April 8th, 2008

BNP Paribas Banks on Support For Series to Show Its Sensitivity

By Aaron O. Patrick
The Wall Street Journal

Program of Everyday People Around the Globe Seeks Buyers; 'What Is The Meaning of Life?'

With the global banking industry in crisis, it may seem like an odd time for big finance to advertise. But French bank BNP Paribas has found a way to promote itself globally: a TV program featuring people from different countries discussing their personal experiences.

The bank paid for the production of “6 billion Others,” a documentary-style series by French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand, who published the hit coffee-table book “Earth from Above” in 1999. BNP’s only appearance in the show is its green logo, which appears for a few seconds at the end of each episode. The interviews have been pieced together into 150 miniepisodes, each two minutes long—a length designed to fill the commercial break between TV programs—as well as into 12 26-minute episodes.

Known in the ad industry as “branded entertainment,” advertiser-funded shows are becoming increasingly common as marketers look for new ways to reach consumers and TV viewers record shows to skip ads. Because “6 billion Others” is a show, not a commercial, Havas, the ad agency hired by BNP, is trying to persuade TV networks to buy the series; BNP won’t have to buy air time as it would for a commercial.

So far, nine networks have bought the show, including broadcasters in Brazil, Germany and Hong Kong, but Havas hopes to find more buyers this week in Cannes, France, at an annual TV-show market, says Fabien Baunay, chief executive of the company’s Havas Entertainment unit. The series won’t appear in most countries until September. No U.S. network has bought it.

The short episodes are designed to fill the gaps that would be used for ads on commercial networks.

Branded entertainment is viewed by marketing executives as particularly useful for banks. Conventional ad spots can struggle to distinguish among banks, often because there isn’t much difference in the services they offer, ad executives say.

“For a bank, it’s quite hard to create an emotional response unless you have done something wrong,” says Gemma Newland, U.K. managing director of Stream, an Omnicom Group agency specializing in branded entertainment, which isn’t involved in the series.

The “6 billion Others” series features clips of people looking straight at the camera and talking about themselves. Mr. Arthus-Bertrand hired six filmmakers who asked 6,000 people in 65 countries a list of questions, such as “what is the meaning of life” and “have you been discriminated against?”

One South African woman—not all the participants are identified by name—says she is paid less because she isn’t white, discrimination that she says she has conditioned herself to accept. “I probably have instilled that way of thinking into my children,” she says.

A New Yorker says she won’t talk about her gay daughters to friends because the friends will “look at me kind of weird.”

BNP funded “6 billion Others” because it sends a message that BNP is a global company that cares about local culture, says Antoine Sire, BNP’s group head of communications and advertising. At a cost of €2 million ($3.1 million) to make the episodes, “it’s a cheap way to be visible,” he says.

In the past, BNP’s advertising was mostly limited to tennis sponsorship, including the Davis Cup and French Open. Paris-based BNP operates in 80 countries, including the U.S., where it has 16,000 staff and owns San Francisco-based Bank of the West.

In promoting a brand image based on global understanding, BNP is adopting a similar strategy to U.K.-based HSBC Holdings, which launched its highly successful “World’s Local Bank” campaign several years ago. Created by WPP Group’s JWT agency, HSBC’s latest ads show identical photos and descriptions of what they might mean in different cultures.

Mr. Arthus-Bertrand came up with his idea when he was photographing “Earth from Above” in Mali and met a farmer who talked about his life. Well-known in France for his book and television appearances, he says he approached several sponsors who weren’t interested. He didn’t know anyone at BNP but called Mr. Sire after learning the bank has many foreign offices and promotes itself as socially responsible, both men say.

“It is easier to sell a bank a concept—they have the money,” Mr. Arthus-Bertrand says.

Any profits from the sale of the series to TV networks will be used to fund a traveling exhibition, according to Mr. Arthus-Bertrand. Twenty hours of the interviews will be shown on TV screens in exhibition halls, starting at the Grand Palais in Paris next January and later at other cities around the world, including San Francisco, Berlin, Istanbul and Madrid. Some interviews are already on the series Web site.

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