In Hollywood, the product placement system, and actually the overall Hollywood system itself, is very much the 1 per cent talking to the 1 per cent. Backroom deals and long-standing relationships among the elite are par for the course. Additionally, the myriad layers of people involved in any deal, be they agents, managers, brand managers and the like, oftentimes take the process to a pain-inducing crawl. The back and forth wastes time.
The arbitrary nature of the process can either leave money on the table or make it fly away in bloated, overvalued deals. There are no real standards, and in that respect, Hollywood still maintains a “Wild West” mentality. Additionally, filmmakers, producers and actors, the other 99 per cent who aren’t in the rarefied air of big-time Hollywood, tend to be frozen out of the opportunity to help fund or monetize projects and work. For brands, it’s even more tenuous, as most don’t even know where to begin in the first place.
Brandwood Global, the world’s first global online marketplace for branded entertainment, is looking to make some serious change to the current system and has come out of beta, which began in September 2015, launching a full, public version of an incredibly in-depth but useful proprietary platform that, in its simplest form, matches the right talent and projects to the right brands. Created by industry veterans Stephanie and Larry Weier, the platform and its founders are aiming to truly disrupt the long-standing model.
Both have deep and impressive Hollywood experience. Stephanie was at Universal Studios for 12 years until 2001 and Larry was there for 25, where they both built the model of handling and executing brand and entertainment deals. Both are credited with doing deals on thousands of projects including film, TV and digital content, and used their backgrounds and love of technology to build an original model for the studio, which was subsequently purchased. Stephanie then started Clearance Domain, a rights permission and product placement agency, which became the Domain Group in 2010. She started working on Brandwood Global in June 2014.
“We’re not against Hollywood at all,” said Stephanie Weier, CEO and co-founder, speaking exclusively to The Drum. "And we’re not trying to rebuild Hollywood; we’re looking to build a new Hollywood — one with a much more level playing field where all levels of creative people and brands have a shot to be successful.”
For all of its glitz and glamour, technology has not hit Hollywood in a meaningful way related to brands and brand placement deals. Sure, the on-screen product is rife with special effects and that side of technology is on constant and impressive display. But the down and dirty deal-making involves a clunky process that not many people are willing to change — though Weier sees opportunity and honestly just wants Hollywood to be able to improve.
“I think everybody is asleep at the wheel, basically. It's been like that for a long, long time,” said Weier. “As we're innovating with technology, Hollywood refuses to really innovate the business side of how they do deals. This is just, I feel, one nail in the coffin of the old way. Not the only nail in the coffin but certainly one towards a new paradigm in Hollywood — a new way for helping Hollywood actually do its job better, more efficiently.”
What’s telling is that, as technology swirls around in daily lives, the memo may have reached the powers that be, but it is not being acted upon. For their part, Brandwood and Weier have pushed hard and have, to this point, received enthusiastic thumbs up.
“So far, actually, [Hollywood] has been very, very positive about the paradigm shift. I think everybody is hungry for it in their hearts but they just don't know how to fix it, so what we’re doing makes sense,” noted Weier. “They see it with Airbnb, they see it with Zillow and Uber, they see the innovation happening and it's helping their lives in other areas, but they haven’t really had that ‘Oh, I hadn't thought about that for what I do everyday’ moment until now.’”
The right entertainment deal: ROI for brands and agencies
There is a great deal of research, and agita, around advertising and consumer aversion. Ad blocking and skipping are constant sticking points. Hard-sell advertising is another bugaboo that is painting the industry in an unflattering light. In fact, according to a PwC study, 62 per cent of brands are moving to “soft advertising” such as brand integration and product placement — and content, whether it comes from Hollywood or not, is still ripe and desirable territory to be explored, not just for the caché, but also for meaningful results.
Weier stated, “I’ve worked with big brand clients for over 20 years that have always at some point said, ‘how do we get onto that TV show, how do we get into that movie?’”
Additionally, brands today are much more focused on targeting, KPIs and ROI, something that has not been a hallmark of the current scattershot system where a deal is done, executed and who knows what happens. Brandwood’s platform works with any brand, anywhere in the world and nips that issue in the bud with proprietary, non-intrusive technology that works across a brand or publisher platform in the background, as a white label option, to track conversions and sales. Weier and her team continue to evolve the technology to be more useful and malleable and it shows great promise in assuaging ROI concerns.
Further, for brands, the “gatekeeper effect” can be detrimental.
“I've got the larger brands who are saying, ‘We're not getting any traction with our brand agents. We don't know what they're doing. We're paying but we're not really seeing the results. Oh, you're saying we can use you and either not use our agent or would you bring us in with these, or non-exclusively use you in addition to them?’ We're saying, ‘Yes. That way you can get exactly what you're looking for and you don't have to wait for the gatekeeper to bring you what they feel is a good idea,'” said Weier.
Crazily enough, there are no real valuation benchmarks for deals. Most of the time, the value is arbitrary and can either be a great value for brands or a colossal waste of money and effort, especially as media and content’s gray areas continue to morph.
“The biggest complaint I see in private PR and marketing forums that deal with bloggers and influencers and YouTube stars, people who are behind brand dollars and happy to negotiate with these kids, frankly; is there's no uniformity to pricing. There's no standards and plenty of confusion around what should actually be asked for and what a particular deal is worth because different influencers view themselves, obviously differently,” said Weier.
A talent’s value is one thing, but the bigger issue of what deals are actually, or should be worth, still looms large, though there are troves of intel and, by extension, data.
“The valuation is one of those watershed moments because everybody is trying to price the deal and nobody thought to build an algorithm. Based on doing the deals, what they know is enough to be viable to close the deal,” said Weier. “No one ever said, ‘Let's create a database that tracks all these deal closings, so we know what that value is.’ They've always kept that very hidden. Private databases are tightly held and if someone retires or gets out of the business, all the information from all those years and experiences is gone. What we're trying to do is save that information, harness it and allow it to be used in the industry from us going forward so we can actually help price the marketplace.”
Democratizing the deals, yet keeping big brands happy
The technology of the platform is deep, but also familiar enough to brands and agencies working in the programmatic space — and likely its most important feature is its efficiency, taking all parties involved through the entire process, including legal and funding, which is usually arduous, clunky and rife with peril.
But the first part of the journey is the match that both sides can use to their advantage. Talent (or representatives), for example, can go on to the platform and build a profile that includes their experience, things they have worked on and what they are willing to align themselves with. Filmmakers can also benefit by uploading all of the relevant information about their project. Conversely, brands and agencies can work with the system to find the right matches.
What makes Brandwood different, however, is the democratization and flattening of the system, allowing those without the connections or seven-figure budgets to have a seat at the table. Even small brands who are looking for highly-targeted “hometown heroes” can take advantage.
“The way the system is designed — it doesn't exclude the Hollywood ad agency paradigm. It embraces it, but it allows the little guys to also have us basically watching out for them. Everybody can now do a deal, and it's not just limited to the people who have high-priced attorneys or agents,” said Weier.
However, the inclusive nature doesn’t exclude those who have been in the game for a while. In fact, as noted, the entire enterprise is designed to make the process more efficient and effective — from the smaller deals to the major studio behemoth placements. At present, platform partners include around 120 brands, three ad agencies, four talent agencies and around 300 talent (including actors, celebrities, influencers, athletes). Due to the nature of the system and Weier’s philosophy, the platform is borderless, opening up opportunity for the endless pipeline of talent, content creators and brands who don’t necessarily work the closed Hollywood system.
"As a digital agency creating both original and contract entertainment properties as well as our licensing our own original platform, we instantly saw the brilliance behind Brandwood,” said Eric Speier, partner at 5ecreative, a creative development agency in Santa Monica. “Never before could we hope to curate product placement deals for all sizes of projects and campaigns. Everyone wins without all the headaches and legal fees. This is disruption at its finest.”
The DNA of a good deal
If anyone knows the DNA of a good deal, it’s Stephanie Weier. She also knows that the complexity and blurring of entertainment content lines is endless. That’s why, despite all of the technology built so far, the company retains a consulting practice — bringing together the power of the platform and the personal skills and experience to help guide agencies, especially, through the maze that is brand and product placement.
“It's a little bit of a hybrid of being a strategist agency for ad agencies and helping them use the software,” said Weier. “What we do is we curate inventory that we have available on site for their specific campaigns that they have operating for these brands. What we're doing is we're advising them of what we have available so they can take it to the brand client. These are opportunities that have been created in Brandwood already. There's somebody on the supply side looking for a brand. We’re not making it up. Then we basically will set the match up to happen based on the parameters that the supply side is looking for. We'll know how much they're looking for, what kind of brands they're looking for, what goods and services, and then we can advise from that point.”
The high-touch is especially helpful but underscores Weier’s commitment to working the best deals possible — and her track record is indisputable. One specific deal that Weier loved, for its ideals and impact was for Steve Carrell in “Crazy Stupid Love.” Finding out that Carrell loved fashion brand Canali, Weier worked the relationship perfectly into the script, where Carrell makes his transformation to a “new man” — and the brand was ever-present throughout.
“It worked out beautifully. They got tons of exposure, tons of credit for that,” said Weier. “It was one of those successes where we went on to the red carpet [with Carrell wearing the brand]. I guess that was my favorite moment because it was about a relationship being built and negotiated for the long term, not just the quick get-in-get-out like a commercial.”
At present, Weier is working on a tactical clothing and coffee placement for an action-comedy featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and is in progress with possible deals in a Sean Penn film. Additionally, Weier is working with an up-and-coming filmmaker in Chicago and venerable sports car brand Lamborghini.
“For whatever reason, it matches whatever their goals are in their marketing department,” said Weier. “Hollywood can never guess what that is, so why should they even try? Why don't you let the brands tell you what they want to do instead of trying to force them into your round hole.”
But one of her favorites to date is a YouTube project, a platform and medium that scads of talented people are attempting to leverage and monetize. It involved the “Mystery Guitar Man,” who, at the time, had around 3m subscribers. The placement was interesting — Hybrid Solar Light, a solar flashlight. But, from beginning to end, the process was productive.
“Everybody walked away thrilled. That brought that brand to do two more deals with us, plus he brought in another whole company that he just bought,” said Weier.
Mystery Guitar Man is one of thousands of creators who is breaking the traditional mold and have come out of nowhere to build an audience and become influential. His is a happy story. However, people at the higher levels struggle, despite the profile of their work. Weier points to well-known producers and filmmakers, with strong credits to their names, playing the role of starving artists because they are not part of the studio system and think that they can’t get into the mix.
All of these people, not just necessarily the work, are brands unto themselves and should, in Weier’s eyes, have every opportunity afforded to them.
“People are tired of this old paradigm,” said Weier, “People should be engaged [in the process] and be able to monetize their work so that they can continue to grow.”