Stars Align

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Gulp. That's sort of the feeling you get when you walk into 2000 Avenue of the Stars in Century City, California, where you'll find the new headquarters of arguably the most dominant and most powerful talent organization in Hollywood, Creative Artists Agency. Opened in January this year, the Gensler-designed behemoth is wall to wall marble, glass and steel, boasting a cold but powerful architecture that makes it easy to see why in glitterati-speak, it's often referred to as "The Death Star." Foreboding as it may seem, this is where CAA's 250-plus agents work together to make the "hopes and dreams come true" of a star-studded client roster that includes mega-celebs like Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Sting and Justin Timberlake. And today, they're extending that promise beyond Tinseltown in the hopes of making big brands famous too.

In the last few years, CAA has conspicuously tapped Madison Avenue to bolster the brainpower and muscle of its corporate client division, CAA Marketing, with the aim to conquer the branded and integrated entertainment space and create "strategic content," as they call it, for a growing list of corporate clients that include Coca-Cola, Starwood Hotels, Sprint and eBay. In 2005 CAA brought on Lenny Stern, co-founder of N.Y.-based agency SS+K, to become the president of the department, and in the last 18 months a notable trail of others have followed: Jae Goodman, former senior VP/ECD at Publicis/Hal Riney stepped in as a creative director, followed soon after by Wieden +Kennedy/N.Y. art director Jesse Coulter, JWT/N.Y. creative director Andrew Ault, and Y&R/Chicago production honcho Matt Bijarchi.

At first CAA was reluctant to be featured in this story—the agency itself is notorious for not doing PR, mainly because its job is to put its clients, not its agents, in the spotlight. Moreover, the newcomers are just getting their bearings, and a handful of projects for clients like Sprint, eBay, and Starwood Hotels are still "in development" as they say in Hollywood, although they will break sometime first quarter next year and will involve programming the clients' "built-in" networks—think the audience on the other side of that cellphone or hotel room TV set.

That aside, in the year and a half since Goodman and company have come on board, the group has already turned up the volume on the agency's brand-minded efforts and gotten the ad industry scratching its head as to what sort of deals can go down on that side of Madison and Vine. Most notably, there's its work for eBay. The client had been looking to take a next generation step in connecting with its buyers and sellers, so CAA, working with Smuggler, conceived the brand's "Let Them Post" initiative in which aspiring filmmakers-slash-eBay sellers created online films to pimp their own auctions, in an effort to encourage other sellers to do the same.

The effort yielded some notable results. CAA tracked eBay postings for similar items sold in the same period as video-supported wares. CAA's Jae Goodman says that certain video auctions got as much as a 19,000 percent increase in views over similar posts—which resulted in more bids, and ultimately, higher-priced sales. Adds eBay's head of marketing Kevin McSpadden, "Since then, there have been thousands of people selling their items with video, instead of just with pictures and words." Last month, CAA also launched "The Winnervators" tour. Drawing off the BBDO/N.Y.–conceived "Shop Victoriously" campaign, the agency sent comedians Andy Richter, a CAA client, and Paul F. Tomkins to various West Coast hotspots to preach eBay's new winners-inspired mantra and document silly success stories. Episodes of the tour are currently being broadcast on the specialized eBay site

Other projects include programming for Delta Airlines, cute animated shorts that illustrate "Planeguage," terminology travelers are likely to encounter while flying, to be broadcast on Delta's corporate blog and a dedicated YouTube channel. The agency also created the Johnny Delgado is Dead comic book for Harley-Davidson, hooking the client up with Roger Mincheff of branded entertainment and interactive marketing shop SpaceDog Entertainment, to launch a title aimed at attracting a more multicultural audience to the brand.

Conceivably, any smart advertising agency with open-minded clients, good connections—and maybe above average persistence and a willingness to invest extra dollars and time—could get projects like the aforementioned off the ground. But to get a better grasp of how far CAA's Hollywood connections can really travel for a brand, consider Transformers. Hasbro, a former CAA corporate client, had been looking for ways to resurrect the toy robot brand for a new generation. Word got out that Steven Spielberg, a CAA entertainment client, was looking for a project and Voila! Transformers the movie was born. Hasbro was paid for its intellectual property, Spielberg brought on Michael Bay, not a CAA-client, to direct, and then Paramount put mega-dollars into what ultimately became a two-hour commercial for the Hasbro toy brand.

Nothing New, But Different
CAA's ties to the corporate world are nothing new. They first formed in 1991 when Coca-Cola first came in as an advertising client, leading to the now classic polar bear commercials. But when founding partner Michael Ovitz left for Disney in 1995, so did Coke. The company is now overseen by a group of young partners—president Richard Lovett, Bryan Lourd, Kevin Huvane, Rick Nicita, Rob Light and David O'Connor—who have been aggressively trying to extend CAA's reach into new areas like sports and corporate marketing—a move that can either be seen as overly ambitious for a talent organization, or smart, considering the shrinking dollars in the entertainment business and the increasingly overlapping worlds of sports, Hollywood and big business.

Coke helped to jumpstart that push when it came back in 2000, this time in the hopes of reinvigorating its cultural presence by strategically aligning itself with entertainment properties. Coke's return marked the birth of the marketing division, led by a single founding member, Seth Matlins, a former marketer at Evian and Rock the Vote. Soon after, CAA knocked out the well-documented deal that led to Coke's solo sponsorship of American Idol. It also led to an early promotion partnership with the first two Harry Potter films.

"While it's an old example, it's a great example," says Matlins. "When Variety announced our relationship with Coke, we got a call from Warner Brothers," he recalls. "They said, 'Hey, by the way, we have this property, Harry Potter. It's about to go to Pepsi.' This was May 2000 and it was not yet a cultural phenomenon. We knew what that book was. My wife was a kindergarten teacher, so I knew the power of that book." So CAA pounced. "Seventeen people, from our partners, to our literary agents, talent agents, business affairs, to our marketing team got involved in that moment, took that property away from our client's competitive set, and secured Coca-Cola as the only partner for that film on a global basis for the first two films, wrestling it when the deal was all but done. We were able to do that because of the ecosystem."

Ecosystem? Yeah, it's a HUGE deal here. It's the term CAA uses to describe the network that extends across all its departments—film, television, publishing, sports, video games—but also comprises a broader scope of relationships with talent that isn't necessarily part of the CAA roster, like Smuggler, for example. That's one thing CAA says distinguishes it from traditional ad agencies and many talent competitors who also do corporate marketing, like William Morris and Endeavor. "We're under no pressure whatsoever to sell our corporate clients who or what we represent," says Goodman. As part of that culture, any CAA agent is also free and encouraged to tap into that network to help service any of the organization's clients. That requires the agency to be eerily Borg-like in its connectivity and efficiency. For example, information on potential deals or properties is made available to everyone, from the most senior to the most junior agent. Agents return the calls of colleagues, not clients, first. Every week each department holds meetings attended by representatives of other agency sectors so that everyone is abreast of potential opportunities.

"That's a big part of the reason I came to CAA," says Goodman, who says being at the talent organization is like working in "one big creative department." In the agency world, big, extended branding ideas would typically get relegated to the "back of the book." Whether it's a videogame, a feature film or concert series, "those things were incredibly cumbersome to create within the confines of a traditional agency simply because of the number of phone calls it takes. It took six months on one client I worked with at Riney, but here, I literally walk down the hall. I had a reality television show idea for Delta. I take the piece of paper down the hall to Mike Camacho, who's the head of reality television. I don't even have to knock on his door—'Hey Mike, anybody buy this television show? No? OK, thanks.' Six months saved. Two days later, 'Hey Mike, anybody buy this one?' 'Yes, these six networks will hear that pitch tomorrow.'"

Now that the new ad brains are on board, one question is whether CAA, which works on a retainer and per-project fee basis, will represent serious competition for agency players trying to put similar ideas in the fronts of their books. Maybe. "Everybody's going to try to be in these different spaces, and it's the client's job to figure out who's going to be best able to do this," says Lenny Stern. Moreover, "as much as we like to solve problems and come up with integrated solutions, often what we do is work in collaboration with clients' partners and build on their ideas." The agency took BBDO's eBay "Shop Victoriously" concept to develop "Winnervators," for example. It's also collaborating with Goodby on its upcoming initiative for Sprint.

Going forward, one challenge for CAA, like any marketing service organization, will be to keep its clients loyal in this era of increasingly daring, yet ever-fickle marketers. CAA's relationship with Coca-Cola is onto its eighth year, but recently the brand, which has seen considerable success with its traditional ad shops on its "The Coke Side of Life" campaign, has reportedly made the moves to reduce its ties to the agency. According to previous reports, Coke at one time had been paying $5 million in yearly fees to CAA, only to drop that number to $3 million in 2006. Also, Hasbro, the client that scored on Transformers, ultimately ended up leaving CAA for William Morris in June, a month before the picture even hit the theaters.

Nevertheless, CAA's marketing mavens mean serious business for those who do stick around. "Clients today function under great pressure to deliver return on shareowner value on a quarterly basis," says Matlins. "The challenge is helping people understand that the tried and true needs to be supplemented by new ways of doing things. If we succeed in that, our business will continue to thrive." Adds CAA's Jesse Coulter, "It's been a knock on Hollywood that it's just there to take people's money and run, but what we're building is a group of people who really understand brands. If we're not creating the ideas, we're putting the the pieces in place to make them happen."

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