Special Report: Nontraditional Media

Alan Cohen’s bag of tricks is formidable.

Last year, to promote pay-cable net Showtime’s second season of Weeds, Cohen planted scent strips that smelled like pot in Wenner Media’s Rolling Stone. This year, he put flavor strips in the same magazine to promote the fictional liquor Duque Rum, in support of CBS’ freshman drama Cane.

Along with helping market Cane, Cohen—this year’s Media All-Star in the nontraditional media category—also placed USB sticks in Time Inc.’s Entertainment Weekly. The storage devices carried information about CBS’ Monday-night lineup, as well as network sponsor Cadillac. Then there’s the mobile channel he created to promote Lionsgate Films’ DVD release of Saw III. And the interactive movie trailers he helped produce for Lionsgate features Crank and The Condemned.

With Cohen’s work, Initiative’s profile has risen. He joined the agency in 2005 to oversee its innovations and entertainment groups. Earlier this year, he was promoted to executive vp, managing director of Initiative West, overseeing all West Coast clients and operations.

Cohen’s approach to successful marketing is pretty simple. “Everything has to come together,” he says. “You need to have the right product, you need to target the right audience, and you need to have the right creative.” But there’s a catch, he adds: “It’s difficult to have them all line up at the same time.”

Cohen, a Philadelphia native, earned his undergraduate degree from Boston University before getting his MBA from Harvard University. Following Harvard, he entered the NBC Associates program, remaining at the network for the next 14 years, gradually moving up to executive vp, marketing.

At the network, he saw the sales unit evolve from one that relied almost solely on traditional sales marketing to a savvy division that grew its own brand in innovative ways, whether it was getting NBC on American Airlines or putting Jerry Seinfeld on the side of a cereal box.

Cohen left for ABC after Disney acquired the net. Along with Chiat/Day, he helped create the network’s “TV is Good” campaign, featuring the music of British rockers Coldplay.

After six years at ABC and after having worked in TV marketing for the bulk of his career, Cohen was ready for change.

“When I hit 20 years in this business, I just didn’t know if I should produce another upfront,” he says. “I wanted to do something new.”

But throughout his career, Cohen has consistently looked for what’s new. “I’ve always been in big, traditional companies, doing new things, looking for what’s next, trying to figure out how to break new ground,” he says. “Now I’ve channeled that energy into all our clients, figuring out how to help them in their marketing strategies because it’s a whole new world, and there are so many opportunities.”

Jumping to the agency side has been particularly fulfilling for Cohen, enabling him to offer his expertise to a wide range of clients while broadening his own use of media.

Of all his campaigns, Cohen says he’s most proud of those “creating early awareness, creating word of mouth. A lot needs to be done to spark some kind of connection, where consumers themselves can spread the content.” He points to the Weeds scent strip and Cane flavor strip. “If someone tells someone and more people know [about the ad] than have seen the ad, that’s how you know you have a home run,” he says.

For its technical innovation alone, Cohen singles out the USB stick used to promote CBS’ new fall season. Cohen likens the device to a piece of Trident gum, “but half as thick.” He says he found the Asian-made device being used in Europe, for music storage.

The stick was originally conceived to promote the network’s freshman sitcom The Big Bang Theory but ended up being used to promote the network’s entire Monday night lineup. “Everyone has done a CD or a DVD in magazines,” Cohen says. “But this was a unique way to distribute entertainment content. It opened up a world of CBS to consumers that no one could really get in a spot.”

CBS marketing group president George Schweitzer agrees, recalling that when Cohen was at ABC, the two were fierce competitors. He says it’s better having Cohen on his side. “Alan understands media and the changes that are happening in the marketplace,” Schweitzer says. “Just getting the value of his experience as a marketer is a great asset to our company.”

Schweitzer isn’t the only one who sings Cohen’s praises.

“With all the options available to consumers today, it’s more important than ever to market movies in a way that’s fresh and unexpected,” says Tim Palen, Lionsgate’s co-president of theatrical marketing. “Alan understands that in his bones and he has responded with innovative, exciting media campaigns for Lionsgate. He’s a terrific partner—smart, creative and deeply attuned to who we are as a studio.”

When Cohen was hired in 2005 to lead Initiative’s innovations unit, he had four people on staff. Now, there are more than 80. In addition to winning CBS, Showtime and Lionsgate, Cohen has added to the roster Lucasarts, as well as duties for AOL, Bayer and Quizno’s.

Cohen’s expansion of the unit has, naturally, earned plaudits from his boss, Initiative CEO Richard Beaven. “Alan combines a relentless and insatiable curiosity with a real knack for getting things done,” Beaven says. “He’s someone who combines the talking with the walking.”

One example of that insatiable curiosity: Earlier this year, when Cohen was vacationing in Tokyo, he didn’t just set out to see the sights of the city—he also toured cell-phone factories, just for fun.

For Cohen, staying on top of things in an ever-changing media landscape is his idea of fun.

“You’ve got to expose yourself to things that other people don’t see,” Cohen says. “It allows you to have ideas that no one else will have.”