Actor, scriptwriter, filmmaker, producer, digital content provider, creative director… at one time Jason Xenopoulos wore so many hats on his path through the worlds of film, TV and advertising that he suspected a severe case of professional multiple personality disorder, a condition that resolved itself only when he set up Native (now part of VML South Africa) in 2010, and the different paths he’d explored coalesced into one multifaceted seam of what we call branded entertainment.

“It was the industry that started to think I was schizophrenic,” he says, as he talks me through his career. “Like, what is this guy, a digital web development guy, an advertising guy, a film director? That sat uncomfortably with quite a lot of people, and with me, because I knew I wanted to do all of these things, but they seemed almost dilettantish.”


That difficult second film

This was when he was at Y&R South Africa, with whom he’d signed as ECD – his first job in advertising. Y&R bagged him on the strength of Critical Assignment, one of the first branded feature films, made by Guinness in 2004. A pan-African actioner with a Bond-like hero, Michael Power, who’d been created for Guinness ads in 1999, it was Xenopoulos’s second movie, coming two years after his own, long-gestating, low-budget art-house success, Promised Land. “Critical Assignment was a real eye opener,” he says, “right at the intersection of having movie producers and a brand client together, and it won prizes at a bunch of festivals. But I look at it now and I think it is a shit film. It was a TV commercial masquerading as a feature, but it was a great experience.”

After Critical Assignment, Y&R called him in to cast an outsider’s eye over pitches for a telecoms company. “I ran the pitch with them, and at the end of it they said, we won the business, the client likes you, we want you to stay, we’ll make you ECD. So that was my first job in advertising. Which was pretty weird. People were going, “who the fuck is this guy and why do we have to listen to him?”

Critical Assignment poster


A New York state of mind

Why, indeed? Brought up in Johannesburg – the son of a Cypriot immigrant who had arrived in South African with just £5 in his pocket – Xenopoulos pursued a creative path from an early age, attending drama school, and later New York University’s four-year film and television course, where he learnt the ropes of writing, shooting, editing and directing. “It was an amazing time to be in New York. A few years before that you got mugged walking down the road; then a few years later you couldn’t even party after midnight, with [former Mayor] Giuliani cleaning it all up.”

After returning to South Africa, he soon learnt the many fascinating ways a feature film can end up not being made, and began subsidising his filmic ambitions with corporate videos for the likes of South African Airways. This was the mid 1990s. The internet was starting to be a thing. “I thought if we are making these corporate videos it would be better making websites, so I went to the company, and they said, ‘we don’t know what the fuck you are talking about, but here is our client list, here’s a desk, if you can make it work, then so be it’,” he laughs. “It was the right thing at the right time.”

While the industry around him saw digital as just another channel to add to the pile, Xenopoulos knew it was much more. “I knew it would fundamentally change the way that consumers interact with brands. It was a redefinition of the dynamic.”


One Source, many platforms

By the time he started Native in 2010, the three career strands of digital, advertising and film had come together in one elastic whole. A couple of years before, he had set up 2.0 Media, “where we tried to ride this line between advertising and entertainment” but found himself still focused on TV ads when he knew the biggest gap in the market was digital. So with the help of a designer, a tech wizard, and a social media specialist, Native was born, merging with WPP to become part of the VML network just two years later. Game-changing adventures in branded entertainment followed, ranging from big production pieces to small but incredibly effective social media campaigns such as I Am Muslim and Refugees – “branded messaging in a social context,” Xenopoulos calls them. “To change perceptions and behaviour. That’s really important, for all of us.”

A headshot from Xenopoulos' I Am Muslim campaign


One Source is probably Native VML’s most ambitious piece of branded entertainment, made in collaboration with Absolut. A multimedia piece that travelled the continent, it featured South African rapper Khuli Chana, Kenya’s Victoria Kimani and Ghana’s Sarkodie in a pan-African musical celebration of Africa’s cultural renaissance. “The work we’ve done with One Source is predicated on the fact that there is a real renaissance and cultural revolution sweeping across the continent,” says Xenopoulos. “It’s not an advertising notion but the reality of what is happening. One Source is creating a platform for all that stuff. We turned it into an album, a pan-African collaboration, a music video, documentary. And now we’re launching One Source Live, a festival of African creativity, of music, art and fashion. We’ve pitched it as a gathering of African creative revolutionaries, and the intention is that it will grow and get bigger and bigger.”

Branded experiences such as this reverse the paradigm of artists signing with brands to endorse them. Instead, brands are now starting to support artists – “becoming the Medicis of popular culture” as Xenopoulos terms it. “Unless you’re building your brand into the fabric of either the content or service that people want, you’ve got no hope,” he says. “The days of buying an audience are dwindling fast. You have to create something of value. What we need is real partnerships between brands and culture creators, to create art and entertainment that has a brand built in to it at a completely different level.”

One Source by Native VML


The president declares these minds open

Is this the sort of work he wants to see at Dubai Lynx, where he’ll be president of the Branded Content & Entertainment jury? “I don’t want to go into it with preconceived ideas,” he replies. “Rather, I want to let the work tell us what branded entertainment is, and where it’s going. It’s at a shifting point in its life cycle so that every day there is a new work coming out that makes you say, ‘wow’, that’s what is possible. So I would like us to go in with an open mind and let the work guide us towards a clear and consensual overview of what great branded entertainment is.” 

And if his jurors do want to come armed with a good working definition, Xenopoulos has this to say: “It’s about creating content that is designed to meet the needs of an audience so that an audience will choose to watch it, share it, and then the brand builds itself into that. Everything we do at Native VML, we try to apply those principles. Our mantra is work that lives in people’s lives. We try to build stuff that adds value to the audience as well as the brand, and ideally adds value to the wider world as well.”  


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