Exclusive Interview: Electus's Ben Silverman
By Anna Carugati
PREMIUM: Ben Silverman, the founder and chairman of Electus, talks to World Screen about attracting brands to the programming he produces.
WS: What do advertisers want from television?
SILVERMAN: They just want to continue to have their brand messages heard by the consumer. They are concerned by how digital delivery and technology are putting power in the hands of consumers to opt out of watching their brand messages. They are trying to find ways to connect more deeply to the content itself. But the main goal of all advertisers is a very simple thesis, which is to sell more stuff. There are some who do it for branding, but the net result of most advertising goals is the same.
WS: They want to make the cash register ring, right?
WS: How have you seen the relationship between producers and advertisers evolve? What does it take to get them to sit down and work together?
SILVERMAN: There is still a lot of resistance from both sides because of the big institutional bias that the major advertising holding companies have, along with the traditional broadcast and cable sales operations, which really would prefer the status quo. There are only a couple of individuals inside both those organizations or inside specific brands or at creative companies, like ours, that are trying to bring everyone into the conversation. There are still a lot of actors and writers and creatives who don’t want to engage with brands at all, and there are a lot of brand people who are very uncomfortable engaging with writers and creative producers, so it’s by no means a marketplace yet. But it is clearly an evolving form with roots in history and also with so much opportunity as technology keeps expanding where and how consumers consume.
WS: What are some examples of where you have seen branded entertainment work?
SILVERMAN: There have been a number of brands in the past. Procter & Gamble has done everything from soap operas to China’s Got Talent. Chrysler and Fiat have leveraged their relationship to Fashion Star and their relationship to Jennifer Lopez inside American Idol, and during the American Music Awards when she drove a Fiat 500. That was an amazing on-stage integration that really popped for them. Those are two are examples of big companies that you wouldn’t necessarily think are driving innovation, but because they have a tradition and history of doing product integration, they are able to go back to their roots and re-engineer it for today. That is really interesting.
What we did on The Biggest Loser with General Mills was also really strong, where we had a licensing and merchandising relationship not just a branding/marketing relationship. The General Mils partnership was valuable and worked for both sides. They were pushing things like gluten free and going after the same concepts as we do inside the show, so it worked organically.
WS: Tell us about Fashion Star and how you were able to bring in three huge retailers, Macy's, H&M and Saks Fifth Avenue, into the show.
SILVERMAN: That show is dependent on retailers being the buyers because it makes it a real game show. Instead of game shows that are totally false and fake where contestants play for the television network’s money, here they were playing for the real business world. That’s why it worked so well and we had such a loyal audience. If the show is coming back it’s because of the truth inherent in the roles those brands play in that show, which is as decision makers and prize givers.
WS: For any of the shows you have on your slate, are you reaching out for advertiser involvement?
SILVERMAN: We’re always looking at brands and trying to link up where it makes sense. We’re working very closely with them around a number of our shows and there is certainly opportunity for them to be involved. Just as Mission Impossible the movie had a deal with BMW, you’re seeing all forms of content where advertisers are finding connection points and becoming partners. It goes back to the days of the Walt Disney movies when they would make the massive partnerships with the McDonalds and the Coca-Colas. Now you’re seeing it start to develop on a show-by-show basis and we are constantly trying to tell the advertisers what we are doing earlier and earlier, so that if they do want to get involved they can really bring assets to the table and also some creativity as to how their involvement would work.
WS: Because you’ve had a successful track record in branded entertainment, do you encounter less resistance from advertising companies than other producers might?
SILVERMAN: We are not carpetbaggers; we are a real long-term player in this space, so with that comes obvious credibility and connections. Just as we are in the international-distribution space, where we are very aggressive in selling third-party rights—because we really believe in entrepreneurs and independent producers and can represent those rights in a transparent way—it’s the same with our advertising partnerships. We don’t want one-offs; we want long-term relationships. That’s not the normal way Hollywood people operate.
WS: Are advertisers reluctant to enter programming partnerships because they feel they are at the mercy of producers and might not get their product included in the show?
SILVERMAN: It’s more that they are at the mercy of the networks. The networks create a lot of the rules that make it hard. But the main reason that it hasn’t happened is that the biggest part of advertisers’ budgets are their media budgets. Unless the show has a home and a clear distribution plan, it’s hard to get them involved early because they don’t know how to evaluate the show from an investment standpoint, unless it has a specific network.
Right now it’s just harder for them to take the leap because the bulk of their budgets is dependent on understanding specifically the distribution platforms. If you are talking to someone about an idea, and don’t have the best distribution platform in place, it’s really difficult. We have some internal proprietary tools that we use since we’ve hired people who used to work on the advertising side to work on our side, just to talk to and connect with the advertisers around valuation and risk.
WS: Working with advertisers will take time, won’t it?
SILVERMAN: Exactly, you’re talking about a $70-billion business, so if you just move the needle half a percent every year or two it’s a sizeable shift. America, because it’s deregulated, is by far the leading experimenter and thought leader in how to integrate [brands]. And because the majority of global businesses’ media budgets are managed out of New York City, it is also an advantage to the Americans as we look to roll out these deals and work globally with brands to help our network partners offset risk and to deliver more hits.
WS: Tell us about the new projects you are working on.
SILVERMAN: We are doing three channels on YouTube, for which we are making premium content. We have a series with Sofia Vergara on our Latin-oriented channel called Neuvon. It’s an amazing reality series following Sofia and her son, which is getting a lot of views and a lot of attention. K-Town with Tyrese Gibson and the team that created Jersey Shore about Korean Americans is going on our pop-culture channel LOUD. And we were recently able to snag the Ace of Cakes star Duff Goldson to be one of the first stars on our food network, Hungry. We are building out some amazing content that will also work around the world on television networks as well as digital platforms.
We will be bringing some great new series to MIPCOM, including our Jennie Garth series, the star of the original Beverly Hills, 90210 and a wonderful actress, in a reality show following her, Jennie Garth: A Little Bit Country. We have Car Lot Cowboy, which is about a car salesman helping other car salesmen, which is really fun. We are going into production this fall on the massive, epic Marco Polo and we have two huge Mob Wives spin-offs, one that I think will be even more successful than Mob Wives itself, called Big Ang, following this incredible character called Big Ang, who owns a bar called The Drunken Monkey, will appeal to anyone who has ever been interested in the mob, the mafia, and Chicago Mob Wives, too. We have all of those shows in the market, along with Fashion Star.
We also have a sitcom we are working on for NBC with Jessica Simpson where she plays herself, a little bit like in I Love Lucy. The Hero, an action-filled series featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. And TV Land has picked up the pilot for the comedy I'm Not Dead Yet starring Elliot Gould and Ben Falconer. And we have the film Mansome with Morgan Spurlock and Jason Bateman and Will Arnett. We are excited. We are building a studio for the future that specializes in ideas and also partnerships. Since we don’t own production companies around the world, we’re also a really great partner for all the networks globally who want to build their production businesses or have go-to producers, because we don’t force them to buy from our own production apparatus.
WS: When you are thinking of show ideas are you always thinking international?
SILVERMAN: One hundred percent. We are absolutely trying to come up with ideas that we know can have resonance as a format or in finished form in multiple markets. We are putting in talent so that the finished episodes can sell better, or story lines that have global resonance or sensibility, or ideas like Fashion Star, which works on both a finished-episode level, because it has such big star power in it—Nicole Ritchie, Elle MacPherson, John Varvatos—and has the most potential in being remade, taken as a format, just as American Idol, The Biggest Loser and The Voice have done..