Ben Silverman has been called many things-whiz kid, wunderkind, party boy-but he doesn’t shy away from another sobriquet, “marketer.”
Visitors to Silverman’s office, for instance, will spy a poster of P.T. Barnum, a reminder of Silverman’s days at Tufts University, where he was the proud recipient of the school’s P.T. Barnum award. The former agent, producer and branded-entertainment facilitator has long identified with Barnum, one of the greatest marketers of all time. But even that term can be limiting.
“I don’t think anyone should be in one box if they’re to be successful. You have to think about all elements of the business,” said Silverman, who was appointed co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios earlier this year (Marc Graboff is the other co-chairman). “I’ve created TV shows, marketed vehicles, bought shows and analyzed or found shows that advertisers would want to be associated with. [Marketer] is a proud moniker, but being a creative entrepreneur allows you to look at all parts in a collaborative way [to determine] what your client needs.”
Silverman is known in the industry as a guy who was ahead of the curve on branded entertainment. At the cusp of the BE wave (circa 2004), Silverman was regularly integrating brands like American Express, Staples, Mitsubishi Motors, Revlon, McDonald’s, Chevrolet and Coors Brewing into TV shows The Office, The Biggest Loser, Ugly Betty,The Restaurant, Nashville StarandBlow Out. At the same time, Silverman is a marketer in the sense that he seems to have figured out what Americans want to see on TV, often by noting what foreigners are watching. Fans of the BBC show The Office, for instance, expected a dumbed-down, prettied up U.S. version, but Silverman has managed to make the U.S. Office as smart and quirky (if a shade less mean) than the original. Few also expected Ugly Betty, a Latin American novella, to translate to the U.S. (though in fairness, the smart money is on anyshow failing), but it has become a hit as well.
Silverman’s acumen for picking winners and his cozy relationship with advertisers this year landed him in the hot seat. At NBC, Silverman has to address doubters who say he can’t transition from reality TV to scripted and that NBC will never repeat the glory days of the Seinfeld era’s Must See TV. But Silverman has his defenders as well, who argue that it takes a kinetic thinker to navigate the current network TV landscape. “Here’s the thing about Ben,” said Donny Deutsch, host of CNBC’s The Big Idea and chairman of New York ad agency Deutsch, who thinks of Silverman as a little brother. “I always thought I was A.D.D-he’s A.D.D.D.D. He’s just bouncing all over the place, but that’s a creative mind. I always picture us sitting in my conference room batting ideas around. He’s talking a mile a minute and I’m saying, ‘Ben, slow down!'”
Raised in New York, Silverman, 37, is the son of an entertainment executive mother and a classical musician father. To say that Ben and his two half sisters were encouraged to appreciate the arts would be an incredible understatement-this was a family that would dress up to watch Masterpiece Theatre. And, basically, he’s been schmoozing for life.
“Ben was so much fun as a child. I’d take him to parties with me,” said Mary Silverman, Ben’s mother and confidante. “He learned a lot from hanging out with these people.” The two had a standing date for years to go see Fred Astaire movies, where Mary has memories of young Ben dancing in the aisles. Another time, he point-blank predicted his current day job. “[When Ben was] around age 10, I came home from work one day, and he said, ‘Mom, I think this [NBC] is my channel, and I think I’m gonna run it one day.'” Said The William Morris Agency’s Jim Wyatt: “Ben was destined to do this. This is his dream. This guy will always be successful, he has such amazing ideas and the instincts to know how to get things done.
That’s not to say there weren’t detours in those ensuing 27 years. Mary Silverman recalled how after college Ben had an internship at a prestigious financial firm, the type you plot to stay at if you’re lucky enough to land as an intern. “He did quite well but he told me, ‘Mom, I’ve just got to be where entertainment is spoken.’ I think it’s a genetic thing.”
After stints at CBS, Warner Bros. and New World/Marvel Entertainment, Silverman became an agent at William Morris, where in his mid 20s he became the youngest division head. In charge of the international packaging division in the London office, this is where he first witnessed soonto- be exports Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Coupling and The Office. It was also during his tenure at WMA that Silverman honed his interest in branded entertainment.
“Being an agent was fantastic because I learned how to make so many different types of deals,” Silverman said, “whether a talent deal, a co-production or a literary property turned into a movie. Also, [being an agent gave me] the ability to focus on moneymaking and the entrepreneurial element.” Former assistant Howard Owens recalled that while he is two years older than Silverman, when he interviewed for his job, he thought his future boss was a bit older and pretty sage. During the process, Owens was asked by Silverman to come up with a list of 10 people in New York he should meet in such worlds as advertising and finance. “This was about 10 years ago,” said Owens, who Silverman promoted to a WMA agent a year and a half later. “Ben believed that TV and advertising and marketing were merging closer together, and he wanted to be at the forefront of that movement.”
Wyatt remembers the day Silverman told him he was leaving William Morris to start Reveille, the production company behind The Biggest Loser and other hits. “We had lunch at a small delicatessen in New York, and I knew [Barry] Diller had sought him out to start this new television company,” he said. “As I was trying to persuade Ben to stay with us, I knew when I met with him his mind was made up. I knew our company had lost the best and the brightest.”
Silverman founded the production company in 2002 with a unique approach: He got relevant marketers who were interested in branded-entertainment opportunities to fund his shows rather than receive money from the networks and try to crowbar advertisers into content. “Silverman was unique in that he always grasped television and how ad-supported TV was financed,” said Owens, who’s now managing partner at Reveille. “He always understood the need to embrace advertisers to help shows you’re passionate about succeed,” he said. “One thing he’s always liked about partnering with brands is the ability to create noise around shows that aren’t 30-second-spot driven: If an advertiser liked what they saw, they might support the show with offline promotion that might bring in more viewers.”
Looking ahead, Silverman thinks the industry is going to see even more creative partnerships between brands and entertainment and distribution. While there have been moments where it’s been interrupted, things are now working in lockstep.
“[I see] the evolution and continued strength in TV as advertisers further validate and invest in shows,” he said. “I think what you are seeing is a move by the entire community to connect content makers with brands and triangulate that revolution. The entire marketplace is moving toward that every day at NBC.”
Earlier this year, Silverman was looking to make a big change in his corporate structure. Fearing this might nix any chance of luring him to his network, NBC Universal president/CEO Jeff Zucker asked Silverman if he would like to come on board. NBC already had a first-look deal with Reveille and aired The Office, The Biggest Loser and The Restaurant. “Silverman said “absolutely.” (Because of the relationship with NBC, he now has no involvement in further Reveille projects but will continue to work on shows developed before the deal.)
Silverman thinks a prime reason he got his job at the network is the fact that he has such strong connections with the advertising industry. “I had a great relationship with the advertising community because I had solutions for them, and I brought that to NBC, which was already very forward thinking,” Silverman said. So how’s Silverman doing so far? It’s too soon to tell since the shows running on the network this fall were not of his choosing. “It takes a full year,” said Brad Adgate, svp-research at Horizon Media, New York, which counts NBC as a client. Still, Silverman will no doubt take comfort in the early success of Bionic Woman, which was NBC’s highest-rated midweek premiere since 1999.
As Silverman plots to make his mark at NBC, he’s channeling his A.D.D.D.D. into long hours on the job. While gossip sites like TMZ paint Silverman as a party boy, a look at his schedule on a typical day would exhaust Dean Karnazes. A day in early September, for instance, like most, begins with early morning calls with senior executives in NBC’s New York office about numbers from the night before. Next up is communication with overseas suppliers and e-mails to Simon Cowell, among others. That’s followed by an interview with a marketing trade magazine, a talent recruiting session and a comedy pitch. Next, a staff meeting for the studio’s creative team is devoted to business/legal, marketing, press and publicity, and is overlaid with industry trends looking five to 10 months out. The team looks at what’s hot on YouTube, the New York Times’ most searched list, what’s selling on eBay, the top albums, the top everything. And that’s all before lunch, which on this particular day involved meeting with a talent agency rep, followed by a budgeting and financing meeting, a senior level staff meeting, a pitch meeting, a conference call with human resources, a scheduling meeting. The biggest asset is having a great memory, Silverman shared, but there’s a little more to it.
“He has a great combination of sales skills, leadership skills, creative skills and, most importantly, he’s having fun doing this,” said Deutsch. “On my talk show, I ask people ‘What’s the key to your success?’ and they say, ‘Be passionate about what you do.’ Ben’s the poster boy for that.”
Photo courtesy of NBC