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Report On Business Ads that don’t stop the action: CBC increasingly using ‘branded content’

SportChek is producing a video series at the Olympics, the first time an advertiser has been embedded with the CBC during the Games.

In a small studio on the eighth floor of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's headquarters in Toronto, a team is closely monitoring the trampoline competition – analyzing the angle of a shot, watching for the camera to capture emotion on the athletes' faces, and waiting for Rosie MacLennan, who will soon deliver her second gold-medal performance.

But the team are not CBC staff. They're here on behalf of Sport Chek, a Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd.-owned brand, working on a video series that the marketing team is producing every four days in co-operation with the network. It's the first time that an advertiser has ever been embedded with the CBC during the Games. Sport Chek has declined to spend any money on ads during the commercial break this Olympics, instead investing in "sizzle reels" that are running online and within CBC's programming, highlighting the best moments of recent days.

And it's not just Sport Chek – CBC has put a bigger push than ever in Rio to give advertisers the option to produce "branded content" – ads that look less like ads and more like the kind of Games content they're watching anyway. Sport Chek's parent company is also working with CBC on featuring Olympic moments in the broadcast through its Step Up Stand Tall campaign.

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"It's a first," said Adam Mitchell, associate director of sports marketing for CBC and Radio-Canada. "We've seen a huge shift toward branded content. What that forced us to do is take an open mind to the marketplace and look for different ways to work with our partners."

While features that are tied to a brand are not entirely new – The Olympians, which profiles athletes' stories leading up to the Gmes and is sponsored by BMW, is a returning programming element – there are at least seven branded-content partnerships that are new to this Games.

Those include As Maple As, a series of interviews with athletes from both past and current Games, hosted by broadcaster Ron MacLean and funded by Tim Hortons. The interviews air in two-minute clips during Olympic Morning, and shorter clips as well on CBC radio, and full-length interviews are promoted as online podcasts.

For the first time, Samsung has handed total control of production over to CBC for a series called Rio on the Edge, in which winter Olympians Craig McMorris and Phil Marquis report on the culture of Rio. The videos are shot on Galaxy S7 Edge phones, and promoted heavily online as well as airing during CBC TV broadcasts. They cover everything from the city's artistic graffiti to the colourful tiles of the Selaron steps and soccer in the favelas. Samsung has done partnerships with the CBC before – and is still investing in advertising in the commercial breaks – but is taking a different approach with this program than ever before.

"Our objective was not to approach this as a typical advertising partnership, but to help our audiences through the CBC, to get closer to Rio," said Mark Childs, chief marketing officer of Samsung Canada.

Because the company wants the videos to feel authentic, it is taking an unusual step for marketing and not insisting on preapproving the content, Mr. Childs said.

The Olympics are just one part of a larger shift in advertising: Commercials are for many people an unwelcome interruption to their entertainment, so more marketers have been pushing to increase their investment in branded content. It has evolved to the point where films produced by advertisers have won an Emmy award and have been featured at the Sundance Film Festival. So in a field as crowded with sponsors as the Olympics, it makes sense that marketers would be looking to content partnerships to get noticed.

"As we look even back at our coverage in Sochi, there were very few partnerships that were as deeply rooted and involved as what we're seeing now," the CBC's Mr. Mitchell said. "…It has been an evolution."

Back in the studio, the Sport Chek team is reviewing the half-finished video. To come up with the best clips to include, they have someone reviewing CBC's video feeds 20 hours a day in two shifts. From those selections, clips are paired with a script that is written ahead of time.

"Let's see it off the top, if it's flowing nicely," said Greg Wells, senior art director with Sport Chek's ad agency, TBWAChiatDay New York. On the screen, a boxer sits at the side of the ring, his chest heaving; a swimmer shakes out her arms, and a rowing team slumps in defeat. The screen goes black. Soon that blank space will be filled with more Games action, including Ms. MacLennan's winning performance.

"There might be a beautiful shot, but we're also looking for emotion," said Katie Boyko, integrated producer at TBWAChiatDay. "…You want to be sure you're telling a beautiful story."

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