TRAVERSE32's Brett Henenberg Navigates The Worlds of Entertainment, Advertising
Brett Henenberg
Co-founder & global head of production for IPG Mediabrands' new venture talks films, TV, brands

Brett Henenberg leads all elements of TRAVERSE32’s domestic and international film, television, and content productions. Recently launched by IPG Mediabrands, TRAVERSE32 is an independent development and entertainment company aimed at connecting film and TV audiences with highly influential brands and creators. Henenberg is co-founder and global head of production for TRAVERSE32. He works in concert with co-founder Brendan Gaul who serves both as global president of TRAVERSE32 and the first-ever global chief content officer of Mediabrands.

Prior to TRAVERSE32, Henenberg served as SVP and global head of production for Mediabrands’ UM Studios. There Henenberg produced a series of award-winning film and television projects including the 2019 Cannes Lions Jury Grand Prize-winning documentary 5B, which was also the first brand-funded film to ever premiere at the Cannes International Film Festival. Named after the San Francisco General ward which opened in 1983 as the first full-fledged hospital unit dedicated to treating people with AIDS, 5B was produced for UM Worldwide’s client Johnson & Johnson. The documentary showed the positive power of nursing, continuing a theme which the brand has championed over the years. Directed by Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss via Saville Productions, 5B told the stories of caretakers, patients and others impacted by the pioneering hospital ward, introducing us to the likes of Mary Magee, a nurse who came out from New York with the hope of landing a job at 5B so that she could care for, comfort and protect AIDS patients who at that time were given a death sentence. Then there was Dr. Paul Volberding, an oncologist who committed to patient care at 5B even though he acknowledged fear for his health and that of his family since the extent of AIDS’ contagious nature wasn’t known at the time. He related that he and his wife had a hard time talking about the potential perils. 5B went on to gain prominent exposure beyond the Cannes fests as it was acquired by Verizon Media for distribution, including a theatrical run.

TRAVERSE32 will make it possible for companies to create, develop, and co-produce relevant mainstream film and television content akin to UM Studios’ 5B and the well-received new project, Dear Santa, distributed by IFC, which was recently released in select theaters nationwide and is available on Video on Demand. Dear Santa, a heartwarming documentary directed by Dana Nachman, shines a light on the 100-year-old “Operation Santa” Program of the United States Postal Service (USPS).  Each year, hundreds of thousands of letters to Santa arrive at post offices around the country. Through Operation Santa, the USPS makes it possible for the public to safely adopt these letters and make children’s dreams come true. The film invites audiences along for the magic of this massive endeavor. Traveling the country, much like Santa does on Christmas Eve, the film focuses on select “Operation Santa” Centers; some in metropolitan areas like the massive operation in New York City and others in small towns where the post office is the heart of the community.

Through TRAVERSE32, the original content practice built within UM Studios becomes available to both Mediabrands and non-Mediabrands clients. As well, UM clients can still access TRAVERSE32 through UM Studios. TRAVERSE32 is built to handle the nuances of IP management and monetization that clients need as they are exploring the original content space.  TRAVERSE32 will develop, create and deliver the film or show but unlike other premium development companies, TRAVERSE32 projects are built with brand activation and category opportunities in mind. UM Studios or other agencies will then activate the film or property in media and promotion.

During his 10-plus years with UM, Henenberg came up the ranks, starting as its very first producer and taking on such capacities as EP and head of production in North America before settling into the global head of production role in 2018. 

Prior to his UM tenure, Henenberg spent nearly a decade producing high-profile entertainment content in the social good space. 

SHOOT: What is the mission statement for TRAVERSE32?
Henenberg: We partner with creators, IP holders, distributors and brands to move between the worlds of entertainment and advertising. 

SHOOT: Define your role--the responsibilities it entails, the considerations that go into it--as co-founder and global head of production at TRAVERSE32? 
Henenberg: First and foremost, I’ll continue to collaborate with my long-time producing partner, global president and co-founder of TRAVERSE32, Brendan Gaul. Together, we will be developing and producing compelling independent entertainment content and IP, mainly films and television shows, made to be sold or licensed for distribution while ensuring the brands that participate in each do so in ways that are most meaningful for them. From a high-level that includes selecting and developing stories, we want to choose the best creative and business partners to bring these stories to life and then lead every logistical and executional step--from development through delivery--that is required to bring a great creative and financially profitable product to market. 

Tactically, a large part of my role is to create the overall deal structures across filmmakers, sales agents, distributors and brand partner contracts, ensuring that the pertinent deal points within each are implemented from creative development through release. With creating and ultimately selling new IP, we have to structure our deals with creators, filmmakers and production companies in a way that delivers what domestic and international distributors require from a rights management, physical delivery, business and legal perspective. 

Those deals are a little more straightforward as they’re based on industry precedent, but where it’s really exciting--and where we’re able to get really custom--are in the deals we create with brands. We can drive unique value in guiding them through the transition of being the buyer to becoming the seller.  This is what we mean by moving between advertising and entertainment.

We recognize that agencies and other companies have been talking about a model like this for a long time.  With what we have built with 5B, Dear Santa and Oso (coming out of UM Studios Spain), we have three examples of work funded or partially funded by brands that were sold to distributors.  We believe we are actually executing on what has been an ambition of many for a while now.  

Traditionally, brands are accustomed to producing content for which they ultimately own and control the distribution. In our model, since all of the content is made to be sold or licensed for distribution, we work closely with each brand to identify the strategic opportunities and reserve the rights that will allow them to meaningfully influence the creation of the film or show. The brand continues to stay connected to the property once it’s sold for distribution by participating in the release in many more ways than just financially. For the distributor, it’s a win because the project is coming to them with a co-marketing partner already built into the deal.

That being said, each project is ultimately designed with profitability in mind. Making sure that all of our partners--both on the brand and the filmmaker/creator side - participate with us in the sharing of profits is always a key priority and consideration.
Getting the deals structured properly and quickly executed ensures that all of the complicated contractual framework is set from the start. This allows us to focus on working with filmmakers to produce entertaining content that not only works for the brands but most importantly, connects with mainstream audiences.  At the end of the day, if the work isn’t great, it really doesn’t matter how well the deal was structured.

SHOOT: What lessons do you bring to it based on your prior role as SVP, global head of production at UM Studios? 
Henenberg: Historically, the work Brendan and I have been producing at UM and J3 Studios (the branded content studio dedicated to UM’s Johnson & Johnson account) over the last 10 years has been rooted in emotional storytelling.  Long-form original content is in our DNA and is a natural extension of what we’ve always produced.  Where my previous UM experience becomes extremely beneficial is in setting the projects up for success through managing expectations on both the filmmaker and brand sides. 

We know exactly what brands are used to seeing from a creative development and production perspective, how they’re used to being presented to, the creative dialogue they’re used to having, how they’re accustomed to reviewing work, and the timing they’re afforded to do so. All of that previous knowledge means we are able to set the filmmakers’ expectations from the beginning as to how the brand will need to be integrated and interfaced with so that they can plan and communicate in a way that’s most effective. Conversely, we are able to manage the brand’s expectations as to how this production will be different than what they’re used to and why these differences ultimately benefit the quality of the work.  We are able to set very clear expectations from the beginning and set everyone up for a successful partnership.

On the flip side, we also know where many brands have blind spots. Often, this is their first foray into this type of original entertainment content. It’s our job to use our experience and expertise to not only create a smooth process while guiding the brand through a new way of working, but also to proactively make recommendations that will enable them to participate in the most meaningful way possible. 

There’s always going to be reasons why a brand is choosing to produce this type of content. It’s on us to maintain that the content works on an entertainment level while meeting the brand’s needs. As such, we work with brands in the development and production stages to align their creative priorities for the project, then through distribution and beyond.  We do everything from offer advice around the best distribution partners to structure financial guarantees so as to participate in profit waterfalls to offer publicity to identify co-marketing or commercial tie-ins and/or analyze potential opportunities by which the IP may be exploited in the future.  
SHOOT: What are your priorities in your new role?
Henenberg: Not to oversimplify it, but my priority is to develop and produce content that distributors want to buy and audiences want to watch. When you get those two pieces right, and the deals are structured properly, everything else falls into place.

SHOOT: Discuss how 5B and Dear Santa inform your approach to content creation at TRAVERSE32. I recall, for instance, you talking about how important the selection of the filmmaker is for any given project (such as Dana Nachman for Dear Santa).

Henenberg: It’s really a custom case-by-case scenario dictated by the types of stories we’re telling, but our approach to content creation is always the same--and that is one of true partnership. We never hire production companies or directors just to execute our vision.

Conversely, we do not provide funding just to bring someone else’s vision to life. 

The initial idea for a project can come from any number of places, but the development and execution of that idea is always an equal collaboration between our team, the filmmakers/creators and the brand. It’s a model that’s based on being strategic in choosing the right partners and then spending as much time and effort as needed aligning on a creative vision. Our objective is to give the filmmaker and creators the space they need to bring their vision to life while ensuring there are guardrails and touch points for all parties to imprint on the work.

A good proof point that the model is working is that we’ve been able to give our filmmaking partners final cut, and to date, we’ve been successful based on the partnership model we’ve created. That said, when you put all of your effort behind equal partnership and a shared creative vision, it really doesn’t matter at the end of the day who has final cut. It’s about being in agreement on the creative decisions regardless of who contractually has the final say.

SHOOT: What are some of the business models you hope to define within the context of your activities at TRAVERSE32? Clients participating in the monetization of content--how so and what about monetization of content/IP opportunities for filmmakers and production companies rather than the typical work for hire scenario of commercial production. The TRAVERSE32 announcement press release also referenced reinventing the entertainment model by bridging the gap between media and storytelling in new, innovative ways. Could you give us a handle on that goal?

Henenberg: Entertainment has been indirectly financed by brands for many, many years. The television and cable industries were actually based on that model: A creator has an idea for a show, the show gets greenlit and financed by a distributor who then recoups their investment plus massive profits by selling integrations and commercial time to brands to be featured in and around the project. The brands are actually paying for the content but don’t have creative say in what is being created, nor an opportunity to participate financially in the profits of the show. At TRAVERSE32, we aim to move brands upstream in the conversation with creators by providing development financing and co-developing work ahead of a distribution deal being signed. This allows for true partnership between all parties.
We believe the “work for hire” model is ideal for agencies and brands that are looking to have their vision executed. TRAVERSE32 isn’t set up as an agency. We develop content with creators and brands with the intent of monetizing that work.  If a creator doesn’t have final cut on a project and won’t put their name on it, it’s likely not their best work and probably would be categorized as advertising or branded content. We want the work to be so good that the creator needs to be credited and it is treated as entertainment by distributors and audiences.

SHOOT: Provide an overview of what your “table of content” will be for TRAVERSE32. Features, documentaries, scripted and non-scripted TV. Will the branded content be that “branded” or do you see it generally as more subtle as in the case of 5B?

Henenberg: We are in development on our first scripted feature as well as our next documentary feature.  We start with a human truth that leads to a question. The answer to that question is expressed as the premise. Then we explore and determine the most effective format to bring a story to life and deliver on the premise. We are open to exploring all formats if they deliver on our objectives.

As for branding, Brendan and I were strategic in choosing Dear Santa as our sophomore film.  We wanted to make sure that we were deploying the successful model that got us to 5B but that delivered a film that had broader appeal and a more comedic, family-friendly tone.  The same goes for branding.  5B is discreetly branded “commissioned by Johnson & Johnson” in the credits sequence whereas we never had to brand Dear Santa because The United States Postal Service and their employees are core to the story.  We believe that, with these two films, we’ve created a spectrum.  This allows us to play anywhere in-between and decide the level of branding strategically based on what makes sense for the project and the needs of the partners involved. 

SHOOT: These conversations are often centered on content development and creation. But TRAVERSE32 is also involved in acquisitions and distribution. Would you address those aspects and what you hope to accomplish on those fronts?

Henenberg: Our Mediabrands agencies have deep relationships with media owners, publishers and platforms, and our agencies activate roughly $40 billion on behalf of our clients globally.  Powered by MAGNA, which handles marketplace intelligence and negotiation, and Orion, which handles barter and capital programs, TRAVERSE32 will strike unique co-development and content financing deals that will unlock new kinds of media value and first-look opportunities for our clients and partners.

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