‘Apprentice’ Partners in Dramatic Twist

NEW YORK Mark Burnett Productions is suing the entertainment marketing firm credited with bringing Procter & Gamble’s Crest, Levi’s and Mars to The Apprentice for allegedly deceiving clients and charging up to two and a half times Burnett’s fees for securing the product placements.

The suit, filed on March 3 in Los Angeles Superior Court, presents a cautionary tale for marketers who rely on third-party intermediaries to navigate the sometimes complicated corridors in Hollywood. In it, Burnett alleges that Los Angeles firm Madison Road told clients it was affiliated with Burnett in order to secure their business when no prior relationship existed.

According to the complaint, “on several occasions” the firm then led Burnett to believe that “to do business with the client, it must go through Madison Road.”

While the suit does not name any marketers, reports have linked Madison Road to the three brands’ appearances on the hit NBC show.

The suit demands that Madison Road notify all its clients and publicly state that it has no relationship with Burnett in addition to unspecified punitive damages and profits earned from any alleged misconduct.

Burnett and his attorneys declined comment.

Madison Road, based in Los Angeles, was formed in 2002 by Tom Mazza, the former president of Columbia TriStar Television, with Jack Severson, a longtime marketing exec, and Rob Long, a former writer for Cheers. The firm’s other projects have included deals for Tyra Banks’ America’s Top Model show on UPN and a proposed sitcom based on Coors’ “Wingman” ads.

A rep said the company had not yet reviewed the lawsuit but issued the following statement: “Madison Road prides itself with its integrity and fair business practices, and is astounded by this suit and disappointed in Mark Burnett Productions. Madison Road exists to protect brands and the advertising community in the branded entertainment space, and the company’s deals all reflect this protection. Madison Road strongly looks forward to defending the integrity of their company.”

In most cases, Burnett negotiated Apprentice placements for Burger King and The Home Depot directly with those marketers, per the suit. “As is customary in the advertising industry, the amount of this consideration sum is negotiated upfront as a flat fee,” the complaint reads, though it does not say how much the deals are worth.

Industry observers estimate the going rate for placement deals tied to The Apprentice are in the $2-3.5 million range. The suit alleges that Madison Road charged clients “250 percent” above the standard fee, then gave a portion of that amount to Burnett.

Execs from P&G and Levi’s could not be reached; Mars declined comment.

Burnett, whose other shows include Survivor and The Restaurant, is gaining even more industry clout with such projects as The Contender, a boxing reality show on NBC which has commitments from The Home Depot, Toyota, Gatorade and Sierra Mist, among others. As a result, the firm is also bulking up its staff with about a half-dozen new hires to handle such integration deals.

The suit follows a cease-and-desist letter dated Feb. 15 sent by Burnett to Madison Road ordering the firm to stop saying it was associated with the production company. It also asked for a complete list of people and firms Madison Road had contacted for promotional activities related to the show.

Some industry executives said they weren’t surprised by the charges.

“It’s a growing industry and the structure is starting to be set, but there’s still a lot of mystery,” said Jarrod Moses, president of Alliance, the entertainment marketing unit of Grey Global, New York. “When it’s more mature, a structure will be put in place.”

Another insider said such abuses are systemic: “It’s like the Internet a few years ago or sports marketing a few years before that. Everyone’s trying to get into the business and it’s real murky out there.”

Clearly, buyers should beware and take time to question intermediaries closely: Are you on a retainer with the production company, client or network? How exactly do you represent them?