‘COVID-19 has reinforced the important role that news organizations play’: CNN executive

Arab News spoke to John Malone, chief creative officer, Create, CNN International Commercial (CNNIC) to learn more about the studio and its work with the other divisions of CNN. (LinkedIn)
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Updated 17 August 2020

‘COVID-19 has reinforced the important role that news organizations play’: CNN executive

  • Q&A with John Malone, chief creative officer, Create, CNN International Commercial (CNNIC)

DUBAI: CNN, the US-headquartered broadcasting network, is widely known for its news programming and reporting. A lesser-known division of CNN is Create, its branded content unit, dedicated to helping brands tell stories using the network’s production skills. The studio employs writers, designers, and filmmakers to provide end-to-end creative services to brands. Arab News spoke to John Malone, chief creative officer, Create, CNN International Commercial (CNNIC) to learn more about the studio and its work with the other divisions of CNN.

Q: When was Create launched in the MENA region?

A: CNNIC was an early adopter of branded content, and our in-house studio dates back 15 years, which is much further than most publishers who now have a studio.

As one of the studio’s founding members, I remember us starting out making TV commercials and other linear content, but our operations, capability, and purpose have grown exponentially since then.

Now we are a full-service global studio developing campaigns and producing and distributing content to run on a whole range of CNN platforms as well as social and, in some cases, third-party media.

We work with clients across most sectors and all parts of the world, but the Middle East is close to our hearts, having worked closely with a range of government and private-sector partners on their campaigns for many years now. 

Q: How does the work produced by Create differ from a typical TV commercial and why should brands work with Create versus their ad agencies to create branded pieces of content?

A: When we approach telling any story, we first consider our audience; we have to treat them as people. Knowing what they are passionate about and where, when, and how they consume content defines our creative approach across all platforms.

Yes, we produce commercials to air on CNN TV networks, but a large part of our work is in developing and producing bespoke digital content. The theme and concept of a campaign will be consistent, but the execution will be entirely specific to the platform and the audience.

A good example of this is our recent award-winning campaign for Shell, which was published on our Great Big Story platform, plus Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.

While this approach will be offered by many studios or agencies, our differentiator is that we are truly global and we know the DNA of our brands through and through, which means the campaigns we develop and the content we produce is best placed to run in one of the world’s most premium media environments and connect with an audience in the hundreds of millions. 

Q: Can you describe Create’s relationship with the sales and editorial teams? Where does Create sit within that structure and how does it work with both these teams to produce content?

A: Create is involved in around 70 percent of all the campaigns developed by CNNIC. We are there right from the pitch and concept stage through to execution and measuring the success of the campaign.

We also work closely with our in-house data experts to ensure that insight is informing our creative process through the entire campaign, and commercial product and operations teams to ensure our content can live and breathe in the right environment.

The editorial team is entirely separate to Create, but we share the same tone of voice and commitment to facts and human storytelling that CNN is known for.

Q: How did COVID-19 affect Create? How did existing clients deal with it and did you notice a decline in new clients?

A: From a production perspective, the main impacts on Create included how to shoot on-location, setting up our teams to work and collaborate effectively remotely, and ensuring the safety of our staff or vendors.

Being part of a global news company such as CNN means that finding solutions and being resourceful is also in our DNA.

We, therefore, adapted our workflow and found creative ways to make shoots happen such as using a trusted local crew and then having our director of photography join via video call to virtually oversee the shoot to ensure all was on point.

In terms of clients, CNNIC’s strategy during the COVID-19 outbreak has been three-fold. Firstly, we worked even more closely with clients most disrupted and affected by the pandemic. Through continued engagement and the work of a dedicated taskforce of experts, we are helping our partners through the crisis and ensured we were ready for when they needed to pivot their messages or re-engage with our audiences.

Secondly, we dialed up the way we worked with sectors that proved more necessary due to COVID-19 such as home entertainment companies, online banking and retail or the big consultancies.

And the third part of our strategy looks beyond the next few months as we plan for the world post-COVID-19. Many consumer habits created by COVID-19 will endure and we will be ready to work with brands as they adapt to these.

Q: Can you give us some examples of work produced during the pandemic?

A: For instance, very early in the crisis, our long-standing partner the UNWTO (World Tourism Organization) recognized the enormous challenge facing the travel and tourism sector as a result of COVID-19. Its messaging became “By staying home today, we can travel tomorrow,” which was then adopted in campaigns and communications from the UNWTO’s member states.

We worked closely with the UNWTO to realize this message for a CNN audience, producing a stunning creative around the theme of #TravelTomorrow which ran on our platforms to inspire people to look forward to traveling again when it would become safe to do so.

From here in the Middle East, we were pleased to develop the creative assets for Saudi Golf that would mark the start of its sponsorship of Living Golf, one of the most popular sports shows on CNN International. The planned launch for the show was delayed due to the enforced break in the sporting calendar, but as golf returned so did the show and the Create-produced billboards and banners for Saudi Golf accompanied the content on TV and digital.

One campaign that launched during the pandemic was the “Art of Leadership” campaign with BMW, including sponsorship of a series on Great Big Story and distribution across CNN platforms of branded content from Create.

This campaign had been long in the planning pre-COVID-19 but was even more relevant to our audiences because its content speaks to the leadership traits needed right now across the world as governments, businesses and communities all battle this common enemy. Not only did we launch this campaign during the pandemic but just before the lockdown, we conducted a fantastic shoot in Paris.

Q: What have you learned during this time?

A: We have learned an incredible amount during this time from changing consumer behavior to enhanced health and safety protocols. But the main learning is how we can adapt our production capabilities, including many aspects that we may have introduced out of necessity due to COVID-19 but will now look to use in the future.

These include tools that allow us to produce and direct remotely, ranging from proprietary software to a solid Internet connection and a phone. Because Create has been in global markets for 15 years, we were able to continue to produce content with trusted teams in-country using the same cinema-quality cameras and lenses we consider standard.

Our directors didn’t have to downgrade our production solutions; instead, we were able to adapt our process and ways of shooting and editing remotely to deliver the same high-quality human storytelling with a globally distributed staff.

Q: How do you think advertising and marketing, in general, and news and branded content, in particular, would be affected for the future?

A: In the news arena, COVID-19 has reinforced the important role that news organizations play. People around the world are coming to CNN and other trusted news brands for facts and information about something that deeply impacts their lives and those of their loved ones.

In a world where misinformation is rife, people know they can trust us when it matters, and they will remember this.

Similarly, I expect this to be a moment where branded content becomes even more important to brands. The industry was already moving toward more purpose-driven storytelling, and now brands realize that it is vital to show audiences what they stand for and how they are able to make the world a better place.

We know strong emotional storytelling makes a lasting connection with audiences, and content from a sophisticated studio can help brands communicate in a memorable way now more than ever before.

Arab News post-debate panelists: No clear winner between Biden and Trump

Updated 30 September 2020

Arab News post-debate panelists: No clear winner between Biden and Trump

  • Arab News correspondents Ray Hanania and Ephrem Kossaify, joined by veteran Arab American journalists Dalia Al-Aqidi and Warren David


CHICAGO: An Arab News panel of four distinguished Arab-American journalists and writers concluded Tuesday evening that there was “no clear winner” in the first of three debates between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
Trump and Biden took the stage in a 90-minute sparring match held at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and moderated by “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace.
Arab News panelists included Dalia Al-Aqidi, a former congressional candidate in Minnesota and award-winning international journalist and commentator covering foreign affairs; and Warren David, president of ArabAmerica.com, a networking website that disseminates events, news, music and culture.



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The discussion was moderated by Arab News New York correspondent Ephrem Kossaify, who has covered American elections since 2004, interviewing former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.
It was emceed by Ray Hanania, a veteran Chicago City Hall political writer who is Arab News’s US special correspondent and columnist.
“I don’t think anybody won,” Al-Aqidi said. “I don’t think this debate made any impact on undecided voters … It wasn’t a debate. It was boring at one point. So I don’t think there was a winner.”
David said the president was “bullying” during the debate. “Trump didn’t follow the rules of the presidential debate, and I think Biden somehow won because Trump was out of control,” David added.
Kossaify said: “We’ve never seen a debate like this one. It was more of a brawl than a debate. There was hope that somehow we’d rise above the chaos tonight, but I don’t think we really did. It was very chaotic throughout.”
Hanania noted that Biden called Trump many names, including “liar”, “clown” and “racist,” while the president spent much time interrupting Biden as he responded to questions, to the point where Wallace reprimanded Trump for violating the rules that were agreed upon by his campaign not to interrupt.
“But Biden did something no one expected. He didn’t stumble … They brought up he was too old to be president, and did he have the mental capacity. He proved he does,” Hanania said.
“Trump on the other hand, I don’t think he was mean as many people thought he’d be, other than using the term ‘Pocahontas’ one time in the beginning. He didn’t call anyone fat. He didn’t insult women. He didn’t insult Biden.”
All agreed that no clear, single issue stood out from either candidate. “It was the same thing back and forth, back and forth, back and forth,” David said.
“I was really disappointed in Wallace. He really came after the president several times, and Biden but more after Trump.”
Panelists agreed that the president interrupted Biden frequently, earning reprimands from Wallace.
What was most memorable of the 90-minute debate? “Biden managed to stay on stage for 96 minutes. The bar is so low for Biden, it was an achievement for him to stay straight for 96 minutes,” Al-Aqidi said.
“I think the biggest failure was Wallace. We didn’t hear clear questions … and he didn’t let us hear the answers. There were very important issues that needed to be discussed, but he couldn’t get a clear answer from both.”
The debate was broken up into short two-minute statements from each candidate on a topic, followed by several minutes of open debate, but it appeared chaotic at times.
The first question was on the appointment of a Supreme Court justice to succeeded Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September.
Other topics included the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, what Wallace described as “race and violence in American cities,” and the integrity of the elections.
“Every issue discussed tonight is very crucial to what’s happening tonight — the Supreme Court nomination to fill the gap of the late Judge Ginsburg and what that would entail; in terms of health care that affects every American; abortion rights; women rights. Everything is in the balance,” said Kossaify.
David said: “This is the most important election in this country … 2020 has had so many issues, starting with COVID-19 and civil rights issues, and starting with impeachment at the beginning of the year … health care, the divisiveness — all of that and the Supreme Court, Roe vs Wade, all these big issues … We can’t afford to have a debate like this because our lives are on the line.”