Brand Me, Baby!
Ask Jarrod Moses: From beauty pageants to sitcoms, it's all about product placement. Is this billion-dollar business the future of TV advertising?
By Mark Lasswell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/22/2004 8:00:00 PM
In the subterranean expanse of the exclusive BLVD nightclub in Lower Manhattan, gorgeous Shandi Finnessey, Miss USA, is talking to a guy with an admiring look in his eye. But he's not admiring the obvious. He's actually paying attention to what she's talking about: The epic silliness of trying to swing a bat in the celebrity softball game during baseball's All-Star break, while wearing her Miss USA sash—per pageant co-owner Donald Trump's orders. He insists she wear the cumbersome thing at all public appearances.
"God bless Donald Trump," Jarrod Moses says later, once he and Finnessey have gone their separate schmoozing ways. "He's doing the right thing."
Moses, 34, is CEO and president of Alliance, a feisty unit of the ad giant Grey Global devoted to the integration of brands and entertainment. The embedded advertising business is burning through TV like wildfire. Frank Zazza, CEO of iTVX, which measures the value of product placement, says it will become a billion-dollar industry within the next year.
From Survivor's notorious brand flag-waving for about $12 million a pop to The Restaurant's naked AmExhibitionism to the Queer Eye for a home-furnishings ad buy, this retro marketing tactic (Texaco Star Theatre, anyone?) is transforming the way Americans experience television. CBS says a handful of its scripted shows are slated for product integration this season, and The WB has established a "Preferred Partnership" program that gives advertisers sole product-placement rights. (Procter & Gamble took What I Like About You, while Verizon dialed up Smallville.) But dropping brands is child's play compared to the impact sponsor-produced content could portend.
Taking The Restaurant's lead—its production costs were underwritten last year by AmEx, Mitsubishi and Coors Brewing—ABC's drama The Days followed suit. It was bankrolled by the WPP Group's MindShare media shop, which intended to recoup its investment with ad time, product placement for clients and a share of any syndication money. (MindShare and Alliance may become partners if WPP's rumored interest in buying Grey Global comes to fruition.)
Still, not everyone has a mania for "advertainment." The trend has alarmed the folks at the Ralph Nader-affiliated Commercial Alert.
"It's part of the commercial takeover of every nook and cranny of our lives and culture," says Executive Director Gary Ruskin. The watchdog group filed complaints last year with the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, seeking clearer viewer notification of brand embedding.
Ruskin wants to see an on-screen alert when, say, a Reebok-wearing Survivor competitor munches Doritos. Having successfully stopped search engines from letting advertisers pretend their pitches were search results, he says, "We think we're on strong legal ground." He expects a ruling by the end of the year.
However, as far as the industry is concerned, the genie is out of the Pepsi bottle.
Alliance is still a relatively minor player in a business where, if reality-TV kingpin producer Mark Burnett sneezes, Kleenex bids for the tissue-placement rights.
iTVX's Zazza sighs when asked about Alliance's position in the pecking order. "Every agency has a division going after this stuff," he says. Indeed, Moses, usually a man of Trumpian self-confidence, is shy when it comes to releasing financial information. His company may be small, but the Rocky-obsessed cruiserweight amateur boxer is a big man with large ideas. This is someone who went to Uzbekistan in his early 20s after the fall of the Soviet Union to help American investors launch various enterprises that include a baseball team.
If there's an urgency in the way he's pushing the TV-ad world now—his latest project is forming an ad-funded "think tank" of Hollywood producers and writers to create brand-friendly content—Moses comes by it honestly. Ever since the death of his physician father from skin cancer at 40, when Moses was 12, he has approached life with a "balls to the wall, do as much as I can as fast as I can because you never know how long your life is going to be" attitude.
That explains his presence at BLVD.
Alliance had engineered a collaboration between CoverGirl and Atlantic Records on a philanthropic project called CG Vibes. This was the launch. Miss USA was there because the company had brokered a CoverGirl logoed interview segment in the Miss Universe pageant.
The spot is the show
While there, the ever-networking Moses ("I roll about 100 calls a day") ran into an executive from Lava Records—the music company at the center of reality series On the Road, which debuted on Spike TV in July. It follows eight contestants vying for a yearlong job at Lava by trying to be the best gofer on the band Sugar Ray's summer tour. An Alliance client, Kia Motors, is featured prominently as the contestants use Kia Spectras for their mad errand-running—not only to win the Lava job, but also a new Kia.
This is better than product placement. This is a show Alliance created for the automaker, which bought a late-night time slot on Spike. Though On the Road's time-buy status made it a quasi-infomercial, it looked persuasively like regulation reality TV. Kevin Kay, Spike's executive vice president of production and programming, says he regards it as "an innovative marketing and programming opportunity for the guy-oriented cable channel.
And it answers the ad clutter concern.
After all, as commercials increase, eyeballs-per-spot decrease and TiVoification ramps up, embedding brands in content from inception—rather than just shoehorning it as placement and "script write-in"—looks more attractive.
"The idea of producing programming that is self-funded, that we own, is something we want to do for two reasons," Moses says. "One, it's the future of TV. Two, I want clients to know we're in this game with them. We're not just asking for their money, then sitting back and collecting a percentage. We're going to fund it with them. Everybody's going to have skins in the game."
When he opened Alliance eight years ago, he was "literally walking from studio to studio and network to network, knocking on doors" in Los Angeles trying to promote strategic partnerships between producers and brands. The reaction was so chilly and future so uncertain that he rented a car for two years because signing a lease seemed overly optimistic.
A breakthrough came in 1998, when the fledgling WB network commissioned Moses to find new marketing strategies. He hammered out a collaboration between J. Crew and a new show called Dawson's Creek. The good-looking Dawson's teens would wear the clothes on-air, and the J. Crew would devote an entire catalog to the show, featuring the actors. Dawson's Creekwas an immediate hit, J. Crew got a healthy bump in sales and everyone "saved millions in marketing," Moses says.
But as Moses did the Hollywood deal-making dance between content providers and the ad industry, he had a revelation. He became convinced that talent agencies and management groups were compromised by their mixed allegiances. Was the celebrity endorsement good for the client-brand or for the client-celeb? He resolved to become a "brand agent." In an age of atomized TV audiences, Moses says, major brands "touch more people than any TV show."
It was a short leap from one insight to another: Brands could create their own TV content. Now, producers trying to get ideas off the ground court Alliance—where the staff has increased "tenfold" in two years to 62 employees. Folders for about two dozen new projects are lined up on Moses' desk at his midtown office in New York.
Moses surveys these folders under the gaze of Sylvester Stallone in a Rockyposter on the wall. It's almost inevitable he'd be a Rocky buff. He grew up in Philadelphia, his mother, Susan, worked as Talia Shire's stand-in for the Rocky movies, his paternal grandfather was a boxer in the Army, and Moses and his older brother Bryce grew up pounding each other with boxing gloves until they were tired enough to sleep. One thing he's learned as an amateur boxer is this: "You can't get into a rhythm because the other guy will figure it out, and then you're in trouble. He'll time your moves, and you'll step right into a punch."
It's a lesson he applies to business, which is why his "think tank" project could catch a few competitors off-guard. A consortium of Alliance-associated companies is hiring Hollywood writers and producers to create TV pilots tailored to their brands. "Like a mutual fund," he says, the participants will share the risks and the profits, which would include a cut of the advertising on shows. Though he's not announcing details yet, Moses says the project is paying seven-figure salaries, and he expects to have projects up and running for fall 2005.
But trying to claim Hollywood turf isn't for the faint of heart. Moses would do well do heed the advice Mickey the trainer gave Rocky Balboa against Apollo Creed: Breathe deep and keep your chin down.
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