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Illustrations by Keith Rowland

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From Reality TV to Game Day Grub Match, My Journey in Branded Content

This is part of a larger series called the Vox Creative Grad Guide.

I came to Vox Media to produce branded content, whatever that is.

I figured it would be more of the same of what I was used to doing: Longer-form content meant to live online with an end card of “insert brand here.” Don’t get me wrong, I was totally OK with that. In my mind (and definitely my mind only) I’m a free-spirited documentary filmmaker whose purpose in life is to tell beautifully shot stories and bring awareness to the world. If a brand wanted to get in on that action, fine by me. However, it wasn’t until I was dropped so far out of my element that I came to understand the extent of what branded content could be — and how much fun it was to make. What I was dropped into was a cooking competition with the size and scale of a proper television show, The Game Day Grub Match.

It took me a while to figure out my niche in the entertainment business. I’ve been on many different types of productions and held a lot of strange jobs in the industry. I started out in China working in reality television. The show was The Amazing Race: China Rush. This was the Chinese version of the show and had everything the American version of the show had, minus the production budget and experienced crew. This was a solid month on the road visiting 12 cities across China, and shooting fifteen-hour days. Apparently my six months of professional, post-college experience was enough to land me the role of game producer. As game producers, our job was to figure out the race route, to write the clues, and to come up with all of the different challenges the contestants would have to endure. I made them do some pretty awful things, like eat bugs, turtles, and ungodly amounts of fried rice. There were other things too, but the eating challenges definitely stick out.

China wasn’t all talk shows and reality television. It was there I was introduced to branded documentaries. When I worked at a small production company, we were able to tell unique and longer form stories that happened to incorporate a brand. It was my first taste of branded content, and I was into it. We profiled local Chinese artists for Adidas, toured factories in central China, and even followed Kevin Durant on his first China tour for Nike. I eventually moved to New York City to work in traditional advertising, which was creatively stimulating. But I missed the hands-on, scrappy approach to branded content. So I came to Vox Creative thinking I knew what branded content was. I thought I knew everything the world of branded content had to offer, but was quickly mistaken when I entered the Grub Match.

The Game Day Grub Match, to be exact. My first big shoot for Vox Creative would in fact be the biggest I had ever produced. It was even bigger than a Chinese reality show and would be in no way what I thought branded content was. The Grub Match was a full-on cooking competition with celebrity chefs and former NFL players as the contestants. We had to shoot three episodes in a single day and shoot on a football field in December.

For this shoot, I took to what I call “the floating duck approach.” On the top I’m bobbing along confidently, but underneath my legs were flailing. To be honest, you could probably see the flailing in my face as well. But once we got moving, it was incredibly exciting and fulfilling. We were making a TV show! We had a TV director, a TV crew, TV talent, and an amazing TV set that we built in an indoor soccer facility in Jersey. The only thing it wasn’t was actually on TV.

So what’s the point? Is it for me to talk myself up after producing a shoot? Definitely not. The point is that the medium is constantly changing and there should be no barriers as to what branded content is or what it can be. It can be as big as a Grub Match, or it could be a personal documentary profile. Whatever it is, I like making it and I’m along for the ride.

by AJ Gutierrez, 2009 graduate