Rob Donnell and His Arc of Brand Integration Deals

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Who: Rob Donnell, president of branded entertainment agency Brand Arc, based in Santa Monica, Calif.

Why you need to know him: Mr. Donnell launched Brand Arc in January, and represents Toyota Motor Sales USA, as well as the company’s Lexus division,
Rob Donnell's 9-month-old Brand Arc has hit the ground running.

in all areas of entertainment, working closely with Toyota consultant Rich Frank of The Firm and the automaker's media-buying agency Zenith and agency of record Saatchi & Saatchi, Los Angeles, both part of Publicis Groupe. He recently placed Toyota’s Prius hybrid in the finale of HBO’s Six Feet Under and brokered a deal for the automaker to appear in NBC’s new feel-good reality series Three Wishes.

Credentials: Mr. Donnell started as a writer, working for Phil Dusenberry at BBDO, where he also became a creative director. Over the years, he also worked as a writer and creative director at Leo Burnett, Campbell-Ewald, Cabot in Boston and JWT, working on the Ford, Pepsi, P&G, New England Telephone and 3M Corp. accounts. He spent more than 15 years at WPP Group's JWT, building and running JWT Digital for three years before moving into the area of branded entertainment and launching Amplify for the agency. Through Amplify, he repped Ford Motor Co.’s Hollywood endeavors for the past four years, producing three short films for Ford Focus, of which one, Gulp, written and directed by Jason Reitmann, was a Sundance selection. He brokered a multiyear promotional partnership between Ford and Revolution Studios to back several films, which included the comedy Are We There Yet? and action sequel XXX: State of the Union. He also produced the Ford-backed reality series No Boundaries for the WB, of which he’s “still very proud of.” “Bad time slot, lack of promotion and the wrong network, but it was still a show that really captured the essence of the brand without all the negativity generally associated with reality shows,” Mr. Donnell said. “It was a top 10 show in Canada, where it did get promoted better and had a better time slot. I learned a lot from that experience.”

Talk about how you get under a brand's skin and try to understand what it's about so you'll be able to direct the marketer to appropriate placements. What's the process? “I ask lots and lots of questions about the brands, the products, the communications plans and try and see where entertainment dovetails with all the other marketing efforts.”

When a brand becomes popular and in-demand, like the Prius, how does that effect the way you look for placements? “It actually becomes easier. When people understand a brand like Prius, they’re already thinking about it long before they approach you. It becomes part of their storyline and character’s personality without us having to do a lot of educating.”

How important are out-of-content programs [promotions, consumer outreach, etc]? Do you need them to accompany a placement? “There are two schools of thought. One is to let the brand integrate into the content seamlessly and let the consumer find it. The other is to let the viewer know that you’re in the show or film so when they watch it they’re more aware of your presence. I’m firmly in both schools, simply because you have to look at every integration on its own merits and then decide which approach is the best.”

More and more marketers seem to be interested in branded entertainment deals, but how well do they understand it? “Right now everyone has their own understanding about it. It really depends who’s explaining it to them. We’re starting to see some uniformity occur, but it’s still all over the place because the opportunities and deals can come from so many different sources.”

Marketers keep talking about how they want to be as close to the creative idea as possible -- that they want to make deals directly with content producers. Doesn't that run counter to the goals of network ad sales and integrated marketing executives? How do you reconcile the two? “You have to be respectful of both sides. But the thing to remember is that the producer is the one who will get it done. Nobody knows their content better than they do and once you get them to understand what the brand is trying accomplish, they’re the ones who make it happen. Of course, ultimately, you might have to make a media deal before the producer can go to work.”

How do you value placements? Do you personally have a scale or some measurement tools, or do you use an existing service? “Initially, there has to be a strategic fit between the brand and the entertainment property. Then you have to evaluate the show, the script, the time slot, release date, number of theaters, demos, ratings and tonality. There’s a lot to consider based upon what you’re trying to achieve. The tools to measure are getting better, but they’re mainly geared towards TV integrations. I don’t have a favorite yet.”

There's still a lot of debate over exactly what branded entertainment is. What's your definition? “Whenever a brand benefits through its association with entertainment, though I’m sure you could find lots of examples of a brand not benefiting by being associated with entertainment. Let the debate continue.”

What are the best examples of branded entertainment you've seen lately? “Sears in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Great fit, great show, great ratings.”

And the worst? “Most everything in American Idol. Cingular really has the most potential in that show, [but] for some reason people always associate the show with Coke.”

What are some obstacles branded entertainment still faces? “Making people understand what a brand’s about and what the brand objectives are within the content or context of a show.”

How do you address those? “Until you’re blue in the face.”

What's on your TiVo? “Every project we’re working on. Documentaries. FX’s Over There. My son is a medic with the Marines and just got back from Iraq, so I’m curious to see if he thinks they got it right. I tend to capture and watch things in bunches.”

What kind of car do you drive? “A Lexus GS 430.”

What do you do on your downtime? “What’s downtime?”
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