Eckel: Branded Content Isn't Just for P&Gs of the World

Alliance CEO on Why the Strategy Is Increasingly Important -- and Inexpensive -- for Marketers

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LOS ANGELES -- John Eckel is moving from half time to prime time.
John Eckel
John Eckel says he feels more like a 'player' now that he's back on the creative side.

This week, he starts as president-CEO of Grey's branded-entertainment marketing company, Alliance. Co-founded a decade ago by outgoing CEO Jarrod Moses, Alliance has created shows and concerts and has done brand integration for clients such as Coca-Cola, Panasonic, Reebok, Mercedes-Benz, Motorola, Wal-Mart, and, yes, the original inventor of branded content, Procter & Gamble.

In his new role, Mr. Eckel will lead Alliance from its headquarters in New York, with an office in Los Angeles. Mr. Eckel comes to Alliance from Creative Artists Agency, where he served as a senior commercial endorsements agent representing the firm's film, TV, music and sports stars. He will also be expanding Alliance's efforts into sports marketing, having previously served as WPP Group's senior VP-worldwide sports and as automotive marketing director at Hill & Knowlton in Los Angeles. While at Hill & Knowlton, he created branded-entertainment halftime Super Bowl events for clients such as Frito-Lay, Oscar Mayer and E-Trade.

After programming seven Super Bowl halftime shows, Mr. Eckel said he's ready to sell to an audience that's a little more challenging. A new study shows he'll get his wish: According to research released in March by PQ Media, global paid product placement is forecasted to grow some 30% to $4.38 billion in 2007, powered by relaxed European regulations and emerging Asian markets. But as the rest of the world catches up, PQ's data shows that placement in the U.S. is expected to slow down over the next four years (though it will still account for two-thirds of spending) as companies rightly ask, "What are we really getting from this Hollywood stuff?"

Madison & Vine: How do you define "branded entertainment," and what are the challenges facing it now?

John Eckel: Utilizing music, TV and film to influence a brand's key audience. But a number of factors are making it more competitive and difficult to navigate. More celebs are open to it than, say, five years ago. And in music we've seen the decline of record labels and a decrease in promotions. So [musical acts] are doing it out of necessity, and brands have access to unique content that might not otherwise reach the market. Studios are also making fewer movies, and partnering with brands to get projects made that otherwise wouldn't be seen. Brands are asking, "What should I pay for these things?" "How can I leverage my spending?" "How can we turn relationships into retail [sales]?"

M&V: So, um, that was fast: I mean, you've spent 20 years in senior posts at advertising and public-relations agencies, but only a year at Creative Artists Agency. How come?

Mr. Eckel: At CAA, I felt like I got my master's in entertainment [laughs]. I can be much more of a player here. I missed the creative side.

M&V: How so?

Mr. Eckel: There, you sign the star. Here, the idea is the star. When you're on the talent side, there are all sorts of hurdles: Maybe the ad agency isn't open to the idea, because they didn't create the idea. Or they can't sell the client on the idea. Like, "David Beckham is new to L.A. GM's OnStar [GPS navigation system] would be perfect to guide him around town!" When you're GM, it's easier to go to David Beckham.

M&V: What's the greatest misconception about branded entertainment?

Mr. Eckel: That it has to be expensive, or only for the Procter & Gambles. There's always been the [endorsement] deals with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and Bon Jovi. But now, a Sanjaya from "American Idol" can be as influential, if not more so, for a given brand.

M&V: So, what are your Alliance guys working on right now that's interesting to you?

Mr. Eckel: There's this Secret Jennifer Lopez casting-call project we just did.

M&V: Come on, you can tell us.

Mr. Eckel: No, it's not secret like "top secret." It's for Secret, the antiperspirant. "In Search of America's Hottest Dancer"? It's going on right now.

M&V: As in, "Strong enough for a man, but made for a diva?"

Mr. Eckel: [Laughs] Exactly. Now, if you just knew someone who wants to buy a house in L.A. It's a nice place, up by Benedict Canyon overlooking Sunset Boulevard. Frank Sinatra Jr. came by to look at it; $4.5 million and it's yours.

M&V: You'll take a check?
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