Pepsi's Act Has A New Protagonist

Brand backs new Leshem venture

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%%STORYIMAGE_RIGHT%% TV producer Matti Leshem, who headed Diplomatic Productions with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" producer Michael Davies, has gone solo, starting a TV production company that will attempt to make brands an integral part of a show's content. He'll launch Protagonist with Pepsi-Cola Co. as his first blue-chip client.

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

Pepsi has handed $750,000 to Leshem to start his new venture, according to one executive who claimed knowledge of the deal. Neither Pepsi nor Leshem would discuss the terms of their agreement.

Protagonist, based in Beverly Hills, joins a growing list of marketing-through-entertainment opportunists that includes Hollywood tenpercenteries and a burgeoning bevy of consultants. Pepsi executives, who will continue to use their existing ad and promotions firms, said 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."

%%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%% Unlike typical overhead deals struck with a studio or network, Pepsi will not house Protagonist, but 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," Burwick said.

Protagonist plans to approach other marketers as clients, just not in the soda category.

Leshem will continue to work with Davies, particularly on game show or variety show concepts, Davies' forte.

At Diplomatic, Leshem drove the Pepsi "Play for a Billion" special on The 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. Leshem is still hopeful that "Live from Tomorrow", a commercial-free variety show with brand integration, will get on the air. Pepsi had committed, but other marketers got cold feet.

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 the brands are placed after the fact, a la CBS' "Survivor."

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

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