Five Lessons from House of Cards

Ahead of the Fall TV premier season, DC Group Head Rebecca Davis and Executive Creative Director Jose Salmeron take a closer look at Netflix’s successful political thriller ‘House of Cards’ in this two-part series.

When Netflix signed the House of Cards development deal, it signaled a giant shift in the landscape of content: no longer did producers need to sell to TV execs to get high-quality stories funded. Kevin Spacey recently gave the keynote at the Edinburgh Television Festival with a strong thesis: TV channels should give control to their audiences or risk losing them.

As brands approach content development, what can they learn from these shifts?

  • Story. It seems critical to point out his emphasis on “story”. Not animated infographics, not giving people your talking points from investor relationships presentations dressed up in a picture and text image box for Facebook. Create a compelling story – brand, advertising, or otherwise — and people will find it and share. But there’s a really high bar now for what “compelling story” is.
  • Long form. Some writers of both TV and feature-length film will tell you that they prefer TV; often the thesis is that TV offers the opportunity to develop characters deeply. There are some interesting implications for opportunities in brand-oriented longer-form or serialized content. Do brands use this as well as they could? Brands should actively push to think about characters within their stories, and use these over longer periods.
  • Testing. Spacey’s disdain for pilots is palpable, but perhaps too severe. Pilots can be an important tool for making good investment decisions, particularly with unknown factors (talent, concept, production companies). With the advent of social media, there are other options for gathering data on content effectiveness. Brands can make use of their social networks to effectively test “pilots”, screen tests and short-clip content in front of consumers.
  • Context. Although “it’s all content,” context plays a huge role in consumers’ willingness to watch, and brands should think carefully about how this works. The content consumers watch on a big screen in family settings is different than what happens when they leave the TV on while they’re working around the house (“ambient video”).  This, in turn, might be different from what you watch on the train on a mobile device.  (We used to call some of this “lean forward” and “lean back”).  Sports viewing differs from non-fiction differs from feature films in theatre.
  • Binge watching is a fascinating case that is, in fact, fairly new for digital but new for programmers.  For scripted drama, it’s basically people watching back-to-back full-length movies, and in the process forcing us to re-think the fundamental unit of entertainment.  (Programmers have used this for years in their “stacks”, or marathons of episodes that often air over weekends).

    And, I would posit, the content created by brands has profoundly different context.  Brand content is often interruptive — it’s delivered as an ad, or on someone’s news feed.  Inherently it must work really hard to compete, entertain, and engender trust.  Or, rather, trustworthy brands have wide brand permissions, while non-trustworthy brands are treated as suspect.  Think about how content is treated from beloved airline brands vs your cable company.

  • Funding. Which brings us to perhaps the most obvious implication, though perhaps even more seismic: House of Cards signals that “funding can come from anywhere.” Indeed, brands may consider becoming executive producers again, working directly with the creatives that reflect their goals. We may see a large-scale production deal between brand advertisers, content producers, and distribution channels like Netflix in the next 18 months to produce world-class content, disintermediating the networks even more profoundly.


Spacey’s ultimate claim, that consumers have control, is the mantra by which we should evaluate branded content. We should ask, for every piece: will consumers choose this?