NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Have branded websiodes become the new indie film studios? For actress Illeana Douglas and her celebrity friends such as Keanu Reeves and Justine Bateman, Swedish furniture store Ikea has become their latest production partner.
"Easy To Assemble," a web series created, written by and starring Ms. Douglas, had its debut last fall as a marketing experiment for Ikea and a passion project for the actress. In the series, Ms. Douglas plays a fictionalized version of herself -- a popular indie actress who attempts to flee the Hollywood scene by taking a job at a local Ikea, only to find it riddled with other hard-up-for-work actors such as Ms. Bateman, Ed Begley Jr., Kevin Pollak and Jeff Goldblum.
1 million viewers later
But after the series found an audience of nearly 1 million viewers through distribution on various web video sites, both Ms. Douglas and Ikea knew they were onto something that could become as popular as the chain's meatballs. Now a second season is making its debut on web video site My Damn Channel Oct. 8, along with a spinoff series, "Sparhusen," about a fictional 1970s Ikea's fictional in-house Swedish band (Mr. Reeves is one of its members).
The project has re-energized the career of Ms. Douglas, who 10 years ago was a darling of Hollywood's indie circuit, with key roles in Gus Van Sant's "To Die For," Sundance fave "Happy, Texas," and Fox's critically praised sitcom "Action!" under her belt. But shortly thereafter, the bigger parts started drying up and Ms. Douglas found little luck in pitching networks her sitcom, "Illeanarama," whose plot provided the basis for "Easy to Assemble." Luckily, that show's pilot was seen by Ikea and its media agency, Mediaedge:cia, which approached Ms. Douglas about swapping out her series' supermarket setting for an Ikea store and ended up finding its biggest brand ambassador.
Ms. Douglas, a self-identified "Ikean," told Ad Age, "Of the other brands I sat with, the only one I wanted to work with was Ikea. I love their Swedish sensibility and the quirkiness of the brand really could fit me. I also liked their European influence vs. some of the America companies I talked to, because I don't feel like they were really going to understand or trust what I could do with their brand."
CMO and executive producer
Ikea's marketing chief, Magnus Gustaffson, took a hands-on role with the project as executive producer, but gave Ms. Douglas and her celebrity friends enough creative freedom to write some jokes at the chain's expense -- whether it's jabs at the store's odd product names ("crap," the Swedish word for "quilt," gets a lot of mileage this season) or at the company's fish and fruit-obsessed culture.
"We're not afraid to poke a little fun at ourselves," Mr. Gustaffson said. "'Easy To Assemble' clearly shows that Ikea is not your typical big-box retailer and that we have something unique to offer our visitors."
Mr. Gustaffson noted that traffic to Ikea's own website went up after the show premiered, as well as gained traction as an entertainment marketing tool in international markets. That's why Ikea will be pouring an increasing amount of its $90 million domestic marketing budget into digital media in the coming years as projects such as "Easy to Assemble" and key integrations like its co-starring role in this summer's "(500) Days of Summer" help it engage more of it starget customers than traditional media.
"In the next three to five years, we can expect both content concepts and the distribution model to develop even more rapidly," Mr. Gustaffson said. "So in that time frame, the importance of the 30-second TV spot, as we know it, will decrease and the importance of something that today is perceived to be more niche, i.e., web series, will increase."
Yet another spinoff
Ms. Douglas, meanwhile, is already prepping "Easy to Assemble's" second spinoff, a talk show hosted by Ms. Bateman called "40 and Bitter", and filmed live in a Connecticut Ikea store with house band The Traveling Lingonberries.
With so many Ikea-funded projects under her belt in a year's time, the actress is no longer ambivalent about the idea of branded entertainment as a wave of the future. "It's become very appealing to people. When they're signing a contract they know they're not being exploited. It's not like it's Jeff Goldblum doing a commercial for Ikea," Ms. Douglas said. "It's a brand in a way giving back and supporting somebody whose work they believe in. ... I think it's kind of the next phase of product placement. Whether it's Heineken and 'Mad Men' or Red Bull sponsoring Ikea shows, it's kind of a win-win for the brand, because it makes people say, 'Oh, Ikea, they're sponsoring that quirky web show.'"