Branded-content rush spurs odd partnerships

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As the branded-entertainment business booms, and more advertisers than ever buddy up to Hollywood, it's raising the issue of whether marketers' obsession with content is leading to questionable deal-making.

Case in point: Last week's pact between Hollywood management company The Firm and Madison Avenue's ZenithOptimedia Group, the latest attempt by a media buyer to gain entry into the branded-entertainment space and create opportunities for clients that include Verizon Wireless, Toyota Motor Corp., General Mills, Nestle, L'Oreal, and Hewlett-Packard Co.

The deal raised eyebrows, because many of ZenithOptimedia's clients are already successful players in the branded-entertainment space, and already have several companies in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue brokering such deals for them.


For example, HP has Los Angeles-based Davie-Brown Entertainment brokering its product-placement and integration deals, including appearances in Bravo's "Project Greenlight" and MTV's "That `70s House." The company also has an ongoing relationship with DreamWorks Animation.

Similarly, Verizon Wireless works with New York-based AIM Productions, and was recently integrated into Mark Burnett's "Rock Star: INXS" on CBS, while Procter & Gamble Co. has retained Creative Artists Agency and Grey's Alliance for multiple deals, and has worked with Madison Road Entertainment on integrations within Mr. Burnett's "The Apprentice" on NBC. Toyota's Scion works with Los Angeles outfit Inform Ventures.

Some advertisers argue that good ideas can come from anyone at any company, so having multiple shops developing concepts for a single brand can help the marketer in the long run. That kind of relationship can only work if all parties act collegially, which is often easier said than done.

"That's the tough part, because people tend to compete and want to take credit for ideas so they can justify themselves to the client," said an executive at a shop that has already been identifying entertainment opportunities for a Zenith client.


Such a strategy can also open more doors for a marketer, considering that one company may have contacts or relationships that another may not have.

Yet at the same time, that more-is-more strategy could confuse a marketplace already tough to navigate. Finding the right person to say yes to a project can be difficult. Getting that person to say yes is harder. Add in multiple yes-men and you've got the reason most branded-entertainment deals never materialize.

Some clients don't seem to be worried. "Zenith had done a lot of product placement for us and this addition strengthens their capabilities," said a spokesman for Verizon Wireless.

The Firm has relatively little experience brokering branded-entertainment deals. Its executives worked on the relaunch of Virgin Cola, which hasn't taken off with consumers, and partly owns niche-sportswear brand Pony.

The Firm, moreover, was behind the barter deal to embed Zenith client Toyota into "The Contender," for which Toyota paid $16 million in ad buys and integration fees, reportedly the highest ever for such a deal. The show fared poorly in the ratings after costing NBC $2 million per episode.

Its deal with The Firm suggests that ZenithOptimedia understands its place in the world. It's a Hollywood outsider, and instead of forming its own in-house entertainment division-the way Carat and Initiative have done-it opted to farm out those duties to companies already working in the heart of Hollywood.

Zenith's executives said they want an earlier look at projects in Hollywood's development pipeline and believe The Firm could provide that. One reason is Firm Chairman Rich Frank. A seasoned Hollywood TV executive who was chairman of Walt Disney Television & Telecommunications as well as Disney's syndication arm, and president of Disney Studios, is well-respected in the creative community and has a Rolodex of heavy hitters few can boast.

Another reason: Rich Hamilton, ZenithOptimedia's North American CEO has known Mr. Frank for more than a dozen years, and Zenith executive Peggy Green has a 30-year working relationship with Mr. Frank. "We have a vision of trying to do things together to help clients move forward in the area of branded entertainment," Mr. Hamilton said. "We think there's no one better to help us do that than Rich Frank."


In an unusual move, Mr. Frank will be working single-handedly on the Zenith deal. "I'm taking the lead," he said. He will focus on TV shows for Zenith's clients, mainly scouting for projects in development rather than designing projects from the ground up. He will also look for film, music, Internet and wireless opportunities.

Mr. Frank said The Firm "hasn't been hired to replace" other companies that are developing branded-entertainment deals for Zenith's client roster, but "we're here to provide access to the Hollywood community." The Firm will have a lot to gain from its pact with Zenith. In addition to its pre-existing relationships with Toyota, Pony and Virgin Cola, The Firm will now be able to tout ZenithOptimedia's client roster as its own.

That will help establish the company as a major player in Hollywood. The new partners wouldn't discuss the financial terms, though The Firm will collect a retainer during the time the two companies work together. The duration of the deal wasn't specified. Mr. Frank characterized it as "open ended."

It's also not exclusive, though Mr. Frank said he would not solicit competitors in the categories that Zenith represents. Zenith clients, however, are free to continue or cultivate relationships with any number of brand-integration firms.

Play nice

Having multiple shops developing concepts for a single brand can work if all parties act collegially, often easier said than done

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