Richman, the founder and president of the Roger Richman Agency in Beverly Hills, represents about 50 clients who share two characteristics. They're celebrities. And they're dead. So if Albert Einstein or John Wayne seem like the perfect talent for your next campaign, proceed with caution. Give Richman a call. If he OKs the ad, and you write him a nice fat check, you're golden. If not, either drop your brilliant idea or prepare for litigation.
Richman represents the deceased on behalf of their heirs. Whether he grants a license to use the celebrity in an ad, or on a piece of merchandise, is ultimately not up to him. The family decides. "I have a fiduciary obligation to take every legitimate and serious offer to them," he says solemnly. That doesn't necessarily include any proposal that would be out of character for the celebrity in question. So, W.C. Fields lapel buttons proclaiming "I love children -- parboiled" are probably fine, but a greeting card with Einstein's head on a female body has him seeing red. He still seethes when he's reminded of a Dutch ad agency that used Marilyn Monroe, posthumously, to sell feminine hygiene products. "Extremely offensive and undignified," he snaps.
Richman appears to have done well for himself (he typically gets 35 percent of settlements, awarded damages, and licensing deals), but the money is not what makes it all worthwhile, he insists: "Not only do the families have standards that deserve respect, but I feel that I'm running a public trust. These celebrities aren't here any longer to protect themselves from this kind of abuse, so our company does it for them."
He spends about half his time going after miscreants who heed neither such noble sensibilities, nor the law. Richman managed to ban novelty items such as John Wayne toilet paper, and vials of sweat purported to be that of Elvis Presley.
But when he's not busy being a dead-celebrity cop, he's a dead-celebrity pitchman. For instance, it'll soon be 30 years ago since Steve McQueen starred in Bullit, and Richman smells an opportunity. Y&R in London licensed Bullit/McQueen footage for a Ford Puma spot last year, but because the anniversary of the movie will also mark the 30th year since the launch of the Mustang in the U.S., Richman thinks the U.K. spot was only the beginning. He's been in talks with Ford execs in Detroit. The carmaker passed, but that's all right; McQueen would be equally great for a motorcycle or a sunglasses account. Richman also expects to make a killing with the Wright Brothers when the 100-year anniversary of aviation rolls around in 2003. "Perfect for a major airline. Or else a quality watch," he enthuses.
Fees for licensing dead celibrities vary according to the reach of the message (local markets cost less than national or international ones), as well as the desirability of the star. Rod Serling or Jimmy Durante aren't bad, but they can't touch such hot "properties" -- Richman's term -- as Einstein and Wayne. (Wayne's pretty exclusive at that, as the Coors people could tell you; Richman got Coors to make a "very large donation" to the John Wayne Cancer Institute before he would even take the idea for the Pytka-directed spots to the Wayne family). What Apple paid to have Einstein appear in the "Think Different" campaign was "less than a million but more than a couple of hundred thousand," says Richman.
Are there any potentially lucrative dead celebs whose current earnings are a little lackluster? For instance, wouldn't Richman like to represent Che Guevara, someone who has the hell exploited out of him by all manner of advertisers and merchandisers who've never paid a penny? (see Creativity, October, page 20.) "We could start a company and call it Che and Mao International, Inc.," Richman quips. Then, seriously: "I'd have to be sure it fits the image of our agency, and that any new client will not offend the sensibilities of the existing ones." He thinks about it for a moment. Che and The Duke under one roof? "It's probably