Meet Ernest Lupinacci, Epicure of Branded Content

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Who: Ernest Lupinacci, founder of branded content shop Ernest Industries.

Why you need to know him: Nearly two years after co-founding the boutique agency Anomaly, Mr. Lupinacci, 39, left to focus on branded entertainment. His new venture, Ernest Industries, is starting off with a pair of projects. One is from Plum TV, a local network for tony vacation spots like Nantucket, Aspen, Vail and the Hamptons. The other is with Success Television, a video-on-demand network with content in the areas of leadership, career development and personal finance.
Ernest Lupinacci, founder of Ernest Industries, points to Martha Stewart's earlier CBS TV show as the 'high bar' of seamless branded content.

Credentials: Mr. Lupinacci helped Anomaly -- a sort of hybrid agency that works in creative, design and other disciplines -- grab clients like Coca-Cola Co.’s Dasani. Prior to that, the longtime solo creative director, who Joe Pytka has called the “patron saint of freelancers,” worked on many high-profile spots. Most famously, he got William Shatner into those ads. He also did stints in Wieden & Kennedy’s Portland, New York and Amsterdam offices, where he worked on accounts like ESPN and Nike.

Congrats on the new business. “Thanks. It was bittersweet leaving Anomaly and something that the preponderance of evidence pointed to.”

So why Ernest Industries? “It was either that or Lupinacci Unlimited. I grew up with the name Ernest and have only just grown into it. And there’s something very 1960s corporate America about Ernest Industries.”

Why branded content? “It was not something I decided to do overnight. The greatest form of branded content ever was Martha Stewart’s show on CBS. People laugh at that, but the show was a seamless iteration of what her brand was all about. Cooking, cleaning, baking, homemaking and it worked seamlessly within the Omnimedia structure -- the catalog, online, radio show, the distribution network of Kmart. She owned the show, the network paid her for the content, she retained the back catalog of the show. If it cost more to produce an episode than to produce a commercial, it still would have been a great idea. But it cost a fraction of what it cost to produce a commercial to produce a show. It is the ultimate expression of branded content. That’s the high bar. Putting a pickup truck at the beginning of an episode of 24 is not branded content.”

Then what is it, just simple product placement? “Yes, unless it’s done with tremendous aplomb. At it worst, branded content is just tarted up product placement.”

What else do you like in the branded entertainment arena? “I love ‘Project Runway.’ It’s phenomenal. I love fashion. I was a creative director at Old Navy one summer and my wife always tells me I know more about fashion than any straight man should know. It’s a classic example of taking a very simple premise -- like Agatha Christie’s ‘Ten Little Indians’ and putting it through the filter of a new genre. ‘Survivor’ is basically a ‘Lord of the Flies’ reality show. With ‘Project Runway,’ there’s a great cast and the judges are hysterical and when they design for Banana Republic it doesn’t feel bolted on.”

You mentioned a few novels there. Are there any others you’d like to see translated into reality shows? “There's a show I might try and develop with a production company. To a degree, it’s based on the story of Cyrano de Bergerac. The premise is this: I’m going to ask my friends to do everything they can to help me get the girl. There’s a whole theory that there are only eight stories. Quentin Tarantino talks about them. ‘Star Trek’ was pitched as 'Wagon Train' to the stars.”

What are some bad examples of branded entertainment? “In the first ‘Spider Man’ there’s the scene in which Peter Parker learns he can shoot the web and it grabs a can of Dr. Pepper. That shot looked like it was shot six weeks after the movie wrapped by a b-camera crew. It’s not germane to the story, as opposed to when Will Smith put on Ray Bans in ‘Men in Black.’ With the iTunes-Gap promotion, I think consumers looked at that being more about iTunes than The Gap. One brand’s assets are used to solve another brand’s problems.”

It sounds like you have a pretty broad conception of branded content, including stuff we usually think of as more traditional promotions. “Branded content is arguably the most traditional solution. It’s why soap operas are called soap operas.”

Tell me about your clients. What are you doing for Plum and Success Television? “I have a development deal with Plum. It’s both proactive and reactive. If the show’s in development, we’ll find the right brand. If we know a brand that needs a problem solved, we’ll bring them a show. From the outset with Success TV, it was to get involved in the branding, but it will be more than that.”

What do you do on your downtime? “I have a 1-year-old daughter and I am just fascinated by her. My wife and I are morning people and such creatures of habit. We get up in the morning at 5 a.m., we walk the dog, take the baby for a walk. Then I go to work: write, think, tell stories, play. We joke that we’re very boring people. We come home, eat dinner, watch our favorite shows on TiVo. We’re hooked on ‘Lost’ and the procedural dramas.”
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