A TV Producer Who Wants to Help Brands -- and New Orleans

In Series About Building a Community Center, Damon Harman Highlights Sponsors' Charitable Side

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Damon Harman hates being the bad guy -- especially in the eyes of sponsors.

Early in his career, Mr. Harman was a producer of reality TV shows such as "Tail Dater" and "Blind Date." "Ultimately everyone is happy and cheery when a sponsor gets on board ... but then the product placement gets to editing, they chop it down and product placement gets a black eye," he said.

Damon Harman (right) and with 'ReNew Orleans' narrator Louis Gossett Jr.

Mr. Harman said he had a choice: continue working for the networks or go off on his own. So in 2006 he founded DNA Creative Media, a full-service advertising/marketing agency with a niche specializing in branded programming, to no longer have to walk that delicate balance between pleasing a network by being the bad guy to sponsors.

More than a product-placement venture
But beyond just changing the sometimes-frustrating model of how product-placement gets done on reality TV, he also wanted a chance to do something more positive than just set up singles.

His first major project is a TV series set to air later this year, "ReNew Orleans" (www.reneworleanstv.com), which in three one-hour shows chronicles the creation of a community center in the Hurricane Katrina-damaged New Orleans neighborhood of Mid-City and is narrated by Louis Gossett Jr. (A YMCA a block away from the site of the new center was damaged by Katrina and has not since reopened.)

With shooting starting in early June, sponsors are jumping on board, including BrandSource, Johnson & Johnson, Guitar World and Fisher & Paykel appliances.

By the end of the series, set to air by December, Mid-City's residents will have a 23,000-square-foot community center, complete with a gym, fitness room, a culinary-arts cooking center, a children's play room, an arts-and-crafts room, a media room and a 1,000-square-foot recording studio.

"We own the project with our brand sponsors. We are producing it all internally, independent of the networks and bringing in donations and sponsors. Then we are going to syndicate on our own. We aren't selling it. We aren't going to have them [networks] re-cut this so our brands aren't happy," Mr. Harman said.

100% control
Mr. Harman is letting brands listen in on a weekly construction call that tracks the progress of the center and is inviting marketers on the set for each brand's segment on the show so "they have 100% control," he said.

Yet with all this brand involvement, one question remains: Can Mr. Harman still create a show that people want to watch?

To prove he's not producing a series of banal product-placement pitches smashed into the drama, Mr. Harman gives the lowdown on one typical segment.

"You might watch us install a kitchen cabinet, but then we'll say, 'Let's go to Emeril's restaurant and learn about gumbo' and you get to see the real New Orleans and learn about food and then we'll come back to the kitchen and it's all done. And in the finale the famous chef is cooking on the new community-center cooking stations," he said.

DNA, which is based in Manhattan Beach, Calif., has partnered with Meredith Publications, which owns 14 local broadcast stations, where the show will launch in December.

Alissa Hsu Lynch, a Johnson & Johnson group product director, responsible for marketing the Aveeno brand, said the show got her backing because it fit well with the brand's target customer, women aged 25 to 54. Additionally, the show could tap into what recent internal research revealed about Aveeno customers: 64% said they are interested in giving back to the community and beautification is among the top 10 ways they want to give back.

"When we heard about the program we felt it was a perfect fit for the brand," said Ms. Lynch, who said Aveeno has sponsored the creation of a botanical garden at the community center.

Intrigued by level of involvement
Beyond the perfect fit, Ms. Lynch also was intrigued by the level of involvement DNA would give her as a sponsor.

"It's a great opportunity to be more involved so we make sure the end result is a great fit with the brand and we can partner with the creation of it and be involved every step of the way. ... The more involvement we have ensures that strong brand fit," she added.

The show is the first plunge into branded entertainment for BrandSource, said Bob Lawrence, CEO of the Anaheim, Calif., company he described as "the Ace Hardware of appliances," and the second-largest online seller of appliances through a co-operative merchandising and branding agreement with 4,000 mom-and-pop appliance retailers nationwide. BrandSource spends $200 million annually on advertising, mostly on circulars and some TV advertising on the Scripps network.

With Sears having locked up "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," Mr. Lawrence said he's "been searching for our own 'Extreme Home Makeover.'"

As the title sponsor of the show, BrandSource has paid $2 million with another $2 million match via co-op advertising from vendors.

He came close to teaming up with a show in Lake Las Vegas that planned on building a $10 million home. "But we asked ourselves, 'How many of our customers are $10 million home buyers?'"

Mr. Lawrence jumped at the chance to build something with a charitable purpose; as with Aveeno, the marketer's own research also showed that 80% of all decisions made in the product categories BrandSource sells are made by women aged 35 to 54 and 70% said they would rather buy from a retailer that supports a charity.
Mr. Harman held five town-hall-style meetings with New Orleans area residents.
Mr. Harman held five town-hall-style meetings with New Orleans area residents.

'Great press'
"It was great for the community," he said, adding: "And it will be great press for us and great press for our suppliers, so it was something that made an awful lot of sense."

But beyond just keeping the sponsors happy, Mr. Harman needed to keep to the interests and needs of the community and held five town-hall-style meetings with area residents. The result was a wish list for the center, including a recording studio. "So much of the music out of New Orleans was lost" after Katrina, Mr. Harman said.

DNA began shooting the show in early June and as part of the production has already laid the foundation of the center. But it has not been an easy road in New Orleans and the production has run into some budget overruns. The center had to be raised 36 inches above sea level, which translated to $200,000 in additional construction costs. Overall, the construction budget has increased from $3 million to $4.5 million.

Mr. Harman has already been getting calls from county commissioners and mayors and traveled to several cities, including Nashville and Detroit, to discuss other projects.

"They are raising flags and saying, 'Hey, can you do it here?'" he said.

If Mr. Harman pulls it off, he'll certainly have earned the title of good guy.
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