Questions for Baba Shetty, Fallon’s Head of Interactive

Fallon has earned a place among the handful of agencies that are consistently breaking ground in interactive marketing. The Minnesota-based firm has pioneered what’s become known as “branded entertainment.” The term applies to many of Fallon’s best-known projects, including Amazon Theater, the “Chrismahanukwanzakah” Web site for Virgin Mobile, and the now-legendary BMW Films.

So the bar was already high when, late last year, Fallon named Baba Shetty to head interactive. Shetty took over the job while remaining group account director for the U.S. BMW account, a job he took two years ago after heading all U.S. marketing communications for BMW on the client side.

Shetty splits his time about evenly between working on the BMW account and overseeing of all the agency’s interactive work. Last week, he spoke with ClickZ Features about the state of branded content, his staff’s multi-disciplinary expertise, and what goes into producing the Big Idea.

Q.How has online branded entertainment changed since Fallon did BMW Films?

A.There’s been kind of a stampede lately into this area: branded content or branded entertainment. It reminds me a bit of way back in the Bill Bernbach era of advertising, when there was all this square, un-hip corporate-speak advertising. Then all of a sudden the Volkswagen ads showed up and said, “Think small.” Right after that, there was this stampede of people saying, “We can be hip too”. Dodge ads were trying to speak the lingo. It was just painful.

Most of this stuff is very forgettable, very ignorable. It dies a quiet death.

The big idea is not the shape of the container. It’s what goes in it. We did BMW Films back before there was a label called “branded entertainment.” It was the right thing to do for the client.

We’ve since been very selective [in our use of it]. Look, the :30 spot has existed for decades. The format didn’t change, but the content and quality of ideas varied dramatically. The same thing’s happening today with branded content.

Q.What are the notable trends you see in automotive marketing on the Web?

A.Rather than think about a category, like I used to when I was an analyst at Forrester, we’re trying to think instead, “What’s the magic of BMW? What’s the glamour of BMW? What’s the aura of BMW?” and reveal that through what we do.

Q.What’s changed in what clients are asking for?

A.It used to be clients wanted things that fit neatly into one bucket or another. You wanted an online ad campaign or a Web site. Now we say we develop “digital marketing programs.” It’s fluid. Everything has to be linked to some brand idea, to some quality of experience.

We did some work for Radio Shack last year. We took their core brand idea — “You’ve got questions. We’ve got answers.” — and rolled it into an application for [the store] environment. They built a flagship store, and… we built a customized kiosk application that used RFID technology. You asked a visitor to the store a few questions right when they entered, and handed them a key fob. The rest of their experience as they moved around the store was customized personally.

We really deconstructed that phrase: “You’ve got questions. We’ve got answers.”

We’re doing stuff in environments. We’re doing stuff in the branded entertainment area. We continue to do a lot of site design work. We just did a very cool microsite for BMW, for the launch of their 3 Series. We did three renderings based on the original digital CAD engineering files. We did things you just couldn’t do with cameras and a physical car.

A lot of marketers are waking up to the fact that as their consumers move through their day, there are a ton of interactive touch points — on the Internet, in line, on mobile devices. There’s a lot of potential to touch a customer as they move through their day.

Q.How did Amazon Theater happen? Can you characterize Amazon’s other ambitions?

A.That was a short-term campaign. It ran on their homepage during the holiday season. The business problem Amazon came to us with was the sense that a lot of consumers still associated Amazon.com as a destination only for books and DVDs. During the Christmas season, why not expand awareness of the other categories of products Amazon offered?

The films were offered as little holiday gifts for the visitors to Amazon.com. While they were doing their holiday shopping, they could take five minutes out and watch a film. There was very specific product placement in the film. The key piece of interactivity was that the credit roll included products, and there were live links within the video window [to the product pages]. It was a very elegant, almost deceptively simple, use of the window for very purposeful interaction.

The metrics are being held pretty close to the vest. It was, I think, a very successful program. We’ve got other projects in the works that are going to extend Amazon Theater to an even higher degree of interactivity.

We talk about BMW Films as interactive, but it was pretty linear content. There’s a lot more we’re going to see soon with regard to purposeful, useful interaction with video content.

Q.How would you characterize your staff?

A.We have a collection of really eclectic, curious, multi-talented, smart people working here.

One of our visual design directors has a Masters degree in analytical philosophy, the philosophy of logic. Yet he can do killer, drool-inducing visual design work. We have another person who wrote the theme music for a network TV drama a few weeks back. We have an HTML editor who wrote the script for the Amazon film featuring Minnie Driver.

If you’re the type of creative who has a narrow scope of interest, we’re not the shop for you. I’m continually blown away by the range [of these people]. It isn’t music or film or design. It’s “and.”

Q.Describe a day in the life of Baba Shetty.

A.My morning ritual is green tea and RSS feeds. Then it’s catching up on a creative review session for a new client presentation, where my jaw hits the floor at least once or twice. It’s a heady mix, an intersection of technology, culture, creativity and business strategy.

I just picked up the issue of Fast Company that talked about extreme jobs, and I kept expecting to see a sidebar with me in it. I enjoy it so much.

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