Moderati Forms Digital Entertainment Studio

San Francisco-based digital agency Moderati has joined the ranks of firms offering original content services. Its digital entertainment studio will create applications, short videos, video series, social media widgets, and other formats to support clients’ digital storytelling efforts.

“We sit down with our marketing partners and ask what they are trying to achieve and piece together the parts of the puzzle,” said Jon Vlassopulos, CEO of Moderati. “Whether it’s a show that goes across the Web, then connects to the iPhone, then goes to a Facebook application, it’s all contextual, and that’s what we’re interested in. It all needs to be a part of the story.”

Moderati hired Damon Berger to lead the studio as director of branded entertainment. Berger was previously head of business development at Revision3, where he built distribution partnerships with Hulu, YouTube, Veoh, Yahoo, and MySpace. Vlassopolus sees distribution as an important supplement, or even a replacement, for media buys.

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“We like to have relationships with the distribution partners where they can position content [more prominently],” said Vlassopolus.

Moderati began offering original content services to clients about six months ago. One of its first clients was Zippo, which wanted to gain more reach, especially with a young, tech-savvy audience. The solution was to create a free iPhone App, a virtual Zippo lighter. The brand has benefitted from over two million downloads. Users reportedly show their friends their virtual lighter, which flips open when the phone is tilted, at bars and nightclubs, and lighters can be held up at concerts.

The agency is working with Coca-Cola, Panasonic, and Toshiba in Japan where Moderati’s parent company, Bellrock Media, is based. Also on the docket is an original programming project with Ashton Kutcher’s “24 Hours at Sundance.” That production is a real-time, online reality show created in partnership with Qik, which supports live mobile video streaming to the Web.

The show currently has no sponsors. “For future productions…we will offer opportunities with marketing partners,” Vlassopolus said.

Agencies and publishers have steadily ramped up their branded content offerings in recent months and years. Last summer Digitas launched The Third Act to create video offerings along those lines, and earlier this week men’s site Break.com formed a Creative Lab of its own. As the trend continues, Vlassopolus is keen to preserve the integrity of the term “branded entertainment.” He hopes to facilitate a new industry organization that will provide clarification, release case studies, and offer a forum. “I think branded entertainment is mentioned as product placement, and putting a Coke can in a show is not necessarily entertaining. It’s product placement,” said Vlassopulos.

Vlassopulous and Berger both come from television and may return there. They see Web and mobile programming as a possible proving ground for shows that may make their way to the boob tube. “Fremantle had two shows go on to television. I’ve been saying for a long time the Web is a great way to test for television and it’s definitely in our plans,” said Vlassopulous.

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