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The lesson of BMW Films

An article on questions why our industry hasn’t built on the success of BMW Films and the potential of branded content. I used to ask this same question until I realized it is the wrong question.

BMW Films made its online debut in 2001 with short films produced exclusively for the web by marquee talent, including directors John Woo, Ang Lee, Guy Ritchie, Tony Scott among others, and starring actors such as Clive Owen, Madonna, Mickey Rourke, Forest Whitaker and Don Cheadle. The Hire consisted of eight action-packed episodes featuring Clive Owen putting the ultimate driving machines through the paces.

The Hire was ahead of its time. Broadband penetration in the United States in 2001 was less than 20%. (Remember the tedium of viewing rich content on dial up?) The films couldn’t capitalize on social media because Mark Zuckerberg, Tom Anderson and Steve Chen (founders Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, respectively) may still have been in high school at that point.

Yet, back in the day, these films broke new ground by changing how we viewed the web. Up to that point, marketers used the web as a substitute for print. Sites functioned like online brochures -- very heavy on text and photos. BMW Films showed that the web didn’t have to be static – it actually could be a replacement for TV, using sight sound and motion to engage viewers.

And that's precisely why the question posed in Adweek misses the point. BMW Films used the web like TV. Right for then, wrong for now. The web has changed dramatically since 2001. It is no longer about one-way broadcasting. It’s about ceding control, co-creation, relevant functionality and crowd-sourced input.

Contrary to Adweek's story, branded content is not struggling to find its footing, an assertion that seems weighed down by a Hollywood-centric definition of content. Branded content is flourishing in new ways that are more tailored for Web 2.0. Subservient Chicken allowed consumers to control the entertainment. T-Mobile’s flash mob campaign capitalized on social media. GE’s online effort for ecomagination and Nike’s mobile initiative both used augmented reality to glue our eyeballs to the brand.

We should tip our hat to BMW Films and appreciate what it unleashed. But instead of looking backwards, we should embrace its essential lesson: Consider how consumers are using the web today, then rethink it and set the bar higher.