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Variety’s Business Managers Elite Breakfast: To Build a ‘Super’ Brand, Avoid the Word Digital

Millennials have created a new era where audiences no longer distinguish between TV and digital screens

For a network like Comedy Central, its digital branding strategy is no longer distinguished from the rest of its marketing efforts. Among its audience, “arguably (digital is) the first screen for millennials and TV is the second screen,” according to Comedy Central’s executive VP of marketing Walter Levitt.

“We don’t stop to say what’s the digital piece, what’s the analog piece,” anymore, Levitt added, saying it’s now all the same to its viewers.

Levitt was among a panel of brand managers at Variety’s third annual Business Managers Elite Breakfast on Thursday at Beverly Hills’ Four Seasons Hotel, joining Jean-Julien Baronnet, CEO of Ubisoft Motion Pictures; Greenberg Glusker attorney Stephen S. Smith; co-head of CAA Marketing David Messinger; Ali Fedotowsky, a correspondent for E! News and “Bachelorette” contestant; and actress Alyssa Milano.

Messinger agreed with Levitt, saying “to kids and millennials,” digital “is just the world now and you can’t put it back in the box. We’ve gone from a world of mass media to masses of media,” and the it’s getting more difficult for brands to get messages out about their companies or franchises in a consistent way.

Still Fedotowsky and Milano stressed that it’s still possible to build a brand by controlling your digital identity across a variety of social media platforms.

For Ubisoft, the French gamemaker uses digital marketing to “give the feeling of ownership to consumers, because they are the value keeper of the brand,” Baronnet said. Ubisoft devotes 80% of its marketing dollars to digital.

It wants to do the same as it produces movies through Ubisoft Motion Pictures.

“When we came to Hollywood, people were very excited and said we’ll pay you a lot,” for the film rights to Ubisoft’s games, Baronnet said. “We got a lot of money from studios, but refused all of them because we wanted to have creative control. It’s not an ego issue, we just to make sure our brand integrity was respected.”

Baronnet said Ubisoft, which has five video game adaptations in development, “Assassin’s Creed” (starring Michael Fassbender), “Splinter Cell,” “Ghost Recon” and “Watch Dogs,” learned from its own mistakes about the importance of maintaining brand value.

Selling the rights to “Prince of Persia” to Disney “destroyed” the game franchise because the film “didn’t respect the game’s DNA.” The company is now collaborating with studios — Sony, Warner Bros., Fox and New Regency — on their films, with Baronnet overseeing who gets hired to develop the films and how they’re adapted to the big screen. “We are not the ancillary department of Ubisoft,” Baronett said, stressing that films can serve as another important storytelling tool. “When gamers are spending 60, 100 hours with a brand (when playing a game) they don’t want to be disappointed with the brand.”

Panelists also talked in depth about using social media to build a personal brand. Milano, who has three Twitter accounts (one for herself, her website for projects and fashion line) said she “feels dirty” using her personal Twitter account too much for self-promotion.

“My brand in part is a public perspective of who I am privately,” Milano said. “For me, it’s more of an extension of who I am. … Sharing a bit of myself is just as much of a tool in brand identity as selling a product.”

These platforms also give her the power to take back control of her personal life. Milano said she tweets pictures of her son in order to lower the value of a paparazzi image of him.

“The more you share, the less difficult it becomes to be a public figure,” she said. “Then people realize you’re a normal mom.”

However, Fedotowsky warned about the dangers of over-sharing.

“Heck, I went on a reality show trying to find a husband; I’m not the most private person in the world,” the former “Bachelorette” star said. She’s therefore now using social media to “switch my brand so people think of me as a reporter and not just as a reality TV girl.”

But both personalities agreed that “for an actor, social media is a game changer,” Milano said. Before, celebs could only talk about what they to during an interview or while on a talkshow. Now, “I have an audience of 3 million people,” Milano said to discuss “things that make me happy, make me smile.”

Milano sees her Twitter feeds as her personal TV network, where she controls the programming. “People will tune in or tune out,” she said. “It can kill a movie, it can make a movie.”

Marshall Gelfand, founding partner of Gelfand, Rennert & Feldman, also received Variety’s Business Manager Elite Award during the event.

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