The new wave of celebrity-founded agencies: Threat or opportunity?

Forget the management consultancies for a second. Stars also want a part of the content marketing space.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

Many PR agencies have long worried about management consultancies coming to take over their turf. Fewer have been concerned that Hollywood would also make a play for brands’ marcomms budgets, specifically those devoted to content marketing.

Last week, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith launched Westbrook Inc., a cross-platform holding company that will "execute the Smith family’s global content and commerce business strategy," according to a statement.

Smith, of course, is known for his roles in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Men in Black and Bad Boys, among many other blockbusters. His wife, Pinkett Smith, starred in features including Gotham, Girls Trip and Bad Moms. But they aren’t just famous actors on the big and small screens. 

Pinkett-Smith executive produces the buzzy series Red Table Talk, which has more than 6.3 million followers on Facebook Watch, that she hosts with her daughter, Willow, and mother, Adrienne. Will Smith, who is starring in the live-action remake of Aladdin, is also behind a carton water brand, Just Water, that he cofounded with his son, Jaden, in 2015. In the last 10 months, Just Water launched in Australia, Dubai and the U.K. 

Actors launching production companies is nothing new, especially with the proliferation of digital streaming services on the hunt for content. Everyone from Brad Pitt and Reese Witherspoon to Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez have production companies designed to create TV shows and movies in which they can star. Even Barack and Michelle Obama have a production company called Higher Ground that partners with Netflix. 

But with Westbrook, the Smith family isn’t just looking to develop, sell and market their own projects. One business unit, known as Westbrook Media, is planning to create digital content for brands and to manage their social media properties. 

"Our ambition is to work with brands, and we’re already talking to some big ones," says Westbrook Media CEO Brad Haugen, who previously worked at Scooter Braun and Justin Bieber’s media venture. Haugen also spent three years as a business development manager at Bartle Bogle Hegarty. 

He says the firm is fielding calls not only from brands interested in endorsement deals with the Smith family. "Some of the interest is because of the talent, but some of the interest is independent of that. It is from brands who want to generate content on the same level of success as Will and Jada and learn from their template," Haugen says.

In other words, these Hollywood stars aren’t just cashing in on their names. They’re selling their intellectual capital as storytellers.

"We really want to push the envelope on branded content, take the best risks and work with brands willing to take those risks. My goal is to help brands sell more products, but we want to do in a way that hasn’t been done before," he adds. "And the brand content will be with the Smith family but also without them, too." 

Most brands that have reached out to Westbrook have done so independently of their agencies, but the firm invites collaboration. "We're not trying to think we can do everything on our own, but we do want to build a big business," says Haugen.

PR pros buzzing 

Westbrook’s media arm has entertainment PR buzzing. 

"I’ve talked to some people in Los Angeles. There is definitely going to be a lot of people who will be watching Jada and Will to see if this will be a game-changer and not only a vehicle by which they create quality control over all of their family’s content," says Courtney Nally, EVP of entertainment at Ketchum. "As an agency, am I worried about a celebrity production company taking away business from us? Probably not. At the end of the day, they don’t do what we do, and we don’t do what they do." 

Another shop launched this month with aspirations to make brand work a big part of its business model when retired soccer star David Beckham formed content-focused Studio 99, which is positioning itself as a creator for brands, especially those in sports, travel and fashion. 

A decade ago, Entourage star Adrian Grenier and independent filmmaker Peter Glatzer cofounded SHFT, a lifestyle platform and creator of sustainability content. SHFT has worked with Virgin America, Estee Lauder and Ford Motor.

"All of our brand partnerships have come direct from the client, except in the case of Ford, which came through Ogilvy [which] wanted to create content for the automaker’s electric vehicles," notes Glatzer, who says SHFT is planning to push into the hospitality sector. 

If communications agencies feel worried, they should get over it, says Matthew Lalin, whose agency, starpower, represents brands on pop-culture strategy and works with PR firms such as Taylor on celebrity talent. "I am sure some agencies are feeling threatened," he says. "But they’ll miss out if they don’t lean into the intellectual capital they have to offer because these celebrities have proven to be really smart and successful at telling stories." 

Lalin adds that celebrities want to be part of the creative ideation process, not just a hired spokesperson, and that is a good thing for PR because it creates better programs. He points to a partnership between Bayer and country music star Luke Bryan, which starpower helped to broker. Bryan performs an annual tour at farms across the U.S. with the support of Bayer’s agricultural division. 

"Luke comes from a family of farmers, and so the tour is a real passion project for him. My client is on the phone with Luke directly trying to understand what is important to him and where the white space is for Bayer," he notes. "It isn’t just ‘Hey, this brand wants to work with you, here is the creative, what do you think?’" 

Wendy Zaas, GM and director of entertainment at DKC, agrees that agencies and brands have an opportunity to move away from "transactional" relationships with celebrities, such as just paying them for a social media post or endorsement. That’s because many understand the power of branding themselves, from Jessica Alba with The Honest Company to Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard with Hello Bello. 

"Talent no longer just sees themselves as TV personality, movie star, YouTuber, or athlete. What we’ve been seeing is the evolution of talent into a brand with passion points," Zaas explains. "That is huge for PR agencies and publicists because we have more opportunity than ever to marry talent and brands on shared passion points."

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