Tony Ponturo could connect the gridiron and the Great White Way in ways even Joe Namath never dreamt of
The office is sparsely decorated, but exemplifies the dichotomy between a career left and a new one beginning. A replica Super Bowl trophy is on one side. Directly across are two framed Playbills from Broadway productions he's involved in.
Tony Ponturo sits in a swivel chair in the middle. The Madison Avenue maypole left his longtime post as Anheuser-Busch's marketing chief in late 2008, a role that gave him sway over one of the largest sports marketing budgets around.
On this chilly morning, the affable 57-year-old looks relaxed and satisfied, but eager for a new challenge. And he conveys an easy optimism about what the next decade will bring.
Ponturo formed his own multi-faceted firm a year ago. He made some investments and joined some boards. But more than anything, his passion now seems to be landing shows in the famed theater strips off Times Square.
This is no dalliance; no vanity play. He's investing some of the millions of dollars he left A-B with. And he's looking to bring some of his marketing acumen to energize an industry that often overlooks the promotional part of the business. It may need it; the past season saw attendance down, albeit slightly. He also has ideas how to boost revenues through TV-style product placement and sponsorships common in corporate marketing.
Broadway's appeal differs from many of the marketing venues towards which Ponturo directed A-B. While the company was heavily involved in wide-appeal programming, 70 percent of the budget was spent in sports. They were deeply committed to NASCAR, for example; succeeded in putting Bud Light on the mat in Ultimate Fighting Championship jousts, but failed to establish an edgy Bud.tv online content network.
And Ponturo may be best
known for making A-B part of the zeitgeist every year come Super Bowl time. A cool $20 million annually gave it the most spots in the game, which usually had people talking the day after.
As an entrepreneur and avid theatergoer for years, Ponturo's entrée into Broadway began with the revival of "Hair" last spring, where he and his wife are associate producers. Those so-called "below the title" roles means they were mostly investors, but with some involvement in decision-making.
"Hair" led to a larger, coproducer role in "Memphis" this fall. The show, set during the early days of rock 'n' roll, is likely to be a contender for a best musical Tony this year. "You don't want to jinx anything," Ponturo says. "But I think there's a good chance we'll be nominated."
But while those shows keep running, Ponturo is moving full bore into another project that finds him in a leading role: a 90-minute play about iconic NFL coach Vince Lombardi, planned for a late 2010 debut.
Ponturo is a coshow runner with fellow general partner Fran Kirmser, a Broadway veteran he met working on "Hair." Yin to Ponturo's yang, Kirmser is handling much of the creative side, while Ponturo oversees the business end, though he's also closely involved with the artistic.
"A lot of times in theater there are people like me who were dancers and actors that have sort of worked their way to the other side of the stage," Kirmser says. "So, we don't come from a business background and don't have the marketing knowledge he's got."
"I think he loves the business of it, but I think he loves the art of it, too," says Sue Frost, a lead producer on "Memphis."
As Ponturo chatted that December morning in his office, he was awaiting a script read-through and meetings with potential directors. There was also a get-together with David Maraniss, whose 1999 biography of Lombardi is the underpinning for the play.
Choosing a director and a cast of six - including the man who will play Lombardi - is expected to be completed sometime around March. Same goes for a final script from Eric Simonson, who did a previous play about the 1960s Green Bay coach that received lackluster reviews.
Lombardi's journey - from afterthought to the most famous coach in the country and winner of Super Bowls - is an unlikely one. A mystique unlike any other surrounds him.
With Ponturo moving ahead on a project that could cost $3 million-plus just to get to opening night, he is flexing his marketing acumen by linking with the NFL, one of the most powerful brands around. Details are still being hammered out, but the league has increasingly embraced its past of late, and Lombardi is something of its patron saint (his name is on the Super Bowl trophy).
The league is not expected to be an investor, but Ponturo hopes to draft off its promotional heft - somewhat of a new tactic for Broadway. The NFL could promote the play on its Web site (maybe offer a link to buy tickets), while airing related programming on its network. There's also talk of displaying memorabilia, such as classic uniforms, in the theater lobby and the notion of giving a portion of ticket sales to an NFL charity.
Borrowing an approach common in corporate America, there could also be downstream opportunities for executives at league sponsors to attend premiere nights and receive other special benefits - something A-B would often do with distributors and high-level customers at events with which it was involved.
Ponturo knows that to make the Lombardi show a hit, it will need to attract both devoted theatergoers as well as football fans that may never have gone to a Broadway show before. Ponturo uses a metaphor of appealing to both a left and right side of the orchestra. (Potential benefit: Green Bay fans are known as some of the most rabid in the NFL and just might sell out the theater by themselves.)
A sign how Ponturo's connections forged through 33 years in advertising are likely to serve him well in Broadway is how the NFL first became involved. A breakfast conversation with Roger Goodell sufficiently intrigued the league's commissioner.
The NFL has had relationships with many films, notably the recent Sandra Bullock tearjerker The Blind Side, but never has it taken a gambit on the Broadway stage.
"The commissioner said 'Why don't we take a look at this and take it on; it seems like something that could be very interesting.'" says Tracy Perlman, who runs entertainment
marketing for the league.
By the end of Ponturo's 26 years at A-B, he headed global media and sports marketing and ran the company's in-house media group. He made multiple efforts in branded entertainment, and some minor attempts at Broadway ties.
Those included the musical "In the Heights," with which A-B envisioned a marketing partnership. Ponturo hoped the company could use the show to appeal to a Hispanic audience, which in turn would bring publicity for the show. But the producers wanted more cash upfront and didn't share his vision. "I felt they missed the real opportunity which was the marketing," Ponturo says.
Even as he was buying loads of sports advertising, Ponturo maintained a personal interest in theater, partly driven by his wife, Ruthe. He
went to 27 straight Super Bowls, but was also going to 10 to 20 Broadway shows a year.
When the couple lived in St. Louis - A-B's base - Ruthe taught high school and directed musicals. The pair met when they were both pages at NBC, when Ruth was aspiring to a Broadway career.
As Ponturo looks to bring some new marketing and revenue-generating concepts to Broadway, high
on the list is expanding product integration onstage. Weaving brands into film and TV has boomed in recent years - A-B has done its share - and Ponturo sees no reason why marketers can't be persuaded
to get involved. That could stretch from rudimentary product placement to maybe a spot in a script, so long as it doesn't tinker with authenticity.
"It's a provocative channel from the standpoint of planning how to get a message across," says Gregg Pruitt, a MediaCom executive who has worked in theater.
A play may only reach 8,000 to 10,000 people a week, but it can bring an upscale, highly educated, captive audience advertisers chase elsewhere. Ponturo is optimistic that the Lombardi show will yield some deals. The coach's era was before Gatorade dousings, but maybe he had a Pepsi machine in his office.
I would hope that we've found a decent way to do some things with the Lombardi project; there seems to be a natural opportunity there," Ponturo says. (A similar
effort for "Memphis" with some beer brands didn't work out.)
To be sure, product integration is not entirely new on Broadway. Hormel linked with "Monty Python's Spamalot," Red Bull appeared on stage in "Legally Blonde," and the musical inspired by the Tom Hanks movie "Big" was set in FAO Schwarz. And Ponturo's involvement in the Lombardi show, by sheer dint of his experience, might be enough to attract a CMO.
"Tony is a smart marketer," says ESPN's head of sales, Ed Erhardt, a friend with whom he frequently attended Broadway shows. "He clearly looks at every situation as an opportunity to connect brands with the content in the right way. That's one of the things I'm looking forward to watching going forward."
There is also a feeling on Broadway that new marketing
methods are needed, and some are looking to Ponturo for guidance. There weren't many venues A-B didn't at least experiment with - giving him a wide vantage point.
"He's innovative and he looks at doing things in a fresh way," says Jim O'Connell, a NASCAR marketing executive.
But the marketing budget on Broadway pales beside A-B's. On average, for a play, ticket sales need to pull in between $225,000 to $300,000 a week just to cover operating costs. Perhaps $40,000 to $50,000 of that is available for advertising, making efficiency key.
Broadway marketing is also increasingly moving online. A-B has boosted its budgets there in recent years with initiatives from the failed Bud.tv to social media.
"You can be much more specific in targeting an audience (via the Web)
and more than half the tickets for Broadway are sold online," says Alan Wasser, who manages shows such as "Phantom of the Opera."
As Ponturo embarks on a new stage, he's eager for another act that could be "more interesting and more enlightening than just to rehash what I've already done.
"It's just moving the ball forward," he says.
That's a metaphor that fits.