July 11th, 2007

Is It a TV Show or an Ad? Line Is Blurring in China

By Geoffrey A. Fowler
Wall Street Journal

In China, media buyers and young soccer players have something in common: They both hope a TV show can raise their game.

In the latest move that blurs the lines between advertising and media content, WPP Group’s media-buying arm GroupM is going to produce its own reality television show in China, along with “American Idol” producer RTL Group’s FremantleMedia, sports-media company Kickworldwide and state-owned Hunan TV. “Soccer Prince,” which begins next month on Hunan TV, a provincial satellite broadcaster, promises to winnow a nation of young soccer players down to two stars, who win yearlong apprenticeships with two English Premier League soccer teams, Everton and Bolton Wanderers.

“Soccer Prince” promises, too, to help GroupM expand its business beyond buying and placing ads in China, which is tied with the United Kingdom as the world’s third-largest ad-spending market, behind the U.S. and Japan. Marketers in China, like marketers everywhere else, are looking for new ways to build their brands and cut through advertising clutter.

Nike has signed up as sports sponsor for “Soccer Prince,” but the agency is still on the hunt for a title sponsor. A Nike representative wasn’t available for comment.

Around the world, advertisers and media agencies are trying to put less emphasis on traditional ads and get into the potentially more profitable business of making and managing branded media content.

Interpublic Group’s Magna Global, for instance, produces films for Johnson & Johnson that appear on Time Warner’s Turner Network Television in the U.S. The maker of health-care products gets five minutes of commercial time during the movie, as well as marketing support and additional TV time. GroupM has 20 shows in development around the world and has a division devoted to the business; WPP also has a stake in the Weinstein Co., the film studio started by Bob and Harvey Weinstein.

China has more than 2,000 TV channels, offered by some 600 government broadcasters, but there isn’t a lot of variety in the content. That means traditional advertising has less of an effect. “You need to find another solution to get impact,” says Bessie Lee, GroupM China’s chief executive. “Otherwise, you spend the same amount of money but get a lot less than before.”

Back in 2000, Interpublic’s Universal McCann launched one of China’s first advertiser-sponsored shows, “Love Talk,” for Motorola, L’Oréal’s Maybelline and others. WPP’s Ogilvy Group also has its own content-creation division just for China, called HaiRun Ogilvy.

GroupM says “Soccer Prince” takes the idea a step further for China, because advertisers aren’t investing in the program themselves. GroupM’s clients will get the right of first refusal to sponsor or advertise on the show.

For advertisers and agencies, developing programs can offer a way to build brands without paying the full price for Chinese TV ads, the costs of which have soared in recent years. GroupM won’t say how much it is spending on “Soccer Prince,” or how much it expects to make from the show. “This is a long-term partnership we are building,” says Ms. Lee.

Not everyone in the industry thinks that business model is a good idea. Anna Chitty, head of business development for Omnicom Group’s OMD in Shanghai, has helped clients including Levi’s and Visa create TV programming in China, but she eschews the idea of OMD making and selling programming itself. “We try to avoid the potential for conflicting interests,” says Ms. Chitty.

And there is no guarantee agencies are any good at making content. “Maybe it is cheaper to do this, but the quality of the show really matters,” says Dan Mintz, the founder of the independent Chinese marketing and media agency Dynamic Marketing Group, or DMG. “After a while, people can look at these things as commercials.” In 2005, DMG co-produced a version of the World’s Strongest Man competition with China Central Television, sponsored by a cellphone maker, CECT.

GroupM says it is trying to help the industry mature in China with “Soccer Prince.” It has teamed up with Fremantle and Kickworldwide on developing the format and cross-country relationships. Production will largely be handled by Hunan TV, which had one of China’s biggest hits in 2005 with an “American Idol” knockoff called “Super Girl.”

“Soccer Prince” will begin by hosting soccer schools and auditions in six provinces, from which the most talented boys will be taken to Hunan for further coaching. Gradually, the squad will be reduced by a panel of expert coaches until there is a winner.

Soccer has a big following in China. A Chinese cellphone brand, Kejian, previously sponsored the contract of a Chinese player with the Everton team.

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