In a deal that was driven by Fallon in Minneapolis, the ad agency for Nestle Purina PetCare—the producer of pet food brands such as Alpo, Dog Chow and Friskies—and former TiVo executive Stacy Jolna, the idea revolved around doing an animated satire of the 2004 presidential election, featuring the CAT Party and the DOG Party. It was to be set up as a one-hour broadcast network special complemented by a series of one-minute interstitials promoting the show on a network.
Jolna and Fallon assembled a glittery team in Hollywood that included executives at the corporate consulting unit of the William Morris Agency as well as Aaron Kaplan, a co-head of WMA's TV packaging division. A-list talent was then brought on board to flesh out the concept. A team of writers and producers with credits like "The Simpsons" were marshaled under the leadership of Howard Gordon, an executive producer of Fox's "24," and John Collier, a co-executive producer on "King of The Hill" also on Fox.
The project took root when Jolna in late 2002—as he was departing TiVo—developed a relationship with senior Fallon executives who were committed to raise the bar even higher after their BMW Films success. Jolna went to Minneapolis and huddled with the Fallon braintrust, which included David Lubars, Fallon North America president-executive creative director, and Rob White, president of Fallon in Minneapolis.
In March of 2003, White and Jolna led a brainstorming session involving about 20 Fallon execs, a diverse group pulled from creative, account management and strategic planning. "Marketers need an agency that works differently from the current agency model," said Lubars. "It's not GRPs, but creatives looking at where [they] can show up. It's not an assembly line but people getting together in a gumbo."
Ideas across all TV genres were explored before the team came up with the animated election parody, where major characters were either dogs or cats. Jolna and Fallon then presented the concept and all of its ancillary marketing components to senior Purina marketing executives, Steve Crimmins and Michael Crawford. "We told the Purina guys that it would be an organic connection to the brand; we wouldn't slap the Purina checkerboard all over the place," said Jolna.
This pitch included a limited-run episodic series on cable as well as the series of one- minute interstitials inside advertising pods to hopefully discourage ad-skipping as well as running them on the Web at Purina.com. A merchandising campaign was also proposed where pet food in every supermarket and Wal-Mart across the country would become a promotional vehicle for the concept. The program would build and climax in October with the network special "Decision 2004," where America would choose between the CAT and DOG party by voting online at purina.com.
The collaboration paid off as the client agreed to fund initial exploration of the concept and the assembly of a Hollywood development team. Many clients hesitate in these instances due to reservations about ROI models in branded entertainment, but the Purina team was satisfied with Fallon's plan.
After interviewing a slew of producers, including Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, the team selected Gordon and Collier, who were partners in a Los Angeles Web animation content outfit called Icebox.
Jolna said there was good chemistry at the first meeting over a dinner of chili and red wine at Collier's Pacific Palisades house with several of the Fallon players. At this point, Lubars had already blessed the collaboration with the Hollywood creatives and the two teams went to work.
One of the characters they came up with was a male Germanic dog, an ex-action adventure movie star who continuously falls back on his famous movie tagline, "No, you sit." Lubars and the client both were enthusiastic about the work. Both Gordon and Collier confirmed that there was a predisposition to accept the Fallon creative team as collaborators in an entertainment project, given the quality of BMW Films.
"The second I saw their reel, there was no question that I'd be able to work with them," said Collier. "I'd had no previous experience working with Madison Ave guys but writers are writers. There's a shared language and aesthetic."
"Most ideas from Madison Avenue are ill-formed," said Gordon. "[The CAT/DOG idea] was an amazingly organic idea."
Newly named NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly, in October of last year—at the time he was president of prime-time development at the Peacock—bit on the concept. Many financing schemes were batted around before both sides agreed in principle with final details to be worked out to a proposal whereby NBC would pay a reduced license fee and in turn give up some of the ad inventory to the Purina team.
Simultaneously, the producers were racing against the clock to meet deadlines to get onto NBC's pilot schedule. Then in November, momentum began to swing the other way. In a meeting in St. Louis with Purina's senior executive team, it was revealed that the quarter was shaping up to be a "fairly difficult" one for the company. "At this stage, their enthusiasm seemed to wane for the first time because… business considerations were intruding around the excitement for the project," said Jolna. According to a Hollywood exec close to the situation, around this time, commodities prices had risen to a level where Purina's margins were being squeezed.
The marketer started talking about dramatically reducing its deficit-financing commitment, which was in the low seven-figures. (According to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, the company spent approximately $140 million in 2003 total ad spending for cat and dog products.) The Fallon team then began to brainstorm about the possibility of bringing in a broadband partner or another brand to assume some of the risk. Fallon was not willing to put any of its own skin in the game.
%%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%% "We did our best to get creative around this for answers," said Jolna. "We continued to negotiate hard with our network partner." But as the holidays drew closer, the signals from St. Louis became increasingly negative. Finally on Christmas Eve, Jolna got an e-mail from Fallon that said the client had pulled the plug.
Purina executives were not available to comment.
"It was quite upsetting to all of us because we really felt we'd pioneered a new kind of model with a compelling concept with a world-class team," lamented Jolna. "Ultimately, there's no one at fault here. It boiled down to finances that was a marketplace issue and not a philosophical issue on part of the client."
"Purina was writing a great big check that represented a significant portion of its marketing budget and anyone's got the right to have cold feet at that moment," said Collier. "It was a terrible shame from our point of view but I can't tell a company how to conduct its media strategy." Contributing: Kate MacArthur