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In Ad Pact, Allstate’s CEO Will Promote New CNN Series ‘Chicagoland’

As advertisers press for closer alliances with the content they sponsor, CNN tests new techniques

When the docuseries “Chicagoland” debuts on CNN later this week, it will do so with a helping hand from the chief executive of Allstate – a promotional maneuver the Time Warner cable-news outlet might have avoided in the past.

For eight weeks, Allstate will serve as a “presenting sponsor” of the eight-part series, set to launch this Thursday, March 6, at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific. In the first ad break, Tom Wilson, Allstate’s chairman, president and CEO, will appear and talk directly to viewers about the program. “Like all great cities, Chicago has its share of challenges, and its share of heroes.” Wilson says in a short promotional video. “CNN’s ‘Chicagoland’ takes a close, personal, very moving look at some of the people here who are dedicated to bringing out the good in life.” Promos for the series will also include nods to the large the insurance company and Wilson may appear in them.

“We aren’t looking at commercials. We are looking at being in the fabric of this program,” said Karen Uhler, director of marketing at Allstate.

Allowing a top business leader to offer his take on a series produced by a cable-news outlet that attempts to preserve a down-the-middle approach to its journalism might have seemed anathema in a different time. But with more news outlets clamoring for so-called “native” advertising – or commercials that seem of a piece with the stories and articles they support – CNN is testing something new, said Greg D’Alba, president of ad sales for CNN and the digital properties of its parent company, Turner Broadcasting

“The marketplace has come to a point where this is somewhat expected,” said D’Alba, who noted that CNN is “evolving” in terms of the ways it is working with its advertisers. Allstate had no influence or say over the content or direction of “Chicagoland.”

CNN has faced ratings challenges in recent years, as Fox News Channel and MSNBC have seen audiences swell by delivering opinion-driven programming in primetime. CNN must often rely on fate in the form of a big breaking-news story to notch broader crowds. In 2013, viewership for CNN’s total day of programming was flat in total viewers and down about 2% among viewers between 25 and 54 – the demographic most coveted by advertisers in news programs. The figures were still enough to help CNN finish ahead of MSNBC in total day for the first time in two years.

As such, the network’s ad revenue has slipped in recent years. In 2011, CNN took in about $347.8 million in advertising, according to data provided by market-research firm SNL Kagan.In 2013, Kagan projected CNN would take in approximately $293.2 million.

The new alliance with Allstate comes as CNN is placing more emphasis on acquired films and original non-fiction series. The network hopes stuff like “Chicagoland” as well as fare such as “Parts Unknown” featuring celebrity chef and traveler Anthony Bourdain draws increased attention from retailers, travel marketers, auto advertisers and telecommunications sponsors, said D’Alba.

By one measure, it seems to be working: the ad-sales chief said ad time for “Chicagoland” is sold out.

“Chicagoland” has an impressive pedigree: It is executive produced by Robert Redford and Laura Michalchyshyn of Sundance Productions, and filmmakers Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin of BCTV, and narrated by Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago journalist Mark Konkol. The series explores what happens when Mayor Rahm Emmanuel sets off on an ambitious schools consolidation plan as part of his efforts to modernize the city.

The ad pact with Allstate illustrates new methods being tested by news outlets as marketers demand deeper connections with the content they sponsor. In scripted and reality TV programs, those requests have been answered with the placement of logos and products on sets and in scripts. But that sort of thing is much harder for a media company that doesn’t produce programs such as “The Walking Dead” or “Survivor.”

Other hallowed TV-news outlets are trying similar stuff. NBC News has agreed to create videos for Xerox that talk about stories and subjects of interest to the audiences that watch different news and sports networks owned by parent NBCUniversal. On CNBC, the promotional vignettes tackle financial news, while MSNBC’s look at progressive topics. NBCUniversal in January unveiled an ad pact with retirement and investment company ING that called for the creation of personal-finance segments on CNBC’s “Mad Money with Jim Cramer” as well as NBC’s “Today.”

“We are at a point now where advertisers aren’t just ‘sponsoring’ any more,” said D’Alba. “They are getting embedded into content and storytelling on so many platforms. There has to be a deeper drill-down and a deeper marketing association with the content.”

CNN moved aggressively to court Allstate. The insurer may best be known in the advertising world for commercials featuring actor Dennis Haysbert, popular for his portrayal of the U.S. President in Fox’s “24,” and Dean Winters, who played an Allstate character known as :”Mayhem,” and went about causing accidents and damage for consumers.

Ad-sales staffers at the network were looking for a company based in Chicago to sponsor the program, and made direct contact with Allstate marketing executives, said Uhler. The idea, she said, went as high as the chief executive’s office before a decision was made, reflecting how closely identified the company would become with the city portrayed in the CNN series. “You will see some really stark reality checks about Chicago, but you will also start seeing the good,” she said.

CNN intends to continue seeking similar opportunities, said D’Alba. While the network won’t attempt advertising that breaks with its ‘brand value and integrity,” he said, executives feel the new programming opens new ways to connect with marketers. “Our association with advertisers is much more partnership driven, as this project was, and you will see more of it,” he predicted.

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