The Denny’s series is produced by DumbDumb, the digital content and production studio set up in 2010 by actors Will Arnett and Jason Bateman with the backing of Electus, the multimedia studio funded by Barry Diller’s IAC. “Always Open” is emblematic of Electus’s vision of the coming media universe where the lines between advertising and content are intentionally blurred. In the Electus view of the world, brands not only become part of the storyline but advertising engages in content creation from the outset. “Product placement has been around since television began and it was part of radio.,” says Laura Caracciolo-Davis, Electus’s EVP of Advertising Solutions. “What we are talking about is a more sophisticated level of content with brands becoming a partner.
Electus is Ben Silverman’s most recent unveiling. The former William Morris agent and founder of Reveille, Silverman made his mark licensing British television programming bringing The Office, Ugly Betty, and The Biggest Loser to American audiences. In 2009 Silverman, who was co-chairman of NBC Entertainment from 2007 until 2009, worked with Caracciolo-Davis, then president of Starcom, to broker a product placement deal that shoehorned Applebee’s into the ongoing narrative of the NBC series Friday Night Lights. An advertising coup, the deal is said to have delayed the critically acclaimed but low-rated series’ demise by three seasons.
With entertainment audiences fragmented, traditional advertising continues to jump through ever-bigger hoops in order to captivate viewers. For their part, consumers have become increasingly skeptical when it comes to product placement, regularly deploying a host of gadgetry such as DVRs to avoid watching commercials altogether. Electus aims to challenge conventional ads by making them an integral, if not unavoidable, factor in the entertainment experience.
Clearly, advertisers have been looking for new avenues in which to express their personalities and bring their messages to consumers. Product placement has moved from subtle to ever more obvious assignments in a variety of programs. Coca-Cola has a prominent perch on the judges’ table at American Idol while Pepsi snagged premium position in The X Factor. The most blatant examples are in the NBCU-owned Bravo, where Top Chef has regularly spotlighted products (such as Barilla Pasta, Prius cars, Target, Whole Foods, and GE appliances — just to name a few) in a hybrid form of programming: product placement as storyline. Credit Ben Silverman with creating and perfecting that model as a producer of such series as The Apprentice, Celebrity Apprentice, The Restaurant and other reality series on NBC and beyond.
Gradually however, advertising had begun to take on new and subtler forms of hybrid entertainment. In 2004, the Australian director Baz Luhrmann created a miniature theatrical extravaganza to promote Chanel No. 5 in a short film starring Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman. A lush multi-million dollar showstopper, it resembled one of his grand movies condensed into two minutes. More recently, Target has aired mini-spots within spots on Oprah Winfrey’s “Behind the Scenes” series on her OWN network. The commercials sponsor a few seconds “more” of the behind the curtain look at the last season of the Oprah Winfrey Show within “Behind the Scenes” program — while underscoring the retailer’s brand of “more” value to consumers.
Rightly so, Silverman and his team at Electus believe they are on the frontline of a new content revolution. “When we started this close to two years ago,” says Drew Buckley, Electus’s chief operating officer, “ the whole goal for distribution platforms was a shifting world. Twenty-four months ago nobody knew Twitter. Today it is part of the lexicon and in 24 months there will be another distribution platform.”
Buckley, a former Yahoo! and Windsor Media executive, says that Electus is positioning itself to lead the pack by upending the usual advertising-content partnership in a world where platforms are constantly on the move. “We want to be close to the talent and great story tellers,” he says. “Brands are always looking to take advantage of new platforms. We’re betting on content that has a future to make money off content rather than just as a beginning and an end.”
Electus functions as a kind of loose creative/branding coalition, partnering with about a dozen small production companies such as DumbDumb, Crossborders and DiGa, and distribution outfits like Yahoo! The goal is to find new ways to reach audiences through an innovative alignment of brands, technology, and creative content at the beginning of development and generate programming across traditional and digital media platforms.
For instance, Electus recently announced a new series: The Incubator, featuring 36 short webisodes about 10 entrepreneurs turning their ideas into businesses. The series is set to air exclusively on YouTube for six months. Moreover, with the United Kingdom this year allowing product placement in TV programming, Electus is looking at possible trans-Atlantic opportunities.
“Most brands today are global,” says Caracciolo-Davis. “We are looking into selling formats internationally, bringing brands at the appropriate time that are not offensive to audiences or intrusive to the viewing experience.” Given that Silverman started his career bringing British entertainment to America, she adds: “This is Ben closing the circle.”