it. So it’s not about them as a business specifically. But it’s still relevant.
One example that we did was for an insurance company, Hiscox. They wanted to reach young tech entrepreneurs because they were a brand new insurance product for tech entrepreneurs. But they had no credibility with that audience. They were brand new in the U.S. So I said, “If you want to tell these tech entrepreneurs that you’re confident and that you understand them, let’s just make a show about tech entrepreneurs.”
In terms of companies that are unsure, the more consumer the brand, the more difficult it is, in my opinion, for them to be flexible. That’s usually a challenge. But the surprising thing is that most of the companies that we make these videos for are big and boring financial services companies that most of the general population has never heard of. But they have a lot of money and they want to get their name out there and do something cool. So believe it or not, they are the most flexible. In two years, we did 20 episodes, and Hiscox had maybe had three notes. They know they’re not the creatives. It’s working with big brands, who are used to working with an agency, who are more of a challenge.
Do you wish that big companies would trust you to run with the creative?
There have been cases where the further you get into the script, the company starts to get a little bit nervous. They will get a little protective, because web series as content marketing is still very new. There are still very few agencies that do it. But we do. So they’re looking at it through a very different lens—they’re not used to this kind of thing. My advice is always: Trust the people who are making it for you. If you’re just focused on how your product is unwrapped in the video, you’re never gonna get there. It’s never going to help you as a marketing vehicle. Because it’s not an ad. The audience would not watch it if it’s overly branded.
People are used to watching television. They will accept the fact that there are ads. There are commercials. That is the time when people are open to hearing ad messages, not when it’s in the show.
How have your videos helped companies?
For Hiscox, “Leap Year” helped raise their sales 35 percent over the 12 weeks that the show’s second season was on. That is because there was a lot of marketing around it and there were some great guest stars, but also because it’s online and there is a link to their website in the description of each of their episodes. There’s always a link somewhere. It wasn’t up in your face. People just ended up loving the show so much that they ended up loving the brand because they made this thing that the audience likes. So they’ll check you out; if they’re looking for insurance, they’ll check out your site.
Did your client from “Leap Year” do traditional advertising before the web series?
Hiscox had done very traditional ads—print ads, magazine ads. They had a traditional PR program. They’re a very conservative brand, and we thought that never in a million years would they go for this idea. But it’s done more for their brand than anything else that they’ve done since they set up shop in the U.S. a few years ago.
What has your favorite project been so far?
Of course I love all of my children equally. But I think we broke the most ground with “Leap Year.” The first season was pretty traditional because we had the company’s brand with the logo in the beginning for half of the budget. But the second season we went all-in and did 10 of the 20 two-minute episodes—more of what you’re seeing now. We did a media buy around it, so it was the most traditional television show that you would get that was sponsored by a brand and that was online.
The other show that was a favorite of mine, just because conceptually it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, is a show called “Suite 7,” which is sponsored by the Better Sleep Council. Yes, there is one of those. That was a series of stories that took place in the same hotel room. We got seven writers, seven directors, and seven couples. And we shot it in one week. So it was a new director with a new aesthetic, everything, in the same exact room.
What advice do you have to give to companies who want to make their own sponsored videos?
Companies are worried that “If we’re not in their face, people won’t know that this is made by us.” But consumers know it’s you. They know it’s you. The know the brand that’s behind it. It’s when you keep reminding them that they’ll tune you out.
If you want to tweet something at Wilson, you can find him @WilsonCleveland.
Want to watch more of Wilson’s work? Check out: