Julie Mulholland Sells the Cool Factor to Middle America

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Who: Julie Mulholland, founder of Mulholland Drive Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based entertainment-marketing consultancy.
Julie Mulholland, founder of Los Angeles-based entertainment marketing consultancy Mulholland Drive Entertainment.

Why you need to know her: Ms. Mulholland is part of the team that brainstorms branded-entertainment ideas for Heineken, with a particular focus on television and independent-film projects, celebrity seeding, sponsorships and special events. She also consults for East Coast media buying agencies whose clients want to break into brand integration. She's expanding her own client base, recently signing with Firefly, a child-targeted mobile-phone company.

Credentials: A graduate of NYU’s Business School, Ms. Mulholland worked on the
Coca-Cola account at McCann Erickson for six years, and then on Heineken’s global account
for eight years with five different ad agencies -- Wells, Rich, Greene; Lowe & Partners; Lowe Lintas; Darcy; and then Publicis. She left the traditional advertising industry as senior VP group account director to form Mulholland Drive Entertainment.

What was the impetus for you to start your own company? “For many years my livelihood revolved around the :30 television commercial. When I first started out, advertising was glamorous, and it still is on many levels. I was inspired by and had passion for the creativity and strategic sensibility that was needed to succeed in order to meet the client's objectives and win awards.  But you cannot ignore what is happening around you or you will quickly become a dinosaur.  With the advent of digital technology and media fragmentation, it was clear that it was becoming increasingly difficult and challenging to reach consumers in the traditional way.  The writing was on the wall yet no one wanted to upset the model that had been tried and true.  Over the course of 15 years I had gained a tremendous amount of experience in partnering brands with entertainment properties and marquee events simply because I was lucky enough to work with two image-driven, forward-thinking clients -- Coca-Cola and Heineken.  I saw the opportunity to transcend my skill set into an area that focuses specifically on integrating brands into content and I took it. That was over two years ago, when branded entertainment was in its infancy stages, but since I truly believed in what I was doing and was passionate about it, I never saw it as a risk.”

You're working on a good deal of celebrity seeding these days. How can that help a brand? How can you judge if celebrities are truly influential and good for your client? “As absurd as it seems to all of us who are in the industry and jaded, America has an insatiable appetite for celebrities -- from what they're wearing, the brands they consume, who cuts their hair and who they're sleeping with or who they're no longer sleeping with. Celebrities are the ultimate influencers and tastemakers that increase sales of image-driven brands without a doubt. There's this cool-factor that middle America wants to be a part of. Which celebrities are influential for a specific brand is directly correlated to the brand’s values. You have to be selective and choose those who embody the brand essence and are reflective of what the brand stands for. In its most basic form, if your brand were a celebrity who would it be?”

You're also putting together a lot of events for Heineken and other clients. “We recently organized a celebrity seeding launch party for a new brand, Firefly Mobile, a cellphone for kids aged 6-10 with parental controls -- no keypad, just a ‘Mom' and 'Dad' button along with 20 phone numbers that are pre-programmed by a parent. No games, no downloadable ringtones, no text messaging, no camera, etc. It’s simply a device to keep families connected. The event was designed for kids. It was a daytime Halloween party in the Hollywood Hills and we had Jane Kaczmarek ("Malcolm in the Middle") and Bradley Whitford ("The West Wing") host it. Firefly Mobile made a charitable donation to Jane and Brad's organization, Clothes Off Our Back, for everyone who attended.  It was a feel-good event but what made it feel even better was that A-List like Teri Hatcher, Patricia Heaton and Eric McCormack attended with their kids, along with talent from all the hot Disney and Nick shows.  To see these high-profile celebrities interacting and engaging with a new brand, and being very excited by its uniqueness was very exciting to us.  Having 'Access Hollywood' and People magazine cover the event reinforced that we were on the right track.”

What are some of the branded-entertainment projects you're working on now or have done in the recent past? “Heineken has been very proactive in this arena.  Both TV and film have been fruitful branded-entertainment vehicles for the brand. On the film side, we've done close to a dozen promotional tie-ins, and much of my early experience on the advertising side had been creating television commercials to support these deals. You might remember the tie-ins with 'Austin Powers,' James Bond, 'Zoolander' and 'The Matrix' to name a few.  Since television has also become a viable platform for these types of partnerships, we have partnered with Reveille and Full Circle on a 10-episode reality series, 'The Club' on Spike, with VH1 on 'Home James,' and The Discovery Channel and Pilgrim Films on 'American Casino' -- all very strategic and targeted integrations."

There's still a lot of debate over exactly what branded entertainment is. What's your definition? “It is always evolving.  When I came into this business in its early stages, it was simply entertainment that was branded.  The intelligence of how we do it has grown exponentially and the execution has changed, in a large part based on technology and distribution outlets.  But at its core, it's all about a brand's ability to enhance the entertainment value of content and the ability of an entertainment vehicle to add value to a brand.”

What are the best examples of branded entertainment you've seen lately? “The best examples are those that incorporate a brand into the storyline in a meaningful way, where the brand has a reason for being and is instrumental, or acts as a catalyst to what happens next.” 

And the worst? “Those that are gratuitous and make you cringe -- and rethink the business you're in.”

What are some obstacles that branded entertainment still faces? “There are two that come to mind very quickly: measuring ROI and getting the industry on board so that everyone sees the benefit of how advertisers can enhance entertainment.”

How do you address those? “In terms of ROI, there are a lot of formulas floating around.  I don't know the answer but I can tell you what it's not. You cannot evaluate integration based on the number of seconds that a brand appears on-screen. It's not the cost of a product placement and it's not the cost of a :30 ad in the program -- it's somewhere in between or even beyond when it nails it. It has to relate to the quality of the integration and its relevance to the environment in which it's placed.  It has to feel real.  A forced integration or placement is as distracting to the viewer as a blatantly generic brand trying to exist in the real world. Ultimately the value of an
integration, placement or partnership is whatever anyone is willing to pay. It's not formulaic and there will never be a rate card for this business.”

There has been quite a bit in the trades lately about industry resistance to the trend toward branded integration, particularly as it relates to writers. What are your thoughts on that? “I see their point and understand it completely, yet I also believe in the big picture.  If a brand steps up in a significant way, they can literally extend a series, which also may extend a writer's career. A brand makes a financial contribution based on the value of the integration and that's where their participation ends.  Networks need to do the right thing in terms of the distribution of those funds, whether it's putting the premiums paid for integration on the screen, toward ad sales or in the writer's pocket. But they need to give that careful consideration.”

In your work with Firefly child-targeted cellphones, what's the strategy for getting that new product known in the marketplace? “Since Firefly Mobile is a new product, it is all about creating awareness. That is our main objective that drives all our efforts in the Hollywood community.” 

Your company consults for media-buying firms -- what are they looking for in Hollywood? “Basically the same thing as everyone else. ‘How can we borrow equity in order to create relevance among our target audience?  How can we leverage the dollars we're spending before we spend them in order to drive the associate between our brand and a television show?  You're in Hollywood and have relationships with content creators and we're in New York but control the money -- clearly we can help each other out and both benefit.’ So true.”

How many frequent flier miles do you have? “846,552 and counting.”

What's the last cool branded event or party you attended? “Nothing tops Sundance.  It is the equivalent of an amusement park for adults.  Because it has become so over-saturated with brands through the years, it makes it even that much more interesting and challenging for an intelligent marketer to break through the clutter. Those in the know come into town with an empty suitcase because it is literally a free for all!”

What's on your TiVo? “For business, almost everything since you have to at least be aware of almost everything. For pleasure, 'The Office,' 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' 'Grey's Anatomy,' 'Desperate Housewives' and 'The Apprentice.'