Entertaining a Different Notion of the Media Biz

NEW YORK As president of GroupM Entertainment, Peter Tortorici is both driving and witnessing the reinvention of the media business. His WPP Group unit is tasked foremost with helping clients reach consumers who continue to find ways of avoiding traditional advertising.

Lately, it’s also taken an interest in co-creating network shows without client involvement, like this year’s upcoming October Road on ABC. Here Tortorici talks about his agency’s strategy and the future of the business.

Q: GroupM Entertainment is co-producing a new drama. Why?
A: First and foremost it’s about producing good entertainment. Our goal in October Road is a hit show. There’s no way for us to game it.

What are the marketing opportunities for clients?
It’s not really about that—at least not directly. October Road is not about integration and for our clients it’s not about a relationship to the show.

That’s unusual. Most content that agencies develop is designed to connect brands and consumers.
That’s right. And most of what we do at the agency level is about that. But October Road is more about addressing the overall health of the TV business and trying to put more original programming on the air in an ultimately sane manner.

Sane in terms of financing?
That’s part of it. Our model is a little less expensive. There’s a lot of great TV on the air. The final episode of Lost was incredible television. There has to be TV like that, and like 24 and Heroes and CSI. We also need to be able to air serial dramas without a break so the audience doesn’t lose interest in the middle of the season because we tried to stretch too few episodes over too many weeks. That all comes at a cost. So the degree to which we can address any of that, even if it’s one little piece at a time, is good for our clients and good for our business.

The Dr Pepper Band in a Bubble TV and Web project, in which the rock group Cartel is literally sealed inside a bubble to produce its next album, is a huge and complex cross-platform effort. How high are the stakes for the agency?
For us it’s a big deal because we are producing something that’s really big in scope and we want it to be good. As the agency producing it, we’re going to be in the bubble as well for the next three weeks.

Dr Pepper is reportedly sinking more than 20 percent of its average annual ad spend into that project. How many clients are willing to take such risks?
For some marketers it’s as natural as doing what they’ve done before because it’s the way they think, and the way their processes work and their culture. For others, it’s absolutely terrifying, and it defies their tradition and normal ways of doing business. It’s not for everybody.

How hard do you push clients to take on branded content as part of their media mix?
It’s church and state the way we operate. And the planning people are totally Switzerland—that is, channel-neutral—about what an advertiser should be doing strategically to accomplish its marketing plans. But if original entertainment is an appropriate thing for them to do, then we certainly make our case for what we can do to get it done.

So once the planner green lights original programming, your people take over?
Not quite. The planners then encourage the clients to canvas the marketplace in a way that gets the best ideas to the table.

Then you get your shot?
Right. And we’re happy to take our chances at the table to be the best-in-market solution.

You’ve got to like your chances, though.
Good ideas come from everywhere. In TV, the high-value premium is not the ideas, but the execution. It’s no different here. We’re good at ideas, but we also know that we need to be good listeners so we can recognize and partner with others, like we did with Penny Marshall and Felicity Huffman for Dove Nights last year or with Leah Remini [for the on-going Web video series, In the Motherhood].

In the Motherhood was unique because you put two clients together for the first time in one project—Sprint and Unilever. Do you see more of that in the future?
If the match is right for both brands, the benefits are substantial. It’s a way of sharing the cost and allowing a project that might be a little [too] large in scale and scope for one brand to go forward. This is certainly a viable approach and if we can make the pieces fit together, it’s something we will definitely continue to pursue.

Network product placements were down about 4 percent in the first quarter this year, according to Nielsen. Is the bloom off the rose?
It’s hard to draw conclusions from any one specific moment. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that kind of deviation in the other direction maybe a quarter later.

Is the industry still early in the learning phase when it comes to branded entertainment and product placement?
I think so. We’re reinventing a business that has had a very significant and mature life cycle. Despite the fact that we’re all fascinated with what we’re doing in this space, the scope of it still pales in significance to what is being done in production and distribution of traditional advertising, 30-second commercials specifically. That’s still a very strong avenue for marketers and will be for some time. So in comparison to [that], we’re clearly very early.

Any thoughts on Bud.tv?
I love the idea of a brand establishing a channel that maps perfectly to its target and that authors, in a sense, what the brand experience is in the way of entertainment. As to whether or not the folks at Bud.tv got it right this particular time, only time will tell. I think with all channels, whether it’s online or a traditional TV channel, they don’t become successful overnight. It takes time.