Mr. Caruso left his post as chief operating officer at Alliance, a unit of WPP Group's Grey Global Group, last month to found independent Acme Content Co., New York, as president. And one of the first items on his agenda is the launch of an expanded relationship between Lauren Conrad, star of MTV's reality show "The Hills," and one of his charter clients, Avon Products' boutique beauty brand Mark.
Though Avon is a household name, Mark isn't a big traditional media spender. So the deal, in which Avon is backing the rollout of Ms. Conrad's fashion line by sponsoring webcasts of behind-the-scenes footage from her recent fashion show, is at the center of the brand's marketing efforts, Mr. Caruso said.
Avon will show the webisodes on its website, Markgirl.com, as well as syndicate them to social-networking sites as part of the campaign, which begins late this week.
But Mr. Caruso also has brought a bigger-spending client to Acme, Procter & Gamble Co. and its Tag personal-care line (for men and boys) -- and a soon-to-break branded-entertainment effort for that brand will be a substantial part of its marketing, too, he said. During his days at Alliance, Mr. Caruso helped develop what he bills as the first world premiere of a music video on a brand website for Tag, last year's sponsorship of iTunes downloads of Fall Out Boy's "Thanks for the Memories."
Rihanna makes a splash
He also worked on Cover Girl's integrated campaign with Rihanna's hit single "Umbrella" last May behind the launch of "Wet Slick Fruit Spritzers," including a sponsored video that has generated nearly 35 million views on YouTube.
He was, in fact, on the ground floor of P&G's relationship with Rihanna, begun with Secret deodorant more than three years ago, he said, "when she was a 17-year-old girl, as green as could be, in a room full of 18 P&G marketing executives like a deer in the headlights."
Still, Mr. Caruso feels branded entertainment is missing out on bigger deals. He wants more programs with branded content as their centerpiece, not as a one-off element on a list meant to drive people to a website or to get a foothold in social media. And he believes going the independent route can help.
"I felt in a big agency [branded content] still wasn't being treated with the respect and thought leadership that the other disciplines were," he said. "It was still sort of a black sheep."
He acknowledged that Grey creatives and executives "who get it" when it comes to branded entertainment were instrumental in paving the way for key projects, such as Cover Girl's deals with Rihanna or the Pantene Pro-Voice music contests for emerging artists with MTV.
Seeing few bright bulbs
"Unfortunately, the great minds are few and far between in the overall agency world," he said.
Part of the value of having an independent shop in branded entertainment, he added, will be helping marketers find ways to evaluate the effectiveness of programs, the timing and complexity of which don't always lend themselves to assessment by the marketing-mix models favored by more analytical clients.
"I've seen so many great ideas that weren't packaged fully and die, because eventually some tough questions are going to be asked," he said. "If you can crack the P&Gs and Unilevers of the world, the less analytical clients will come a lot easier."
Mr. Caruso is a rare entertainment marketing guy who speaks the language of P&G, referring, for example, to newspaper coupons by their favored P&G acronym, "FSCIs" (for free-standing coupon inserts).
He has also realized the appeal of entertainment programs to a brand's retailers can make or break them. In the case of Mark and Ms. Conrad, that link takes on an added dimension, as it helps Avon in its crucial area of recruiting and motivating its representatives.
"Lauren's sister [Breanna] is a Mark rep," Mr. Caruso said. "Young girls look to Lauren as an inspirational figure. A lot of these girls are looking to get into the beauty business, and their experience with Avon is their initial foray."
"The team at Acme is constantly bringing us unique and innovative ways to reach our consumers," Ellen Abramowitz, executive director of global alliances at Avon, said in a statement. She credited the agency with "developing breakthrough ways for us to activate that important partnership" with Ms. Conrad.