TNT's Trust Me hits the small screen

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Last night, after weeks of high-profile hyping, TNT's new show based in the ad world premiered. In case you haven't seen the spots and missed the billboards, Trust Me is a one hour drama that takes place in fictitious Chicago ad agency Rothman Greene & Mohr and revolves around the creative team of Mason and Connor, played by the amiable likes of Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) and Ed Cavanagh (Ed).

Formally dubbed a drama, the show relies heavily on the inherent comedy created within the ad agency dynamic. While the recent success of Mad Men may be credited (blamed?) for whetting the public's appetite for all things advertising, Trust Me is more an Ally McBeal-ish peek behind the commercial curtain compared to AMC's brooding look at social and political change in the 1960s.

Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny
Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny Credit: Karen Neal
Created by Chicago ad veterans Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny, veterans of JWT and Leo Burnett in Chicago who have written and produced for TNT's The Closer, the show certainly comes from experienced hands. While the first two episodes tread some familiar comedic territory, the subject and characters are charming enough to stand a fighting chance at garnering sustained audience interest.

We spoke to Baldwin and Coveny about how the show mines their past, real brand integration in a fictional ad world and more.

Being ex-admen, it seems like an obvious choice for you to create a show like Trust Me. Was this an idea marinating in your heads all along or was it a more recent development?
John Coveny: We had the idea since before we came out (to L.A.). In fact, I think like most people sitting around their art director/copywriter offices, we spend a lot of time procrastinating and part of that was talking about movies and TV shows we wish we had written or could write better. We did that for quite a while, so this idea was definitely there.

Hunt Baldwin: Yeah, there are ten pages of a lot of great movies and TV shows in advertising. But we're fond of saying we've been writing this show for almost 20 years, but we just started getting it down on paper more recently.

A lot in the ad business has changed since you guys left. Have you had a network of folks still in the industry keeping you updated on those details? Does it matter?
HB: Yeah, we do. And while we did leave full-time advertising employ back in 2001, I've continued to freelance. Last year was the first calendar year I've gone since 1992 without doing some work in advertising. We still have plenty of friends in the business but we've also kept our toes in the water.
One of the things we wanted to hit on with the show is how the business is changing and how some people are more successful at changing with those times than others. It's never been our desire to show the most up-to-date, hip, cutting edge agency. We wanted a real, middle of the pack, big agency that's going through whatever growing or shrinking pains that part of the industry is going through, which is what I think is most representative of what people in advertising and Corporate America, in general, are going through.

Tom Cavanagh and Eric McCormack
Tom Cavanagh and Eric McCormack
Other shows have had main characters work in advertising, but it was rare the business was such a focus (Mad Men excluded). What makes advertising an interesting business, as opposed to say insurance or corporate accounting, to set a TV drama?
JC: Advertising, I think a lot more than many industries, has a What Have You Done for Me Lately question asked every day, if not every hour. And that pressure makes for a lot of conflict and drama day to day. I think people find advertising as a way to do art or be creative and get paid for it. I don't think any of us hasn't been at a party or on a plane where someone will talk about ads, saying how they could've done better or something like that. Everyone has a natural pull to the creative side of it, so the fact you get paid to do it has a lot of appeal. I know that's why I got into it.

HB: The creative side of advertising has, for a long time, been based on a collaboration between two people. Obviously some people work differently but by and large it's a writer/art director team that's at the core of the work. I think the fact you've got a bunch of teams as opposed to individual s running around, puts you in a pretty rich dramatic environment. You've got people who need each other, competing against other teams of people who need each other. So watching the tension that can grow there and the co-dependency that develops between partners and among groups is one of the most interesting things.
Also, I think the last piece of the puzzle is, because everyone in America knows commercials, if you write a commercial that runs a lot it's the closest you can come to fame in the corporate world. And that extra little carrot heightens the tension and drama involved, right off the bat.

"Trust Me" cast.
There's quite a bit of obvious product placement throughout the show, with brands like Campari, Apple, Starbucks and the National Hockey League. How much of that is official brand integration?
HB: We wanted, very badly, to populate the show with real brands, and have an agency where people are talking about brands all day long, whether they're ones the agency is working on or ones they want to work on or just because that's what they're immersed in. To not have real brand names would start us off with a very big hill to climb, in terms of reality. So in our minds, we always wanted to use real brand names. As a result of that, and that we can write a dramatic scene where characters are arguing about work that involves brands, makes it a rare show that can handle integration in a way that doesn't take you out of the story but rather deepens it by grounding it in reality. That said, when we went to find brands for our agency to work on, we needed to find advertisers who understood what we were doing and were willing to give us a little latitude.

JC: I think everyone who got involved with the show understands the idea of how people in advertising really talk. They talk about brands, everyone does. When people in America want to go to lunch, they don't say, "Let's go to a fast food restaurant."

HB: Or "Can I go get you a specialty coffee downstairs?"

JC: Some people in the world have iPhones and some don't. Some dress a certain way and some don't. We want to make sure we hit those nuances and not run away from it. The joy of this show is we didn't set out to do a show about product integration, it's about partnership. It's a good place to show people how an ad goes from brief to creation and that painful and pleasurable journey that all the creatives and account people go on to get that done.

HB: A lot of advertisers, whether on this show or others, look for ways to integrate product that feels organic and real. Many have been awakened by the fact that if you allow the creative people behind the show to do what's right for their characters and storytelling, you'll end up winning even if you might have to give up some of the control you're accustomed to. The more you demand a product is in the frame at a certain size for a certain time, the more it'll stand out and end up not reflecting all that well on both the show and the brand.
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