Madison & Vine: Leshem opens shop with Pepsi

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TV producer Matti Leshem, who headed Diplomatic Productions with Michael Davies, the producer of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," has gone solo, and is starting a TV production company that will focus on developing programming that makes brands an integral part of a show's content. And he's already got his first blue-chip client: Pepsi-Cola Co.

The impetus to go it alone, Mr. Leshem said, was to create his own business model, including forging a relationship with his client that's similar to a studio overhead deal.

"As a TV producer, you don't own the product, the networks do," Mr. Leshem said. "But if the owner of the product is Pepsi, then you're in a different position as a producer."

Pepsi invested more than half a million to help Mr. Leshem start his venture, according to one executive who claimed knowledge of the deal. Neither Pepsi nor Mr. Leshem would discuss the terms of the agreement.

The company, Protagonist, Beverly Hills, Calif., joins a list that includes Hollywood's talent agencies and various consultants crowding into the integrated marketing area. Pepsi-Cola Co. executives, who will continue to use their existing ad and promotions firms, said Mr. Leshem has a particular role in the ever-expanding pack.

"He's not a middleman," said Dave Burwick, Pepsi's chief marketing officer. "He understands TV production, networks, marketing and advertising. He's unique in that."

Unlike typical overhead deals struck with a studio or network, Pepsi will not house Protaganist, but Mr. Leshem will act as an in-house producer for the brand.

"We are Matti's client, not a celebrity, not another brand, not a network. He serves our interests exclusively," Mr. Burwick said.

Protagonist plans to approach other marketers as clients, just not in the soda category. Mr. Leshem will also work on ideas for Pepsi's Mountain Dew.

He will continue to work with Mr. Davies, particularly on game show or variety show concepts, Mr. Davies' forte. The two are discussing co-productions now, Mr. Leshem said, though neither producer has a stake in the other's company.

With Diplomatic, Mr. Leshem drove the Pepsi "Play for a Billion" two-hour special on AOL Time Warner's WB. The show was a ratings-grabber for the network and a late summer platform for launching its new season. Round two is under consideration. Another project, "Live from Tomorrow," initially was sold to the WB but remains in a holding pattern. "Live from Tomorrow" was pitched as a commercial-free variety show with brands featured in the content. Pepsi had committed, but other marketers, after showing initial interest, got cold feet.

In a risky venture such as a TV show, with a brand's image and huge money on the line, there's a delicate balance between over-commercializing the brand and underexposing it, Mr. Burwick said. These days, Pepsi executives prefer to have a show idea built around the soda brand from the ground up, as was "Play for a Billion," rather than buying into an already-formed concept in which brands are placed after the fact, a la CBS's "Survivor."


"It needs to spring from the essence of what the brand is about," Mr. Burwick said. "It's not about putting big ugly Pepsi cups in people's hands."

The WB's president and chief operating officer, Jed Petrick, said the network looks for big ideas, such as "Play for a Billion," to help extend its brand off-channel. The concepts for brand integration have to be judged case by case, though. "What could fit today might not fit in six months," he said.

Mr. Leshem, who's been a music video producer and an Internet executive, said branded entertainment shows are both a throwback to the `50s and a contemporary phenomenon. A return-on-investment measurement, so dear to advertisers, doesn't exist yet, but edgy marketers will delve in anyway.

"As a producer, I would love to not have my show interrupted by yet another 30-second spot," Mr. Leshem said. "I think we'll have that eventually."

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