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.