Late last week, Scout Productions COO Eric Korsh let the marketing world know he's seeking product integrations for a new drama series about an inner-city sports team, Dorchester Eagle Football. Scout, creator of Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, expects to wrap several deals within three weeks.
That's pretty quick turnaround in the world of branded entertainment, where placement deals often require months of negotiations among myriad stakeholders. But two Web-based start-ups are trying to change the dynamics of product placement deal-making, up until now largely contained to the office suites of Hollywood and New York branded entertainment companies, producers and media agencies.
One venture, NextMedium's Embed, has created an e-commerce exchange for placements that includes an eBay-style auction process. It also offers clients the ability to gauge performance post-play through metrics jointly developed with Nielsen Media Research. The other new service, Media Matchmaker, brokers introductions between producers and marketers via the Internet.
In the process they've sparked a debate about whether or not their new business models are more efficient and effective at facilitating brand integration deals than the traditional Hollywood model. Will they essentially knock out the middleman?
Three-month-old Embed, which Scout is using on its Dorchester project, claims its online transactional model brings increased transparency and immediacy to placement deals. All subscribing clients can view what projects are available and bid from a base price set by the seller.
NextMedium CEO Hamet Watt thinks, by merging trading infrastructure with accountable measurement, his system can help clients justify incremental branded entertainment spending. "Product integration is usually bundled with other buys, or it might come out of a communications or PR budget," said Watt. "There's no standardization—people are using Post-it notes and Excel spread sheets."
Media Matchmaker, which launched its site in March, said its process can save clients hundreds of hours of wasted time searching for qualified business prospects. In addition to prescreening prospects, the company's technology helps clients keep up with the exploding number of product integration offerings, said CEO Betsy Green.
But others question just how viable the new services are in a relationship-driven business, where deals are a toss of favors and value-added. Some argue that they'll have to convince a critical mass of major producers—like the broadcast and cable networks and film studios—to use them in order to provide the scalability needed by big marketers.
That critical mass isn't there yet, said Guy McCarter, U.S. director, entertainment marketing for Omnicom's OMD. But he hopes it will be in the coming six months. "We're intrigued by the robustness of the [Embed] offer," he said, "both from the potential to identify integration opportunities for our clients and to research and evaluate on a post- analysis basis."
Yet he's taking a wait-and-see approach while testing execution on behalf of a roster that includes Nissan and JC Penney. "A rate card kind of commoditization isn't something that I would be pushing for," he said. "Due to the scale and volume of clients that we have, as well as our clout in the TV marketplace, we are always going to want to feel that we can negotiate the best deal for our client."
Production company Reveille (The Biggest Loser and The Office) is giving Embed a shot for CBS' Deer Valley Celebrity Skifest, among others. Branded entertainment vp David Norton said he signed on for its "ability to streamline and give the proof of delivery." He added, "The thing I most get asked is, 'How did I do?' Marketers want to see the value."
Like Embed, Media Matchmaker has made converts of some in the industry while prompting questions from others. Shortly after the service launched in the spring, Palisades MediaGroup used it to buy an integration for client QuikDrop in the syndicated show Countdown to Draft Day; the deal took two weeks.
"People will always know to go to Fox for American Idol, but where are you going to go for syndicated content or one-off programming?" remarked Corey Weiss, vp, Integrated Marketing & Promotions, Palisades. "It allows producers to find more nimble brands rather than having to deal with the behemoths, who allocate their dollars anywhere from six to 18 months in advance."
But, McCarter noted, Media Matchmaker does not provide clients with evaluation metrics. And the service also needs to expand its base of integration opportunities to provide scalability. Still, he said, "We're talking to them."
Prime-time network placements jump-ed 30 percent from 2004 to 2005, and accounted for 21 percent more time, according to Nielsen Media Research. Yet, only 30 percent of the roughly $4.2 billion that went to product integrations last year involved an exchange of coin; barters and freebies made up the balance.
"There's still a major disconnect between the technology-driven mentality of Silicon Valley and the entitlement approach to big media largely dominated by East Coast media," said Tim Hanlon, svp, ventures, Publicis' Denuo.
As technology introduces fresh entrants to branded entertainment, what impact will it have on Hollywood's relationship-based rites of deal-making? And it remains to be seen how many and what type of brand integration players will embrace an electronic way of doing business.
"I really don't think that the relationships are going to go away," said Reveille's Norton.
Devery Holmes, president and COO, Norm Marshall & Associates, agreed. She stressed the need to "make sure that the right stakeholders are around the table" and cautioned that the deeper strategic opportunities "are not necessarily on the page," but allowed that NMA "very well may use these services."
"Will they replace companies like Norm Marshall?" wondered Norton. "I don't know. Time will tell."