Has Madison Road finally reached a dead end? The much ballyhooed entertainment marketing independent that was born in the branded content boom year of 2004, when everybody and their mother was hanging a branded-entertainment shingle, is lately rumored to have gone the way of fabled dot-com dodo birds like boo.com. Madison's golden boy founders Jak Severson and former Paramount and Sony TV exec Tom Mazza once lit up the primetime night with glowing prognostications that they could turn tv programs into fascinating showcases for toothpaste and toilet paper.
Inspired by Junior Mints' stellar cameo performance in Seinfeld, Madison's minions stormed the marketplace holding casting calls with every conceivable brandgelina from Mr. Peanut to Mrs. Smith. Armed with thick-as-a-brick PowerPoint decks summarizing slick formats that incorporated brands in story arcs, Madison Road was one of the key crusaders against the encroaching depredations of dvrs that mercilessly zapped out spots. Madison Road's concepts were not simple product placement ops - they involved "embedding" and "blending" brands into the entertainment matrix as seamlessly as Reese's Pieces in a peanut butter shake. Most of these grand schemes, of course, never floated.
"We solved a problem that didn't exist," says Stuart Shlossman, a former Madison Road executive who led the charge peddling branded shows to Madison Ave. "Advertising agencies were already doing it for their clients - they didn't need us."
In November 2005, Madison partnered with Imagine Television and NBC to create Treasure Hunters, a brainy, puzzle-solving variation on The Amazing Race format. Like Race, Hunters featured a few brands, but unlike Race, the budget was astronomical and the series never found an audience. Madison Road was suddenly looking more like Tobacco Road.
"Treasure Hunters was the most expensive reality show ever," says Jak Severson. "We invested a year of our lives in that show. It is a great example (of) why we are out of the reality show production business."
Road is still on the map. It remains in the integration game, brokering product-placement deals in existing shows. (In 2005 the company got into a public dustup with reality baron Mark Burnett, who
for allegedly selling integrations in The Apprentice for as much as 250 percent more than Burnett's fees. Madison countersued, and the case was quietly settled out of court. )
Madison Road also still produces content. "We are doing something in a more controlled environment, not TV," says Severson. His partner, Mazza, the TV maestro, hit the road a while back and the company took on some new blood, mostly Internet geeks. Madison Road now winds through the ethernet.
In 2007 Madison produced Big Shot with Madonna's Maverick Entertainment and CBS. An online talent show, often described as an Internet version of American Idol, Big Shot was a middling success but, more important, it inspired Severson to turn online. He realized online contest impressions were sizable and efficient. The company's big play, now in beta, is called if.net, otherwise known as The Contest Network.
"Did you realize there are 10,000 online contests that take place each year?" asks Severson. "We are creating a home for all of them." If.net is a cocktail of Facebook and YouTube, but instead of simply allowing users to post videos, the spotlight is on contests associated with brands. If.net members join to gain access to the contests. Sanyo is on board with "Fame in a Flash," in which contestants submit videos to win $10,000 and Sanyo video equipment. Already, Sanyo has pulled down 13 million impressions on if.net, according to Severson.
The brand puts up the prize, users put up content, and we just build the platform," he says.
And that is precisely the key, adds Severson. The old content production model is broken. Television is a muscle car compared to a hybrid. The new online model is all about lean and mean, producing content for next to nothing, or nothing, so that a company can turn a profit. "We are on a mission," says Severson. "We see how fast this is going and want to get there first."