Monday, March 9, 2009

The Power of Transmedia

PGA NMC East member Jeff Gomez featured on

On the Record with…
The Power of Transmedia
Interview by Laurie Burkitt

Though these may be dark economic times, there are certain executives with extraordinary insight and unique approaches who are achieving striking results for their companies. Each week, Forbes.CMO will spotlight one of these visionaries and fire off questions designed to keep you ahead of the curve.

Transmedia is a word that has been buzzing both Hollywood and Madison Avenue, but very few seem to have a handle on what it means, or the potential of its value proposition. For our premiere column, we turn to Jeff Gomez, CEO of New York-based Starlight Runner Entertainment for answers.

A self-described “transmedia storyteller,” Gomez is a producer who specializes in developing and extending entertainment and advertising properties across multiple media platforms. His clients include The Walt Disney Company, Microsoft, Hasbro and perhaps most notably, the Coca-Cola Company.

What exactly is transmedia and how did you become interested in it?

Simply put, transmedia is the art of conveying a rich message, theme or storyline to a mass audience using multiple media platforms in concert. Each part of the story is unique and plays to the strengths of each medium, and the audience is often invited to participate and somehow interact with the narrative. We first saw the term used in this way by M.I.T. professor Henry Jenkins in his book Convergence Culture.

In today’s interconnected world, young adults, teens and even kids have become so comfortable with media technology that they seem to flow from one platform to the next. The problem is that their content is not flowing with them. As a discipline, transmedia provides us with a foundation for the development, production and rollout of entertainment properties or consumer brands across all of these platforms. Transmedia creates the flow.

As a mass audience we’re too savvy and too impatient to experience the same content over and over again. There’s too much out there to enjoy. Repurposing sucks! I actually learned this as a kid living in Hawaii in the 1970s, and being exposed to psychedelic Japanese pop culture. The creators of cartoons and kidvid like Ultra 7, Kikaida and Galaxy Express 999 were allowed to turn their stories into animated TV series, toy lines, live events and feature films.

But instead of repeating the plots over and over again for each medium, the creators would continue and expanded their storylines, generating dazzling mythologies and complex narratives. The act of chasing, collecting and searching for new parts of the story made me a participant. I became immersed in these worlds. This was early transmedia storytelling, and man, I knew right there what I wanted to do when I grew up!

Well, it turns out that yesterday’s “cult” is today’s cool.

What gives transmedia its unique power? How do you distinguish it from concepts such as branded entertainment?

What’s so powerful about transmedia implementation is that it maximizes the potential of your story or message, while both building intense brand loyalty and opening up multiple revenue streams.

The loyalty is derived from giving fans more of what they want from your story: more character background, more story mythology, more opportunities to dialog with the story’s creators and with one another. When you know that Samuel L. Jackson will be playing Nick Fury in the next nine Marvel super hero movies, you’re delighted because this ties that whole universe together. It’s a richer and deeper entertainment experience for the fan.

Revenues may be increased dramatically, because you are furnishing fans with more product. The storylines of major films like The Dark Knight, Wolverine and Watchmen are being supplemented by direct-to-DVD animation releases, each of which are selling quite well. The Watchmen videogame serves as a prequel to the movie and contains “valuable” story developments that fans want to know about. New stories set in the same world are alluring, as opposed to repurposed content, so the products become more attractive and in many cases more lucrative.

We’ve seen this with such properties as Hannah Montana, Lost and Heroes, but we’re also seeing it with Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble. It’s a growth industry, and it’s an exciting time to be a part of it.

I think it’s important to point out that transmedia storytelling is not branded entertainment. Branded entertainment drives product awareness by sort of tacking the brand onto something else, like whatever brands you’re seeing on The Apprentice. On the other hand, transmedia builds brand mythology, placing the brand front and center and building narrative around it, like the various tie-ins we saw around The Matrix franchise several years ago. Branded entertainment comes and goes in a flash, but transmedia storylines are timeless because they are built on a foundation of classic narrative structure. They’re good stories. Finally, the owner of the brand pays for branded content, but transmedia entertainment is designed to generate revenue because it’s content that the audience wants.

What’s the short history of transmedia?

After the Industrial Revolution, the printing press allowed for ideas and stories to be spread to much larger populations. Thousands of people were reading Stoker’s Dracula or Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. With radio, new elements were introduced into the mythos of these narratives. Perry White, Kryptonite and the term “faster than a speeding bullet,” for example, all became a part of Superman from the 1938 radio serial.

After World War II, the Japanese government promoted the cooperation of manufacturers, suppliers and distributors to spur economic recovery. They called this keiretsu. This is what allowed for popular comic strip characters to easily jump across various kinds of media in a concerted fashion. By the ‘60s and ‘70s, this became a sleek machine that exported pop entertainment globally from Godzilla to Gigantor to Speed Racer.

I wouldn’t be the only one to be turned onto this. George Lucas has often acknowledged Japanese cinema for inspiring Star Wars, but I dare say he was also fascinated by keiretsu and Nippon’s pension for celebrating and rewarding creators of cross-platform story epics. He shrewdly held back the rights to his characters and merchandising from 20th Century Fox and launched what would become the prototype for transmedia storytelling in America.

But the true actualization of transmedia arrived in 1998 with a weird website called The Blair Witch Project, nearly a year before the release of the film. Was it real? A hoax? Our curiosity and our dialog made us participants in the narrative, and the whole thing exploded, making the film one of the most profitable in history. Transmedia requires an interactive component.

Transmedia has often been used to promote TV shows and movies, things that already have a story built into them, but how does it work with products?

It’s true, since Blair Witch we’ve seen some progressive television and film execs and producers use transmedia techniques to engage mass audiences. JJ Abrams used the Internet, books and comics to build on the storylines of Lost and Cloverfield, as did Tim Kring on Heroes and Warner Bros. on The Dark Knight. All of these had strong stories to start with, and fans were offered (and often paid for) a “deeper dive” with this additional content.

We’ve also seen companies like Procter & Gamble use transmedia techniques such as extending soap opera narrative. In 2007, P&G commissioned Guiding Light: Jonathan’s Story, a novel that revealed the adventures of a major character that had been mysteriously absent from the show. The book was a media sensation and became a New York Times best seller.

But we’re also seeing transmedia elements in the marketing of consumer products and advertising. With “The King” campaign from Burger King a few years back, for example, audiences became engaged with this bizarre character, watching the commercials, purchasing and playing the videogames. Profits soared for the chain.

Then there’s Victoria’s Secret, a somewhat looser but still quite valid example of transmedia narrative. We start with the mystique of the original catalog, but then the models take on personas all their own. We follow their glamorous and sometimes scandalous lives through the tabloids, on the web and on television. Like living fantasies they’re adorned with the iconography of the angel wings in print ads and commercials. We follow them into their own annual TV specials, and ultimately back into the catalogs and retail stores. A thriving empire has been built here not so much on lingerie, but on story.

In 2002, my company Starlight Runner was tasked to create a storyline around 35 die-cast metal Hot Wheels cars for Mattel in tandem with the line’s 35th anniversary. It had never really been done before. We worked with the company to discern the essence of the brand and watched how kids played with the toys before inventing an elaborate racing universe and driver characters that embodied the messages and themes of the brand. The story was successful, sales across the entire line increased dramatically, and over the next three years five computer-animated movies were released, a videogame, a comic book series, new playsets and an elaborate web site.

How do you know transmedia works? What numbers do you have to prove it?

Well, Mattel sold an awful lot of Hot Wheels DVDs! The entire product line derived a significant revenue bump over those three years. These are hundreds of millions of additional dollars for a franchise that had frankly gotten a bit dusty in the past decade.

Heroes 360, the online component of the Heroes TV series multi-platform campaign, generated an additional $50 million in advertising revenue for NBC-Universal, according to Fast Company magazine, and that doesn’t include sales of hundreds of thousands of hard copy graphic novels and prose fiction all set in the universe of the show.

Then there is Happiness Factory from the Coca-Cola Company. A few years back, Coke consolidated its global advertising with Wieden+Kennedy. The agency’s Amsterdam office came up with “The Coke Side of Life” campaign and one of the commercials featured a wild fantasy world of characters and creatures that existed inside a Coke machine. The computer animation by PsyOp was gorgeous, hilarious and a tiny bit subversive.

The commercial was called Happiness Factory and it was the highest rated Coke commercial in history. People loved it, and Coke wanted to somehow continue working with the premise. Starlight Runner was called in to do some of this creative development and generate multiple touchpoints for the property. Coke had us come up with a transmedia storyline designed to last for years.

The initial rollout in the later half of 2007 was a smash. A second, extra-long commercial was created that vastly expanded the world of Happiness Factory and gave us characters we could connect with. We worked on an elaborate international web site with AKQA that allowed you to become an employee of the factory. Coke joined with its distributors in countries around the world to customize the way people would connect to the property based on culture and budget. There were comics in Brazil, mechanical installations at shopping malls in Denmark, costumed characters lumbering around in Japanese supermarkets, all tied into “event” airings of the four-minute narrative on television.

At last year’s Media 360 conference keynote, Jonathan Mildenhall, Coke’s VP Global Advertising and Creative Excellence, announced the campaign had boosted global volume sales of Coke by 4% and Coca-Cola’s share price from $42 to $60 over Happiness Factory’s initial transmedia rollout period. Although “The Coke Side of Life” campaign is now over, Happiness Factory is tapped to play a central role in the company’s new “Open Happiness” campaign. So the Kissy Puppies will be back!

[Editor’s note: You can see the Happiness Factory commercials at]

Why was Coke interested in transmedia?

Mildenhall has said that he was searching for ways move away from brand interruption and boost brand engagement for his company’s flagship product. After the original Happiness Factory scored so well, he started looking for ways to extend the property. But right now, advertising is not built to stretch a story beyond a minute or two.

After learning about our work, Mildenhall had Starlight Runner present our “Blockbuster Worlds” seminar to his exec team in Atlanta, and he immediately embraced transmedia as a strategy for Coca-Cola. The results have made him one of the most vocal and articulate advocates of the process.

Tell us about your work for Coca-Cola and where it is going. How are we going to see Coke’s narrative develop and in what forms of media?

Working on Happiness Factory for Coke was both challenging and quite a thrill. All we had to start with was the commercial, and we were tasked with building an entire fictional universe around it, with a rich history, dozens of characters and wild adventures yet to come.

Starlight Runner has a proprietary technology that facilitates the rapid development and implementation of transmedia properties, and we put it to use on all fronts here. Our first task was to immerse ourselves in the brand. Coke is a part of Americana, with its own archetype and mythos. We needed to make certain that was reflected in all aspects of the narrative. Wieden+Kennedy then showed us about how their “Coke Side of Life” campaign romanced the brand, and we took those themes and imagery into account.

As with most of our clients, our first major milestone for Coke was a franchise Mythology. This is a visually impressive guide to the people, places, history and devices of the fictional universe. We get into the cultures and mysticism, messages and themes, everything you need to know to produce dozens, even hundreds of hours of content from this world.

For Coke we also produced a transmedia rollout “blueprint,” strategizing how Happiness Factory can play across comic books, videogames, outdoor interactive ads and other media across the globe over the course of the next several years. We’re only scratching the surface so far, but the vision is truly ambitious. I’m also hoping we’ll see a stronger presence here in the U.S. soon.

Where else are we likely to see your work in the future?

We’re tremendously fortunate to be working with some of the biggest properties in the world. We’ve worked on Avatar, the upcoming James Cameron science fiction, which is going to blow people away. We have a great client in Disney, where we’re working on the Bruckheimer film Prince of Persia and will hopefully be returning to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise with the fourth film. There is Halo for Microsoft.

Starlight Runner is also expanding its consumer product work. We’ll be speaking with the CMO’s of major brand owners, as well as with the big agencies here in New York as more of them convince their clients that transmedia narrative is both inevitable and, if done right, can be hugely profitable.

As for the future of transmedia storytelling, I think it’s going to become a true art form. If movies are a grand piano, that’s fantastic, you can create beautiful concertos with that one instrument. But if you take movies, television, the Internet, and any combination of other media, you are assembling an orchestra of sorts. The symphonies you can create are almost beyond imagination. To me this is the true potential of transmedia.