Column: Branded - Jumping Over the Fence

By Hank Kim & Richard Linnett

People make much ado about nothing.

When we first came to work in advertising after covering it for many years as trade reporters, our former journalist colleagues drilled us. "What's it like on the other side?" they constantly asked as if we had just defected to North Korea.

The truth is, it's not much different. To put it another way, we've both been here already, so it was pretty familiar. Before becoming trade reporters, one of us worked for years on Madison Ave. as an account man at Bates and Bozell. The other labored in the hot sun of Hollywood first as a script doctor and screenwriter and then in production on everything from Roger Corman films to commercial campaigns for the likes of Nike and Pepsi.

After we made the jump to mpg last August, the press cited a few precedents  media executives who had started out as journalists. Stacy Jolna, a reporter at The Washington Post and later, an award-winning cnn producer, was lured out of the newsroom, eventually helping to launch tivo; Jolna's now at tv Guide Television. Susan Lyne leapt from Premiere Magazine to abc Entertainment; she's now charting a new course for the recently-paroled Martha Stewart. Carl Spielvogel started out as a New York Times columnist before founding his own ad agency Backer Spielvogel, which ultimately merged with Bates. (Full disclosure: Spielvogel, also the former u.s. Ambassador to the Slovak Republic, sits on the board of mpg North America.). That's pretty distinguished company and we were honored to be mentioned with these individuals.

Okay, so there is one thing that's different on this side of the fence. We are no longer scrutinizing the industry, because we are now the scrutinized. We're in the crosshairs, as they say, and boy is it hard dodging those bullets, especially the rubber ones that aren't supposed to do any real damage. The Wall Street Journal reported that we were "an unconventional duo" whose appointment would be greeted with "hoots of disbelief" in the industry. Months later another publication, a trade magazine, obviously picking up on the Journal's rap, reported that our appointment "left many industry colleagues scratching their heads in disbelief."

We called this reporter and demanded to know exactly who was scratching their heads. We wanted evidence, documentation. Did they actually see these "industry colleagues" scratching themselves? Could they verify it? Reporting is all about facts, we insisted, and we knew this because we were once reporters. So where were the facts?

The reporter couldn't identify anyone, not because he was shielding his sources. No, in fact, he confessed that he had never even written the line. His editor apparently inserted it after the story was filed. We called the editor. He wasn't in. We left a message suggesting that if he had checked his facts, he'd probably find that these industry colleagues were scratching themselves someplace other than their heads. The editor never returned our call.

Yes, we're with you Madison Ave. We know your frustrations with the Fourth Estate. We feel your pain. We are one of you.

Oh yeah, here's another thing. A rumor circulated at the American Association of Advertising Agencies' media conference in March that one of us was returning to publishing and had taken a job at a magazine. The rumor spread like a virus; the mongers at the rumor mill were certain this was a done deal.

It was news to both of us. We still don't know who fabricated the tale, and it doesn't really matter. But it seems pretty clear that the old reporter's adage "where there's smoke there's fire" is just that, an old saw without any teeth. Yogi Berra probably would have put it this way: "Where there's smoke, there's smoke."

Our favorite quote for some time has been from the eminently quotable David Verklin of Carat, also in the Journal. After hearing about our launching mpg Entertainment he commented: "Hollywood is littered with the corpses of advertising guys who thought that they could go out and cut deals with the entertainment community." A few months later, Verklin launched his own entertainment division, Carat Entertainment. We plan to send Verklin our congratulations and a pair of rubber flip-flops.

One network executive that we've been talking to of late about several potential deals for our clients still starts every conversation with "hey, we're off the record, right?" We gently remind him that there is "no record."

Hank Kim and Richard Linnett are directors of MPG Entertainment. (hank.kim@mpg.com and richard.linnett@mpg.com)

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