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Just risk it

By Published on .

[Beverly Hills, Calif.] Stop talking, start acting.

That was the call to arms from the podium at Advertising Age's second annual Madison + Vine conference. Speakers including keynoter John Hayes, chief marketing officer at American Express, made it clear that the TV upfront-centric model no longer cuts it and that failure by marketers to experiment now could cost them dearly in the long run.

When Coca-Cola Co.'s President-Chief Operating Officer Steve Heyer exhorted Hollywood and Madison Avenue to "collaborate or die" at last year's inaugural conference, the branded entertainment community was handed a pithy, dynamic rallying cry. A year later attendees were told to move past theory, set aside budgets and make branded entertainment a reality.

Mr. Hayes said that in an increasingly cluttered and fragmented media marketplace roiled by change, risk and experimentation with alternative platforms have become economic imperatives for marketers. "We need to adapt to the new landscape," said Mr. Hayes, "by thinking not in dayparts but mindparts. Not catching up to change but helping make change happen."

Mr. Hayes pointed to his investment in NBC's "The Restaurant", a limited-run reality series last summer as an example of a risk that paid off, but not without moments that made him cringe. Mr. Hayes said AmEx got 10 times the brand recall in the show compared to its typical TV spots, but indicated that some of the integration was not as gracefully executed as he would have liked.

Much of Mr. Hayes' willingness to take risks seemed to be spurred by his dissatisfaction with the upfront marketplace. "From where I'm standing, the upfront works great for the network and cable companies. I argue that the upfront does little or nothing for us. In May I don't know where I want to be in television advertising the following April."

Mr. Hayes said American Express now spends 35% of its marketing budget on TV advertising, a dramatic decline from the 80% it spent in 1994. "We have moved out of the `buying' world and entered the world of content and channel integration in a significant way," he said.

Another key player advocating risk was independent TV producer, Mark Burnett, the creator of "Survivor." "If you're not willing to fall on your face, you'll get nothing," Mr. Burnett said.

"In this town, I'm such a junior producer, yet all the people who know so much about the process can't seem to make a good show," Mr. Burnett said. "I'm not scared of Madison Avenue. The financial model is radically changing. If you don't embrace Madison Avenue and don't recognize that these people are making movies in 30 seconds and selling millions of dollars worth of stuff, then you just don't get it."

Marketers, accustomed to buying traditional media, need to think more about developing relationships with TV producers so that the content can include their brands, William Morris Consulting Senior VP Paul Bricault said. "It's not just about exercising economic leverage. Brands need to exercise creative leverage, too," Mr. Bricault said. "To get to the next level of contextual integration, brands need to work with producers and develop a mutual respect."

Michael Browner, executive director-media and marketing operations at General Motors Corp. and a William Morris client, agreed there's still a learning curve and that people are too comfortable with the status quo. Those with a vested interest in continuing to market the conventional way "have an ax to grind, and they don't want to change."

risky business

Managing risk can be a tricky endeavor for brand marketers. Micky Pant, Reebok's chief marketing officer, has tossed caution to the wind with the likes of hip-hop phenoms Jay-Z and 50 Cent, whose gangsta-like personas sell tons of records but draw plenty of controversy.

"I haven't slept in months," Mr. Pant joked. "We always weigh the pros and cons, but it's a roll of the dice. ... Sometimes, you're faced with a most unexpected turn of events." Last year Reebok rang up strong sales when it released signature shoe lines for both rappers.

Aaron Walton, president of Omnicom Group's Aaron Walton Entertainment, said it would be naive to think that musical artists are never going to do or say anything offensive to middle America or to straight-laced corporate cultures. But he echoed the theme of risk as a marketing imperative sounded by Mr. Hayes and others by urging brands to forge ahead anyway. "Brands [should] get into the music space because it's exciting and energizing."

contributing: t.l. stanley

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