Magical Elves

Production Shop's Latest Project for Bertolli Gets 'to the Heart' of Producing Top-Tier Branded Web Series

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Madison & Vine, Ad Age's original cross-section of the New York ad community and Hollywood, will be taking a broad look over the next year at the key players, projects and platforms in the digital branded-entertainment arena. Check in with M&V as we keep tabs on established players; check in with the media agencies and marketing firms that continue to staff up their branded-content divisions; or profile the newest studios and media companies entering the space.

The Player: Magical Elves
Location: Los Angeles
Key Execs: Co-founders Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz

Key Projects: "Into the Heart of Italy," a branded web series for Bertolli distributed through Yahoo; "Living in HD," a web series for Panasonic; "Top Chef" and "Top Chef Masters" for Bravo; the first five seasons of "Project Runway" for Bravo.

"Into the Heart of Italy" is a branded web series for Bertolli distributed through Yahoo.

The Background: Veteran cable network development execs Mr. Cutforth and Ms. Lipsitz formed Magical Elves in summer 2001 after executive producing "Bands on the Run," a reality series featuring key brand integration from Guitar Center that aired on VH1. That series created a template of sorts for "Project Runway" and "Top Chef," the two landmark reality competition programs Magical Elves executive produced for Bravo in 2004 and 2006, respectively. On those shows, Magical Elves cut its teeth on integrating brands and branded storylines into all aspects of a series, from Elle magazine, L'Oreal and Tresemme on "Runway" to Clorox, Dr. Pepper and Food & Wine magazine on "Top Chef," among many others.

It was through those Emmy-nominated experiences that the producers wanted to find other ways to do branded storytelling in different formats. "We've had some amazing opportunities with brands that really got it and understood that the content could serve the brand without having to see the product throughout the content," Mr. Cutforth said. "We felt like there are great opportunities to harness the power of reality storytelling for brands."

Next Steps: After dipping their toes into web content with "Living in HD," a web series they produced for a Panasonic microsite, Mr. Cutforth and Ms. Lipsitz partnered with WPP's Mindshare Entertainment to produce "Into the Heart of Italy," a "Top Chef"-meets-"Amazing Race" cooking series in which Italian-American celebrities Marisa Tomei, Rocco DiSpirito and Dan Cortese scour the kitchens of Italy on a culinary scavenger hunt. Each challenge is inspired by a frozen pasta meal from Bertolli, which sponsors banners for the show's microsite and Yahoo page as well as short vignettes that air before each episode.

The Unilever brand will not, however, be integrated into the content of the show itself. "The goal for everyone was to create entertaining and compelling content first, with the messaging being important but not hit you over the head," Ms. Lipsitz said.

Bertolli, however, is giving the series a lead role in its marketing efforts this quarter, debuting a 30-second trailer during last month's Academy Awards and a 60-second trailer during the March 7 episode of "Desperate Housewives." Additionally, celebrity news show "Extra" will air biweekly behind-the-scenes segments from the set of "Into the Heart of Italy" to remind viewers to stream new episodes every other Wednesday. Promotional print ads are running as well.

Mr. Cutforth and Ms. Lipsitz are hoping "Into the Heart of Italy" creates a new template for branded storytelling that goes more in-depth than the average 30-second spot and lives beyond the TV screen. "This kind of project shows that, for what I would imagine is the cost to produce a high-profile celebrity spot, you can commit all this content on different platforms," Mr. Cutforth said. "It does seem to us that, when it's done right, this can be an amazing model."

David Lang, president of Mindshare Entertainment and an executive producer of "Into the Heart of Italy," said Magical Elves provided the expertise and insight necessary to produce a TV-quality reality series for the web, particularly with top-tier talent such as Academy Award-winner Ms. Tomei. But they also had the productivity -- the series was shot over the course of 10 days in Italy, and within three weeks had a 30-second spot ready to go for the Oscars and a first episode up and running within a month. "You can't do that unless you're talking the same language, speaking in shorthand and have a great collaborative partnership," Mr. Lang said. "Their TV experience and our TV background was a perfect fit."

Gaston Vaneri, Unilever's marketing director for frozen foods, described the series as a strategic solution to Bertolli's branding problem. "We need to communicate a very nuanced message, that is all the little details that make our Bertolli program authentically Italian. But that can be very boring in a typical ad," he said. "We already have the insight that consumers enjoy cooking as a form of entertainment, you see that in the success of 'Top Chef' and all the different shows around cooking, so we combined the two and used the interest people have in entertainment to walk people through the little nuances that make our product different from others."

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