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In February, McCann-Erickson WorldGroup announced an acquisition that drew little notice in the ad business: Hollywood publicity firm PMK. In the world of Madison Avenue deal making, this was a yawn. McCann's Momentum Worldwide promotions group-hardly a well-known entity-agreed to buy an even more obscure firm in a low-margin business.
Outside of Tinseltown and the media mavens who feed at its table, PMK is invisible.
Its three female principals don't resemble the clich d, fast-life ranks of the Armani-clad, BMW-driving men at industry stalwarts
Creative Artists Agency or William Morris. One of the most sought-after lunches in a power-lunching town, PMK's Pat Kingsley, 67, prefers to eat pizza in her small, scuffed office. A big night out is a stint at the gym before going to her Pacific Palisades home for an evening with Angie, her Maltese. In conversation, the lanky, athletic publicist is taciturn and measured, a reserve befitting the keeper of Hollywood's juiciest secrets.
In New York, her 71-year-old co-founder/partner Lois Smith looks forward to Rockland County and a quiet home life populated by her former journalist husband, children and grandchildren. But this being show business, appearances are deceiving. PMK's trio of owners-44-year-old Leslee Dart in New York is the third-are arguably the entertainment industry's most powerful, behind-the-scenes PR advisors.
PMK's career counsel transcends mere image control; its clients often seek advice on how a particular professional association will impact their public persona. In a town where power is measured by who takes your calls, PMK is on the speed dial of Hollywood's
A-list: Cruise. Hanks. Kidman. Stone.
Pfeiffer. Damon. Depp. Scorsese.
PMK rewrote the rules of public relations by redefining how to use the media as a promotional tool for celebrities. In teaming with the world's largest agency network-which years ago lost Coca-Cola work to Hollywood interloper Michael Ovitz-PMK takes that idea further: It's redefining the association between Madison Avenue and Hollywood.
Already, Momentum, the fastest-growing unit within New York-based McCann,
specializes in leveraging personalities and events in the sports world for marketers such as General Motors, Coca-Cola, L'Oreal, Anheuser-Busch and Sprint.
"This acquisition is strategic, it's not about balance sheet," says McCann vice chairman Michael Sennott. "In sports, we know there's a deep relationship between fans and teams. There's an emerging sense of that same relationship between fans and entertainment personalities. These big stars are brands, just as Michael Jordan is a brand. Maybe bigger, since they're global icons. We know from our business [that] consumers relate to brands as they do people. Now we're flipping the problem. How do consumers relate to people as brands?"
Momentum chief executive Mark Dowley, who first contacted PMK two years ago, admits he hasn't worked out all the details of their partnership. He's clear, however, on what it won't be.
"The sports model is an easy one to understand. I know how to put together a Buick Open. But entertainment is far less structured than sports. In Hollywood, it's historically been endorsements, product placement. That's tired. We're not going to put Tom Cruise behind the wheel of a Buick. We're looking for something subtle," Dowley says. "As a marketer, the question is: How do I develop a strategic relationship with someone in Hollywood? That's been a mystery to us, a mystery to clients. Finding answers to that question is taking on new urgency as promotional dollars shift out of sports and into entertainment."
True, it's hard to quantify that movement of money. But remember that Americans now spend more on entertainment-they shell out an estimated $480 billion annually-than on clothing or healthcare.
On a more visceral level, the past year has provided growing evidence of show business' hold on a consumer culture that already shares a first-name intimacy with Oprah and Rosie. In The Truman Show and EdTV, filmmakers analyzed the anointment of fame in a world where media is the secular God. Andy Warhol's "15 minutes of fame" prediction has become obsolete. Film and culture writer Neal Gabler argues that the entertainment industry has become the template through which people view the world 24 hours a day.
"Celebrity is by now old news, but it says a great deal about modern America that no society has ever had as many celebrities as ours or has revered them so intensely. Not only are celebrities the protagonists of our news, the subjects of our daily discourse and the repositories of our values, but they have also embedded themselves so deeply in our consciousness that many individuals profess feeling closer to, and more passionate about, them than their own primary relationships.
"Witness the torrents of grief unleashed by the sudden death of Princess Diana in 1997. As Diana confirmed, celebrity is the modern state of grace-the condition in the life movie to which nearly everyone aspires. Once we sat in movie theaters dreaming of stardom. Now we live in a movie dreaming of celebrity," Gabler writes in his new book, Life The Movie.
The set designers and costumers for that real-life movie are the consumer marketers that create the attitudes, the look, the labels, that bring us closer to celebrity perfection. In a marketplace where image is product, many of PMK's clients share the same concerns as those at Momentum.
Sharon Stone, recalls Dowley, called him after the acquisition to learn more about the resources McCann had to offer. When he finally called her back-initially, he thought a friend playing a prank placed the call-she offered "good insight into the world she operates in every day," says Dowley. Stone is currently discussing marketing opportunities with Momentum.
Unlike Momentum's experience in the sports world-in which an athlete's fame is stoked through high-profile endorsements- it's a trickier situation in Hollywood. Celebrities don't want to be perceived as high-paid shills. Not that they're uninterested in working with advertisers. You could fill Spago with the superstars hawking products on Japanese TV. What PMK and Momentum envision are less obvious partnerships between Hollywood and Madison Avenue.
That's not to diminish the scale of
Dowley's ambitions about the union with PMK. He sees the association as a way for clients to tap the creative firepower which influences the tastes and interests of consumers. In that regard, he says, PMK doubles as a source of early intelligence.
"Our clients are always interested in the power of Hollywood. Look at what Spielberg did for the popularity of the dinosaur industry. You had 9-year-olds becoming little
paleontologists. Just think if we could have told marketers about that in advance of Jurassic Park's release," he says.
If done well, everyone wins. Momentum and McCann's clients grab the attention of celebrity-obsessed consumers, and PMK gets an additional opportunity to keep the Hollywood hype machine spinning. Plus, the ad business regains some lost glamour.
"What I see from this new association is promotions-not advertising, not things like boring toothpaste commercials. If some company has a new car coming out, for instance, they might want to attach it to a new film starring one of our clients," Kingsley says.
Dart cites current promotions-though not done by McCann or Momentum-that use PMK clients' films in a way that could serve as a future blueprint for
joint-marketing endeavors.
For example, Max Factor just launched A Midsummer Night's Dream color collection of makeup inspired by the upcoming film starring PMK actresses Michelle Pfeiffer and Calista Flockhart. The company is reprinting the movie posters as collateral and using them in a print campaign modeled after Midsummer's promotional imagery. The ad copy encourages consumers to "experience" the film and gives a plug to its studio and distributor. Max Factor is even doing in-theater partnering, offering ticket buyers incentives to try the product line. "The glamour of the entertainment industry is a natural extension of our roots," says Todd Magazine, Max
Factor's North American marketing director.
Even more striking is a four-page print campaign Grand Marnier is running that features outakes from Notting Hill, the new movie PMK is representing, which includes PMK client Hugh Grant. Dart, convinced the campaign was a great idea, told Grant he should do it. That the ad is running only in
Vanity Fair in an issue where Notting Hill star Julia Roberts is on the cover "is simply an accident of timing," says Dart.
PMK's preference for subtle associations between stars and marketers can be seen in the pitch American Express has run for two years that promotes its annual scholarship donations to the American Film Institute on behalf of Academy Award nominees. The ads show the stars' AmEx cards, some of whom are PMK clients. "Actors like it because it's for a good cause and not an endorsement," says Smith.
Hollywood also stands to gain from this new source of marketing support. "It's good for McCann clients because they're part of the excitement surrounding a new release. It's good for us because it's extra, necessary promotion in support of the film," says Kingsley. "Releasing movies has become so expensive. An average big film costs anywhere from $30-50 million to make and another $30-40 million to market. Studios can't keep up with that escalation in costs. Everything to support the film in advance of its critical opening weekend is important."
Among the 170-plus clients PMK boasts are: Richard Gere, Al Pacino, Jodie Foster,
Mariah Carey, Neve Campbell, Lisa Kudrow, Woody Allen, Robert Redford, Oliver Stone, Demi Moore, Ralph Fiennes, Emma Thompson, Matthew McConaughey, Rosie O'Donnell, Ron Howard, Goldie Hawn, Sally Fields and Candice Bergen. Kingsley represented the film projects of the late Dodi Al-Fayed, whose death alongside Diana has made the publicist skittish about the tabloid world of celebrity her clients inhabit.
She's watched the evolution of screaming headlines into mainstream media for decades. The one-time secretary, who owned half of PMK at the time of sale, created its predecessor company 28 years ago. Starting out in her first publicity job at Miami's Fountainbleau Hotel during its heyday in the mid-'50s, she took care of actors such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who performed for Sunday night broadcasts of the Colgate Comedy Hour. Kingsley would go on to work at the Hollywood PR firm Rogers & Cowan-now also owned by McCann's parent, the Interpublic Group of Cos. She stayed there 12 years before starting her own company with Smith and another partner.
Long gone are the days when columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons controlled Hollywood spin. In the early '70s, after the demise of the old studio contract system-and its in-house publicists-actors had to line up their own public relations advisers. In an industry where perception is image and rumors travel at the speed of the Internet, PMK is known for its fierce protection of clients' interests. (Says one high-profile editor: "They're the PR company you would want on your side if you're in the public eye.") Kingsley is as well-known for her advice to decline media or advertiser requests as she is to agree to them. When approached with a purchase proposal last September by Dowley, she was cautious, not to mention curious, about the ambitious 31-year-old executive. "Do you have a wallet big enough to be talking like this?" Dowley recalls Kingsley bluntly asking.
Kingsley had no interest in earlier overtures from companies like William Morris that wanted to reconfigure PMK into an agents firm. But she began to warm to Momentum's promotional focus and was impressed with Dowley's work for clients like AT&T in the 1996 Olympic village in Atlanta. For their part, Dowley and his McCann colleagues quickly realized PMK's instincts weren't so different from their own.
Says Sennott: "Pat and her partners treat their clients like brands, with great care, integrity and a dedication to intrinsic talent. They wouldn't want to be called brand managers. But on an intuitive level, their thinking is very similar to the way we work for our clients: long-term and strategic."
Dowley, who was courted by CAA to bring his sports-marketing expertise to Hollywood, concurs. "They build and manage celebrity brands very well. It's fascinating to see how adept they are at constantly relaunching them. This summer, Tom Cruise is in the [Stanley] Kubrick film [Eyes Wide Shut]. Then he'll be a totally different character in a sequel to Mission Impossible."
If PMK's partners think like brand managers, they evaluate client publicity vehicles as well as any top media planner. The trio are alternately feared, despised and respected by journalists for their tough stance on behalf of clients. In fear of losing their star covers, few magazine editors are willing to go on the record with anything less than glowing praise for PMK.
Graydon Carter, editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, offers the most realistic assessment: "One of the reasons PMK has gotten bigger and better over the years is the professional way they handle themselves and their clients. They keep their word. I try to keep my word. But if something big happens and we have to make a cover change-and it's happened once or twice-they're pretty good about it. If there have been problems in the past, things are usually a little cool for six months and then it's fine again."
Client Calista Flockhart, the Ally McBeal star whose weight has been the topic of relentless scrutiny, recently canceled a Today interview because the show's producers refused to avoid questions PMK felt
Flockhart had already answered publicly.
Kingsley makes no apologies about such preemptive safety measures. From her Los Angeles base, Kingsley works for Al Pacino and Richard Gere in New York, while
Manhattan-based Dart and Smith handle L.A. stars like Tom Hanks and Dustin Hoffman, respectively.
Smith is as known for keeping her stars out of the media as she is for managing their good press. Close to clients like Robert Redford, she wears sensible shoes and exudes motherly reassurance about making the right decision. In fact, she's become a kind of surrogate mom to client Rosie O'Donnell-who calls during a journalist's interview-and was in the same University of Southern California graduating class with Dart's mother, whom she didn't know.
Dart, recently married and a new mother, was made a third owner 14 years ago. Her handling of the media-who can forget Hugh Grant's humorous mea culpa on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno?-is as deft as the ingenuity she employs to protect her stars. Dart reluctantly confirms the details of her efforts to whisk Grant out of L.A. after the Divine Brown incident.
She booked a private plane into a small local L.A. airport and stayed in constant phone contact with him as he flew to
Teterboro Airport in New Jersey en route to England. She met him during the layover and they detoured to his brother's place in Manhattan. Dart had Grant change into the pilot's uniform while she slipped into stewardess garb and jumped on the airline crew's van into the city where her husband was waiting in their car. (Even with all these stealth precautions, photographers were still waiting at Grant's brother's place.)
What does this creative celebrity handling cost? PMK's area of expertise is conducted in a business carrying margins lower than corporate PR or crisis-management firms. Depending on the project, a star client pays $3,500 a month, while movie promotions can fetch up to $10,000. Even so, PMK has been profitable since the day the company opened, the partners say. Revenues in 1998 are estimated at $7 million.
The McCann transaction was recently completed, but it's clear the PMK partners have thought through the mutual benefits of the Momentum affiliation. "We can look ahead to what's happening in future movies. Often, we see scripts and casting ideas before films go into production; we might see an opportunity for a cell phone marketer or a car manufacturer," Dart explains. Which might bring new sources of financing for client projects.
Adds Smith: "Can we have an advantageous effect on the cost of a film? Maybe we can by providing a producer some upfront money through marketing in a deal where a company can gain from back-end marketing."
Momentum, of course, isn't the only company to target Hollywood. J. Walter Thompson just brought in Marina Hahn, head of the East Coast corporate advisory group at William Morris, New York, for the new post of executive vice president for strategy and entertainment. Her mandate is to find new ways for the agency to work with Hollywood.
Other shops are also exploring ways to leverage star power for clients. "Entertainment attracts eyeballs. It's that simple," says Bruce Redditt, a former Sony Entertainment executive who now works as an executive vice president at Omnicom, helping to identify acquisition targets. "People like Tom Cruise and Michelle Pfeiffer are brands in their own right, and when you associate your brands with theirs, you have the whole synergy logic working."
Clearly, it's no longer marketers like Pepsi targeting youth through their teenage idols. New "Got milk?" ads with Mike Myers, in all his Austin Powers silliness, could easily be mistaken for a pitch hyping the upcoming sequel to his earlier movie. And Madonna-whose career could easily be a marketing case study at the Harvard Business School-is currently appearing in Max Factor ads in Europe and Asia, which reinforce her own diva image. (It's not yet decided whether the campaign will appear in the U.S.)
"Everyone's looking at this. You're crazy not to. But it's curious the way McCann is getting into it through PMK, with its emphasis on film stars," says one competitor. "PMK may be the industry gold standard, but I'm not convinced this will work. We're more interested in looking at developing television properties for clients."
Momentum has no doubt that leveraging PMK's client associations will pay off. But there are other reasons the deal was attractive. "It's part of our ongoing strategy to invest in high-quality companies which are growing at faster rates than the agency business," says IPG chief executive Phil Geier.
For PMK, there were compelling financial reasons to sell. Though Smith and Kingsley deny plans to leave PMK anytime soon, the sale-for an estimated $9 million-provides retirement security, while preserving the firm's future. McCann will also provide the PR company with new international reach.
Perhaps most important, as the entertainment industry positions itself for the future, is McCann's wider range of expertise. "Media is all encompassing and the publicity business is still in the Stone Age," says VF's Carter. "McCann now gives PMK the access to the resources, research and technology to build their business in a way they couldn't on their own, particularly when you consider the onslaught of convergence."
Convergence will bring more commercial messages into an already oversaturated advertising environment. As marketers scramble to find ways to make connections with consumers, entertainment provides a potent way to break through the clutter. Consumers, after all, gravitate to what they enjoy.
And if Dowley is excited about PMK as an entr e to Hollywood's cultural think tank, the sports marketer hasn't lost sight of his promotional mission. He talks about the Oscars as a new Super Bowl for marketers.
"You have 30 billion impressions around the world in 30 days. Designers have made fashion a separate side event," he says. "There's a lot of opportunity there."
Two months ago, Oscar presenters were given a party "favor" basket of luxury gifts from marketers aiming to bask in the light of Hollywood's golden night. Weighing in at 60 pounds, the $10,000 party favor included Armani ties, Ferragamo scarves, Nikon cameras, Waterman fountain pens, JBL CD systems, United Airlines upgrades, Peninsula Beverly Hills spa treatments, Tag Heuer watches, Christofle champagne flutes.
Not that anyone is breaking out the bubbly to celebrate the success of PMK's new partnership with Momentum-yet. Within six months, the early fruits of collaboration will begin to appear. PMK isn't offering any hints of what to expect.
"If we do this right," Smith smiles, "you won't be able to see the connection at all." ƒ