Open Minds
Dervilla Kelly, Randi Silverman, Shari Cohen, Tobias Wolf, Catie Scaglione, John Nitti, David Cohen and Lana Shtraham

The benchmark of a successful media plan is whether the client wants to repeat it in a second cycle. MindShare’s plan for American Express’ Open: The Small Business Network to sponsor NBC reality show The Restaurant with product integration and commercial spots worked so well last summer that a similar sponsorship package is airing this summer on the Bravo reality series Blow Out.

In follow-up surveys of small-business owners, the target audience of the plan, recall for AmEx’s Open, as a result of The Restaurant sponsorship, was 10 times greater than for the typical American Express TV ads. During the airing of The Restaurant, the average call volume to American Express about its Open Small Business Network increased by 40 percent, and the application volume rose by 30 percent. Results like this are the reason MindShare took top honors in the Best Use of Television And/Or Cable category.

“The Restaurant sponsorship was an unqualified success,” says Dervilla Kelly, senior partner and group planning director at MindShare. “It drove business results and generated breakthrough on awareness and imagery metrics for the Open Network.”

Kelly says the media plan involving The Restaurant stemmed from brainstorming sessions involving an Integrated Agency Leadership Team that included executives from MindShare (Kelly and Shari Cohen, managing director of network buying); sister ad agency Ogilvy & Mather (Terry Martin, managing supervisor); American Express marketing company Momentum (Mark Dowley, then chairman and CEO, and Andrew Wensberg, president); and direct marketing company Digitas (marketing director Sheila Darviche).

Since the Open Network was a new service, sessions were held with prospective customers to ascertain their needs. Based on information from these sessions, it was decided that a good way to show how the Network could be used was by actual example, on television—via the reality show that could show it in action.

“From these sessions, we learned that word of mouth from peers was helpful in decision-making, and we felt what better way to educate the small-business community about why this new service was relevant to them than by showing them how Rocco [DiSpirito] used it [during his Restaurant startup].”

The Restaurant media plan included assorted ways of integrating the Open Small Business Network in the show. In the opening credits, the camera zoomed in to the front door with an Open Network sign on it. During most of the episodes, there were swipes of an American Express card or quick shots of the card being handed off or on a table. On a number of occasions, DiSpirito sent his staff to apply for a line of credit through the Open Network to pay for unexpected expenses when he ran out of cash.

The in-show integration was supplemented with 30-second commercial spots at the beginning and end of the show, with DiSpirito doing a testimonial about the Open Small Business Network. And to draw attention to the show, 30-second commercial spots about the Open Network were bought on other TV networks, as well as on local TV stations around the country. The “Do You Know Me?” ads, featuring DiSpirito, were created by Ogilvy & Mather.

While the show was airing, direct-mail solicitations for joining the Open Network were also sent out, and local print, radio and online ads appeared. In total, the campaign cost about $40 million.

During its original six-episode run, The Restaurant ranked 16th out of 103 prime-time shows in the plan’s target 25-54 audience demo, Kelly says.

While some TV critics panned The Restaurant for its product placement—Coor’s and Mitsubishi also had integration deals on the show—American Express’ target customers were not turned off by it, research showed. “We did follow-up panels and asked viewers about the appropriateness of the integration, and about 80 percent of our small-business audience thought it was appropriate,” Kelly says. “They also clearly identified with Rocco and the situations he faced.”

Kelly says what made the plan particularly effective was that it was for a product launch and that the target audience could see firsthand how that product could be used, rather than just hearing about it in commercials. “Where there is innovation, there is risk, and there was some risk here,” Kelly says. “But we felt we couldn’t be as effective with just 30-second commercials. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do. It was a laborious task [to integrate the Open Network into the show]. But it became must-see for small-business owners.”

With follow-up research showing that the small-business audience wants to see more business startup situations like The Restaurant, American Express decided to sponsor Blow Out, another new-business-themed show from Magna Global Entertainment, creator of The Restaurant. Blow Out follows renowned hairstylist Jonathan Antin as he opens his own hair salon.

After the airing of The Restaurant, says Kelly, a survey of small-business people showed a 65 percent recall of the Open Network campaign and placement on the show, the highest of all the show’s sponsors.

“Based on the success of The Restaurant, we decided to do the same with Blow Out,” Kelly says. “That’s a testament to the success of the plan for The Restaurant.”

John Consoli is a senior editor who covers network TV for Mediaweek.