Wilson Cleveland tells me actor Craig Bierko once called him the “the Orson Welles of the internet,” and to be totally honest, at first, I didn’t understand the comparison. Welles was brilliant, but perhaps due to the fact that his troubled life is now such a talking point, to me, the dude seemed like a lunatic. Cleveland on the other hand, is about as down-to-Earth as any one person can be. But after a minute, after going over Cleveland’s credits, the Welles comparison starts to stack up. Welles was an innovator in whatever medium he approached. He was able to take radio and film and stretch them to their maximum potential. Sure, Cleveland’s a far cry from Welles the public figure, but one could argue that he sees the web like Welles saw film — a medium where anything was possible, it was just a person’s dedication that defined it.
“The first time I discovered YouTube I remember thinking how cool it would be to make ‘little TV shows on the Internet’ for clients to tell their stories,” Cleveland tells me. He’s speaking about his first foray into online video. Working at a PR firm, Cleveland saw an opportunity in which his clients could also dip their toes into the pools of online video. It was a company called Spherion Staffing that took a chance on Cleveland in 2006: “Spherion Staffing needed to fill a growing number of positions with younger, web-savvy candidates unfamiliar with the brand and temping in general,” Cleveland explains. “I sold them on the idea of putting their logo on a ‘YouTube sitcom’ about crappy temp jobs. They paid us less than $1,000 to make a four-minute pilot.”
Cleveland is talking about branded online video here. A concept that is foreign to many companies in 2013. This was 2006, however, and Cleveland had sold a staffing agency on YouTube, a platform that was brand new and a passing trend to some. The show was called “Temp Life,” it went on to have five seasons with over 100 million cumulative views. “Fast Company called the show a ‘bona fide phenomenon.’ That was seven years ago.” Cleveland explains.
Cleveland’s credits are far too many to list here, but since that fateful experience with “Temp Life,” the actor/producer/writer has worked on dozens of web-based projects. In 2011, Cleveland co-created “Leap Year,” a branded web series on Hulu and YouTube with backing from insurance provider Hiscox. The show was a smash hit winning multiple Best Branded Series awards at both The Streamys and the NATPE Digital Luminary Awards.
Of course, “smash hit” to some is a relative term. For all of its strides in a positive direction, web-based video is still often viewed as non-comparable to the cable programming that has dominated our screens for so many years. I ask Cleveland where he falls on this debate and if the stigma is accurate. Cleveland, true to form, is straight-forward. “Says who? Based on what? Watch an episode of ‘Orange is the New Black’ or ‘House of Cards’ or ‘Mortal Kombat: Legacy,’ then try arguing none are as good as ‘Jerseylicious’ or the umpteenth iteration of Kardashians living places and doing things,” he explains.
For Cleveland, the great television vs. web debate is a moot conversation. The debate, as he explains, offers “an uneven comparison on every level.” Cleveland adds, “The notion that online video must somehow replicate or de-throne television in order to achieve credibility or become worthy of investment is ill-conceived at best.”
Web video seems to be shifting upwards, yet many investors are still hesitant to fund what is conceived as rocky ventures. Online video, for all of its success, has many kinks to work out. I ask Cleveland what he, as a web-based producer and actor, feels is online video’s weakness. He tells me web video’s biggest problem is the web itself. “On one hand the Internet provides a global, accessible mechanism for creative expression and communication,” Cleveland says. “On the other hand, it’s an infinite platform to which hundreds of millions of hours worth of content are uploaded every minute.”
In Cleveland’s eyes, the vast, near endless amounts of content online make it very difficult for advertisers to see the financial benefits of going digital. “The internet by design is free of scarcity which means those millions of hours of content grow increasingly difficult to monetize through traditional advertising means, not to mention the challenges of discovery and gaining attention,” Cleveland explains.
The future of branded web content, for Cleveland, rests in the hands of its patrons. For him, sponsored web content will be truly beautiful when companies learn the delicate balance of brand integration: “Pay for the groceries, sit at the table, but stay out of the kitchen,” he says.
Asking brands to drop cash on a show then step back is a hard sell. After all, most companies in a position to pay big bucks for branded content are hands-on if anything. However, as it is in television, games, and media, branded content seems to be the way the ad-based winds are blowing. Sure, we probably won’t have the “Citizen Kane” of branded video anytime soon, but if that’s what you’re looking for, I might know the right guy for the job.