ANALYSIS: Product Placement - PR firms vie for Hollywood productplacement power

Corporations long to marry their marketing efforts with Hollywood. And PR firms are now fighting the talent-agency giants for the job. Anita Chabria reports.

Corporations long to marry their marketing efforts with Hollywood. And PR firms are now fighting the talent-agency giants for the job. Anita Chabria reports.

In India, a broker called a maharaj arranges traditional marriages.

As with any good merger, the maharaj does extensive research before recommending a match. Neighbors and acquaintances are interviewed, school records perused, personal interviews conducted. But the real value of a maharaj lies in his or her relationships. Reliable ones have dealt with the same families for decades, and have potential mates on their radar years before they even hit adolescence. They have access to the top-tier candidates, and know the family scandals and successes going back for generations. These relationships and histories let them successfully spot synergy between the daughter of a Brahmin banker in Bombay and a recent IT graduate from Bangalore.

While some may find the system archaic, corporate America is currently looking for the right maharaj to marry its marketing interests to Hollywood - and potential brokers are lining up around the block.

Product placement used to be a more haphazard and small-scale initiative handled by a dozen specialist agencies. These experts cultivated relationships (and still do) with on-set decision makers such as prop masters, transportation coordinators, and costume designers. In exchange for cutting production costs by providing products for the set (and often extras for crew members and key players), the company gained low-priced exposure for its cell phones, snack foods, or any other products they were hawking.

With both production costs and advertising expenses soaring, placement deals are becoming increasingly attractive to corporations and entertainment companies alike. That means the business of product placement is becoming increasingly competitive and structured. Studios and production companies have staff dedicated to scooping out the best placement partners, producers begin looking for suitable tie-ins as soon as they see the script, and the stakes have been raised from a couple of bags of chips to multimillion-dollar promotional extravaganzas. Think BMW and Bond, or FedEx and Cast Away.

Rather than just scoring a bit of screen time, alliances like those show that both filmmakers and corporate America are focused on leveraging one another for "back-end

deals that take the partnership off screen and into big advertising pushes that link product and production. From in-store alliances to inclusion in video games to sponsoring their own shows, relationships between corporations and entertainment properties have grown so quickly and in such diverse directions that the terms of the marriage are limited only by the marketer's creativity. Ford recently helped produce a reality show for the WB that featured its cars. Revlon signed a lucrative advertising deal that guarantees its company part of the storyline in All My Children. The new 007 flick reportedly has placement deals worth $100 million, with partners from Visa to British Airways.

The one facet of Tinseltown that the rest of the business world has come to understand is that Hollywood plays by its own rules, where being introduced by the right middleman is difference between ending up on an island with Tom Hanks, or on the set of a UPN sitcom. Hence the need for a good maharaj.

Playing matchmaker

Everyone - from PR shops to talent agencies - is vying to be the matchmaker that helps big business score representation in films and on TV. They're selling access - the history and relationships that fuel Hollywood deal-making. Whether it's celebrity seeding, finding a spokesperson, or getting screen time in the latest blockbuster, different factions of Tinseltown's brokering business are ready to offer their insight - and Rolodex - for a fee.

Witness last week's announcement that Kmart has chosen Creative Artists Agency (CAA) to handle its entertainment marketing initiatives. While Kmart is not CAA's first corporate client, the arrangement is another indicator that diverse types of Hollywood insiders are getting serious about playing the maharaj.

That poses a problem for entertainment PR heavyweights who want to retain their territory handling product placement, seeding, and spokespeople.

From the outside, a talent agency like CAA with an uber-dealmaking image has clear appeal to corporate clients. CAA represents some of the top names in entertainment: Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Sandra Bullock, and Brad Pitt, to name a few. CAA is involved in and is aware of projects from their conception. It represents screenwriters who can add a product or company name to a script in the first draft, and it's quick to sell that prestige to potential clients. Imagine the appeal for a marketing director able to show higher-ups the new Spielberg script that begins "INT. Kmart. Shoppers sift through Martha Stewart towels."

Agencies like CAA, William Morris (which represents the world's largest advertiser, General Motors), and International Creative Management also have access to directors, who ultimately control what's in the film and what gets cut. For those in corporate America charged with finding the right brokers, such intimate relationships could make a talent agency look not only sexy, but the seemingly safest choice.

"It's about a company that gets the early look at all projects in Hollywood who really understands our goals,

says Kmart spokesman Dave Karraker of the CAA deal.

Asked why Kmart signed with a talent agency, instead of say, the in-house entertainment marketing department of a PR giant like Rogers & Cowan (R&C), Karraker takes a stance that is common to much of corporate America's thinking: "That's totally different. With Rogers & Cowan, you're talking about more of a PR and publicity level. We're one of the largest media buyers in the world, and one of the largest entertainment sellers. We have these relationships we can leverage, but we haven't done that. What CAA is going to allow us to do is take those relationships in the industry and leverage those. It goes far beyond just product placement."

Problems talent agencies pose

Despite the surface draw, CAA lacks two important credentials: a long track record, and the ability to support the deals it brokers. Despite success with companies like Coca-Cola and Boeing, CAA and other talent agencies are newbies at the corporate end of entertainment marketing.

Product-placement specialists have decades of experience and the advantage of close working relationships with studios. "We have actual proof of executing all these deals they say they can execute,

says Linda Swick, president of International Promotions, a product-placement agency. "We've already done it. What carries more weight?"

Specialists also have relationships with PR firms like R&C and Bragman Nyman Cafarelli, who handle placement deals themselves or bring clients to such niche agencies and oversee the entire promotion, from placement to support campaign.

"From our perspective, it's primarily PR-driven,

says R&C's SVP of entertainment marketing Tara Walls. "What we can offer through publicity is an extension of (the placement), taking it out to the consumer marketplace. (Talent agencies) might have access, but everyone has access. We're as deeply ingrained as they can be."

That may be true, but it isn't obvious to the Hollywood outsider. The field for becoming the matchmaker of choice is wide open, with no clear front-runners - yet. "There's room for everybody, and no one's going to have complete control,

asserts Swick - but everyone is going to try.

For entertainment PR pros, the challenge is selling themselves as hard-hitting dealmakers rather than publicists - the kind of power players who can negotiate corporate America's love affair with the movies.

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