CBS’ branded content mishap


In the words of Howard Mittman, a colleague of mine, and current publisher of GQ, “branded content sucks…basically because it’s branded.” He said this quite directly to a group of marketers and agency creatives during an event I hosted back in 2012 discussing the future of creativity. His words never rang so true as they did last night, when CBS broadcast a 2-hour special to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birthday.

The broadcast was neither a celebration of Frank Sinatra’s birthday (that’s next week, on December 12th,) nor was it simply a network broadcasting a program of entertainment tailored to its slightly older demographic audience. It was simply (and sadly,) a bloated bit of branded content.

The broadcast bill was (likely) shared between The Grammys® and Steve Wynn, both of whom were on full display during the event. In short, the variety-format music program was basically a 2-hour commercial with paid talent and a sorely lacking bit of licensed footage strewn throughout.

If you’re a real Sinatra fan, this program was a letdown. There was very little actual Frank Sinatra footage, and the lineup of talent was, well, suspect. Seriously. Adam Levine is very good at what he does. And that is NOT singing standards.

Instead, it was a 70-day prequel to “music’s biggest night,” which airs on CBS on February 15th. Hence the lineup of Grammy sweethearts: John Legend, Carrie Underwood, LL Cool J, Zac Brown. And some kind of weird choices, like Nick Jonas, Adam Levine, and, well, isn’t that enough? The only surprise is that Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars weren’t on stage to sing “Me and My Shadow.” (You’re welcome, CBS. And see what I did there?)

According to Nielsen, the show was viewed by 8.74 million people. My guess is that was enough of an audience for these two “producers” to foot the bill for the ad time (and likely a hybrid time-buy,) to gain broad exposure for both of their properties. The Grammys would like the world to tune in on February 15th, and Steve Wynn would like at least 1% of the world to visit his hotel and casino.

It’s perfectly acceptable to promote your properties, and perfectly fine to do it with entertainment content. Brands do it all the time, and most of the time, they do it well. But last night was a prime example of getting it wrong. Mostly because the core audience was ignored, and the subject matter of the program was somewhat mistreated.

Frank Sinatra fans probably tuned in last night to see and hear FRANK. But they didn’t. They got…Adam Levine. So it ends up coming off like a bait and switch. If you’re going to attempt to push your brand through content (it’s an excellent idea,) then remember – as with all aspects of marketing – to keep the consumer at the center of the conversation. Last night could have been something special, but it wasn’t, precisely for that reason.

My thoughts on how they could have gotten this right:

  1. MORE FRANK. When you say you’re celebrating Frank Sinatra at 100, you should probably spend more than six total minutes on your subject matter, and maybe slightly less on pop stars and benefactors.
  2. LESS WYNN. A simple “coming to you live from the world famous Wynn Resort” and a couple of well-timed commercial spots would have been just fine. Cutting to camera shots of Mr. Wynn and his wife approximately every four minutes might have been overdoing it.
  3. CONNECTIVE TISSUE. Sure, CBS wants to promote the Grammys, and Frank Sinatra and music and awards are all connected at the hip. Frank is a Grammy hall-of-famer, with 13 Grammy Awards, and 32 nominations. Grammy could have celebrated Grammy by celebrating Frank’s Grammys.
  4. CONTEXT.  Instead of people simply singing standards that Frank made famous, they could have done vignettes about how Sinatra influenced them, and how they’ve tried their best to emulate his success.
  5. THE ARRANGEMENTS. I’ll give props where they are due. Whoever it was that had the idea to honor (mostly) the original Nelson Riddle arrangements should get a healthy pat on the back. This was a GREAT way to connect the dots and wrap the target consumer in a warm robe of familiarity. Nice work there.

Affiliate Retargeting: the next, next thing?

In marketing, there’s almost nothing new under the sun. Even new developments in mobile and RTB are just platform-leveraging automations and algorithmically-enhanced functions of previous procedures. But what would happen if we took two sort-of-new concepts and smashed them together?

Here’s what I’m talking about: we all have a pretty good idea of what affiliate marketing is. In this arrangement, a marketer pays an affiliate on a performance basis for referral clicks from prospects. Clicks are more likely to occur when the prospect has trust in the content provider and understands that there’s an implied endorsement of the marketer’s product or service. The financial model is typically a revenue share.




We also have a clear understanding of what retargeting is. In this arrangement, a cookie is dropped on a potential customer’s computer after they’ve visited a particular site. For a period of time, that prospect is served display ads for that site/product/service, creating context and recall. The financial model is typically on a CPM basis.



Both of these are used in many ways, with varying degrees of frequency, and usually as a component in an integrated digital marketing plan. But what if we took these two models and smashed them together?

I’d call it affiliate retargeting.

In this arrangement, a prospect visits a site and consumes or browses content. A cookie is dropped on that prospect’s computer, and then contextual and relevant ads would follow that prospect around the web for a period of time. However, the ads would not be simply from the site the prospect visited, but rather from affiliated, relevant marketers that have made an arrangement with the content provider around certain keywords and targeting variables. (I smell an algorithm cooking!)



For vertical marketers, in either consumer or business marketing, this could create much deeper context and help prospects connect the dots. Here’s a simple example:

Let’s say you have a prominent blog in the popular music category. Let’s call the blog “” The site gets serious traffic, and discusses all the latest news, releases, tour information and more for various artists, categorized by genre. A prospect visits the site, reads an article about a country artist like Carrie Underwood, then exits the site. For the next several weeks, any number of marketers may be interested in serving ads to that prospect, especially if we could ascertain some basic targeting parameters:

  • A television network may be about to broadcast a special featuring the artist and is looking to increase tune-in. They may be one of the retargeters affiliated with
  • The record company may be trying to push a Carrie Underwood greatest hits album, or tour dates. They may be one of the retargeters affiliated with
  • A fashion brand may have a co-marketing deal with the artist, and wants to drive traffic to stores to check out her new line of signature jeans. They may be one of the retargeters affiliated with

In this arrangement, the affiliate would purchase the display ads (through an automated partner of course,) and pay a CPM for the impressions. The retargeters would pay the affiliate on the same model, but likely with a premium added for a more “qualified” or “targeted” impression. They may also set up an arrangement where conversions pay out on a revenue share model.

With all this talk about “brands as publishers,” this would really create a model where any blogger, content provider, gossip site, even corporate marketer could become a publisher in the truest sense of the word.

Is affiliate retargeting being done currently in b-to-b or b-to-c? If it is, I’d love to know how partners are arranging these deals, how they’re measuring/tracking performance and what kind of automation is being leveraged.

If it’s not being done, what the heck are we waiting for?