Universal Studios Consolidates Promotional Partnerships

Stephanie Sperber to Head New Unit; Move Seen as Way to Better Coordinate Marketing With Partners

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- In a rather unorthodox move for Hollywood, Universal Studios is centralizing its promotional partnerships under a single executive, Stephanie Sperber, elevating her to head a new division called Universal Partnerships and Licensing. The new post combines consumer-product licensing, film and home-entertainment promotions as well as corporate alliances for the studio's films, home entertainment, theme parks and stage productions.

Stephanie Sperber
Stephanie Sperber
As a result of the move, marketers seeking to link with Universal properties will have a single point of contact. That's unlike the system at most rivals, where each division has its own fiefdom. At Paramount, DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox, entirely different executives handle promotions and licensing. So, too, at Disney and Warner Bros.

Long-range planning
All this is being done not just to make life easier for brands but in the spirit of enlightened self-interest on the part of Universal's marketing department. One insider familiar with the Universal plan described it as the creation of an "ersatz network" of promotions and products that will help sell a movie and shore up its marketing efforts. For example, a pitch for a film on a partner's candy bar could help elevate the film to the level of an event.

Moreover, because brands forming promotional partnerships with Hollywood films hatch their media plans as much as a year in advance, the newly streamlined promotional arrangement gives Universal a better grasp on how -- and where -- to best spend its theatrical marketing dollars so it does not overlap with its partners' media plans. In a business where the bulk of the marketing is done in the six weeks leading up to a film's debut and in the three weeks after, that's a welcome bit of strategic guidance, especially in an ever-more-expensive environment. In 2007, the last year the Motion Picture Association of America released data on the topic, Hollywood-studio-film marketing costs jumped 44% to an average $25.7 million. While no new data were released this year, those costs have not gone down.

By combining the two divisions under one executive, Universal insiders said, the studio will maximize marketing but likely won't replace its own marketing dollars with those of its promotional partners, since they aren't equivalent. A dollar spent by, say, General Mills for a Cheerios-box promotion of a Universal film is always a "shared" message -- one that is occupied with selling more Cheerios as well as benefiting the film. A dollar spent by Universal to market its own film, however, is almost always about selling a ticket to the movie. Still, studio insiders acknowledge that the streamlining may bring greater rationality and efficiency to the planning of its movie marketing -- meaning that the more places the studio knows a film is going to be promoted by partners in advance, the smarter it can be about placing its own media dollars.

Skepticism from rivals
Rival studios were mixed on the announcement. Columbia Pictures insiders were unfazed, noting that the company's head of promotions, George Leon, has long overseen licensing as well as promotion -- albeit not with the scope of Ms. Sperber, who works at a company that owns theme parks and stage productions.

Still other insiders at Disney and Warner Bros. were skeptical that such an arrangement would even feasible for their own companies. Disney is the world's largest licensor; it sold $30 billion in Disney consumer products last year. It's so much larger than Universal that a centralized post is not feasible, according to people close to the studio. One Warner Bros. marketing insider said for Warner Bros., the world's second-largest licensor of consumer products, combining promotions and licensing would be a bit like giving the secretary of the Treasury added responsibility for the State and Defense departments.

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