I spent almost four years working as part of, and then as the head of, the branded content team at CollegeHumor. Working on branded content made me better as a writer and professional, but made me feel worse mentally, emotionally, and even physically. Just like trying to find the balance between comedy and advertising, having a job in branded content at a comedy website is a balance of some practical benefits and some more mental and emotional downfalls. Here’s what I learned in the sometimes rewarding, always exhausting world of branded comedic content.
One of the biggest pros for taking a branded content job at a comedy publisher is that it can be an entryway into working at a comedy publisher, which is not always easy to find. There are a finite number of jobs at these publishers, and taking a job as a branded content writer allows you both the opportunity to write, as well as break into the comedy publisher itself. Once you’re in the company you can learn more about their writing techniques, production, and what goes into making strong content.
A branded content job can also give you a lot of skills that are important for any comedian or writer throughout their career. Often times brands will ask for ideas within very tight guidelines, which trains your mind to generate large amounts of ideas on a daily basis within these tight confines put in place by the advertiser or their campaign. Thinking of funny ideas may come easy, but when these limits are in place, it really pushes you to be creative. It’s also common to get the contradicting request for ideas that are “big out of the box” and have never been done before, but also have a proven track record to be successful and go viral. They’ll also want the content to appeal to their very specific demographic, which they’ve made a profile and name for using “research.” So please make sure any idea that is sent along is not only out of the box and viral, but also resonates with “Kyle,” a 18-27 year old “kidult” who loves rock climbing, eating bananas for dinner, and is slightly more likely to read periodicals than other kidults.
Advertisers also want to make sure their product is the solution to that totally relatable problem they swear we all have, when in reality it’s a feeling or problem nobody has had, ever. We once had a deodorant company tell us that we needed to position their product as the solution to all those times your deodorant has gone on too wet and you’ve touched your armpit with your hand then immediately touched your phone, making it slimy. That wasn’t just part of the campaign, that was the campaign. And that’s not a knock on the advertiser; it’s their job to position their product as the solution the problem you didn’t even realize you had. But it certainly makes coming up with comedic ideas a bit of a challenge. These sorts of restrictions will train your brain to be particularly creative in coming up with ideas that check all the boxes and still somehow appeal to your publisher’s demographic.
And on top generating these ideas while dealing with restrictions and turning them, scripts, revisions and cuts around in a short time frame, you gain a skill that will be invaluable throughout your career: learning to deal with and respond to ridiculous notes. You get notes from clients, media agencies, and creative agencies who don’t necessarily understand branded content or comedy. The easy reaction to these notes or phone calls with clients is to get defensive, push back aggressively, or flat-out snap, but none of that is really acceptable. I can’t tell you how many times a more senior advertising executive, well out of our site’s demographic and their product’s demographic, has told me they just don’t get the idea or even worse, that it’s not funny.
My favorite note we ever received was when we wrote a thematic editorial piece for a fragrance company. The piece was a rollover article and one of the setups was “you smell good” and the reveal was supposed to be what that honestly meant. The note from the client was the article looks great but we need the reveal for “you smell good” to be “you must be wearing [brand name] fragrances.” So imagine you’re reading an article, enjoying it, sponsored by this advertiser, and suddenly in the middle of the content there is a clear endorsement and call out to the advertiser. That is pretty jarring, and obviously a very bad idea. An idea you think it would be easy to convince the client not to do it, but it took me three separate phone calls with separate clients to convince them this was not a good idea for the content.
Learning to take these notes, and rationally, creatively, and calmly respond help you identify which parts of your pitch/script/content are truly important and necessary, and which you can part with, while also being helpful as you progress in your career. Because unless you are producing your own content or the very best in the business, you can bet you will be receiving all sorts of notes from managers, agents, and studios that don’t always understand or share your vision.
Above all, one of the biggest advantages is working alongside really funny, talented, and driven people, coming up with and writing funny ideas, all while making countless connections and friends within the comedy community that will last long after you leave the job.
And now that I’ve run through the benefits, skills, and opportunities that can come with a writing job in branded content, let me quickly state all those upsides come with an asterisk…a giant asterisk. And that giant asterisk is that the job can be frustrating, thankless, creatively stifling, and above all, flat-out soul-sucking. Those may sound like hyperbolic overstatements or descriptions that can apply to any job, but even months removed from my time in branded content, those feelings still remain strongly with me. I took the job when I was spry and skinny and left 17 pounds heavier with so many grey hairs people are often taken aback when I tell them I’m only 31.
First off, you work for the client. It’s important to point out that whether you have a good client or a bad one, you work for them. You will try to create an environment where you are working together to create the best collaboration and the best content for the brand, the site, and the audience. You’ll tell yourself (and sometimes even them) that you are working as a partnership and in tandem with shared goals. But in the end, it’s their money and that makes them the final decision maker. That means your creative vision and creative spirit suffer immensely at times, and you become well versed in trying to gently push them in a direction that isn’t terrible, or just biting your tongue. And even as often as you push back or try to be the expert, the reality is that they are in charge and you work for them. That’s not to say there aren’t some great clients who are trusting and more hands off, or even ones who are more involved and totally get the goal of the content and trust you to take the lead in the collaborative process. But for every one of those clients, there are three who are weighing in with endless ideas of their own or notes that are infuriating and just bad. Bad for the idea. Bad for the site. Bad for the content. And honestly, bad for the advertiser…they just don’t realize it or care to hear it.
One time in particular, we were pushed so far from the agreed upon concept in a direction we weren’t comfortable with, we had to set up several phone calls with all the clients trying to persuade them to listen to us. And after all the calls, we were simply told by the client that “there is not a discussion, please move forward with our direction so we can get into production.” The reality was it was a rather sizable deal and our directive internally was we needed to move forward with their decision. And when the content came out terribly, heavily branded, and was adamantly disliked by our audience, the client finally came back and apologized and promised to trust us moving forward. Just kidding, we took the blame and the client refused to work with us again the next year. Situations like this happened from time to time, and my boss described it as someone holding your hand and guiding it while you tried to paint a picture. And then when the painting came out a pile of mishmash garbage, they’d yell at you asking “what the hell did you do?”
The hours are incredibly and painfully long. I know this sounds petty or oblivious considering all the pros I listed above and the long hours that can come with other jobs. But as I mentioned above, you are working for clients, several at a time, who may all need everything all at once. You are responsible for giving them answers, edits, changes, or whatever they need, whenever they need it. The hours often start the minute you wake up, and even if you’re not in the office, until the moment you go to bed. There was a full month where I was working so late every night that I didn’t get home to see my wife awake. A full month. This takes its toll on your life, your creativity, and your sanity.
The asks, the notes, and the needs of the advertiser can often make it feel as if it isn’t comedy at all. Branded content can be writing a funny sketch that tonally ties the goals of an advertiser’s campaign and mimics the tone, voice, and style of content on your site. But branded content can also often become a diluted version of a sketch combined with a commercial that sort of falls flatly in between, or sometimes the brand can just be asking for a commercial. They could be asking you to come to them in the way a creative agency does with a fun or slightly funny idea that is nothing more than that, a fun or funny commercial to be released on your platform or even directly from their brand. Or even when they say they want branded content, a very common response from advertisers is “your ideas are great, but we had an idea of our own.” Those words came to haunt me, because I quickly realized no matter how great our ideas were or how hard we tried to steer them to something that will be successful, they will want to do their idea. One time we had a client pitch an idea, and the word ‘idea’ is being generous, in which they ended the pitch by saying and it will be funny because all the characters will have Ron Burgundy mustaches.
And while I mentioned that the job can be an entryway into this company you want to be a part of, a great way to learn new skills, and a stepping stone towards a pure comedy writing job, it may not be all or any of those things. It’s important to remember that on top of having to showcase that you are capable and deserving of a job on the original content teams (which of course is extremely important and necessary), you also need several other things to fall into place. You need the opportunity to arise, the necessity for you to shift over to be there, and the company and/or management to be ready to move you from a role that is directly tied to bringing in revenue to one that is more tangentially tied to revenue as a creator of the content that brings in the audience. You can’t assume this job will automatically be a stepping stone.
You are a man/woman without a country. You most likely are brought in and fall under sales, as you are tied to servicing clients and bringing in revenue. That means the pure creatives at the company may potentially see you as sellouts, or as writers who are polluting the content of the site. And even though you fall under sales, they themselves may see you as ‘precious creatives’ anytime you push back on a client’s insane request or say “no we can’t do that” or “that’s not in our voice.” You may find yourself not only in disagreements with clients, but also caught in between two different departments within your own company. As part of the branded team, we fell between creative and sales, and often times were caught between the struggle of revenue (sales) and creative (making strong content), and it felt as if you were the child of divorced parents who would send hateful messages to each other through you. It caused our team to often feel isolated, stressed, and sometimes under-appreciated.
So while a job in branded content can grow you as a writer and sharpen your skill set, it will leave you feeling frustrated, depleted, and unfulfilled. But, in all fairness, what job isn’t like that?
Photo by Nguyen Hung Vu.
Jon Perry is a comedian, writer, and former Head of Branded Content at CollegeHumor. He can be found on Twitter @heyitsmeyonboy or somewhere in NY trying his best to not look like a monster while eating popcorn.