ESPN's new high school football reality series, Bound for Glory, is one of the latest signs that brand integration is bound for financial glory on TV. Catering to an industry apprehensive about the spread of digital video recorders' ad-skipping technology, series co-producer Full Circle Entertainment brokered unskippable product placements that included putting football coach Dick Butkus behind the wheel of a Dodge Ram Mega Cab pickup truck and his players in Reebok uniforms.
But even though Full Circle owes much of its success to the DVR-inspired mania for brand integration, company President/CEO Robert Riesenberg doesn't happen to own one of the devices. “I don't watch a lot of television,” he says, citing The O.C. and Desperate Housewives as the only shows, aside from news programs, that he sees regularly.
Instead of watching TV, Riesenberg is busy playing a major role in reworking the way the rest of us experience it.
“Today, I think it's risky if you're not thinking differently and are doing business the same old way,” he says. “Networks are more than open—they're eager—to have creative and effective ideas brought to them. They welcome us with open arms.”
A YEARNING FOR SHOW BIZ
The warm embrace from programmers is a sweet turn of events for Riesenberg, who knew soon after graduating from the University of Vermont more than three decades ago that he wanted to get into the entertainment business but had no Hollywood contacts that he could pursue. Instead, he took the more cautious route of moving to New York and going into advertising, landing a media-buyer job with Ted Bates Advertising in 1974. But Riesenberg never really abandoned his desire to get into show biz, a yearning instilled by an adolescence spent working in Borscht Belt hotels and resorts in New York's Catskill Mountains in the 1960s.
When a media-buying job with BBDO in the early 1980s didn't lead to a position in the company's creative or production departments, Riesenberg was disappointed. But he didn't leave; he just started developing shows for his clients anyway. After producing short-form sports vignettes—including advertiser-sponsored quickie stats—for TV networks, he started working on longer material. The projects worked out so well that Riesenberg was picked to head a new program-development division.
“I realized back then there was an opportunity to have greater impact with the consumers by [advertisers'] controlling their programming,” he says of rediscovering what TV sponsors knew so well in the 1950s. Advertisers could use brand integration “in a multitude of ways to build a marketing campaign around it.”
In 1989, he founded his own production and distribution company, doing a bit of product placement by using his own initials—his middle name is Elliot—in calling it RER Entertainment.
“I literally opened up my doors and called myself a producer, having never produced anything,” he says. “It was very apparent I didn't know what I was doing.”
But he was a quick study: Riesenberg learned the production business well enough to operate RER for nine years, developing and producing TV specials and movies. He switched back to the agency business in 1999, answering a headhunter's call to manage the Coca-Cola account for McCann-Erickson North America.
Intrigued by the opportunity to work with a top brand that advertised through sports, entertainment and music venues, he took the job on the condition that he would eventually start a branded- entertainment production division within the parent company, Interpublic.
In keeping with that plan, he started Magna Global Entertainment, which executive-produced NBC's 2003-04 reality show The Restaurant, starring celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito.
Riesenberg cites Restaurant, which scored advertising partnerships with American Express, Coors and Mitsubishi, as one of his most innovative deals. AmEx, for example, integrated its card into the show and featured DiSpirito in its advertising.
Last year, Riesenberg opened his current media-services shop, Full Circle Entertainment, a part of Omnicom.
“TV DOESN'T NEED TO BE COMPLICATED”
As for his approach to content, Riesenberg keeps in mind the words of a mentor, Marty Starger, a former advertising executive who moved into TV (he was once president of ABC Entertainment) and movie production (including Sophie's Choice and On Golden Pond). The two produced Golden Globe-winning Escape From Sobibor, a Chrysler-funded and -sponsored movie that ran on CBS in 1987. Starger “taught me television doesn't need to be complicated,” Riesenberg says. “If you can move the viewer emotionally, then you've succeeded. I always remember that and put it first and foremost.”
Now developing and producing scripted and unscripted shows, as well as specials, for broadcast, cable and syndication, Riesenberg says his biggest challenge is keeping up with changes in technology, content-distribution platforms and viewers' taste. One current Full Circle project, he says, will start on the Internet and might move to TV.
Although Riesenberg enjoys an outsize reputation in the ad business for being an early power behind brand integration, he doesn't have the big head that might have gone with it.
“There are no airs about Robert, and I appreciate that,” says Guy McCarter, director of entertainment for Omnicon's media-buying branch, OMD. McCarter has known Riesenberg professionally since the mid 1980s, when they worked together at BBDO. “There's no ego. It's all about making a good deal with clients. It's always about the property, it's never about Robert.”