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A placement in the sun

Propaganda GEM at 20

Lady Gaga slipping on a pair of Carrera sunglasses in her “Bad Romance” musicvideo. Shia LaBoeuf ogling Bulgari bling in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” Fat Tony ordering his henchmen to sew Lacoste alligators on knockoff T-shirts in “The Simpsons.”

What’s the common thread? They all represent the subtle handiwork of Propaganda GEM, a titan in the world of product placement.

As commercials go increasingly unwatched thanks to such advances as the DVR, advertisers are funneling greater resources into product-placement strategy. That has created a boon for Propaganda — which boasts a client list that includes BMW, Lacoste and Nokia — as it celebrates its 20-year anniversary this month.

Founded by former luxury-goods marketer Ruben Igielko-Herrlich and one-time Caterpillar exec Anders Granath, the company has grown from a single Geneva office dabbling in movie product placement into an industry leader with a staff of 84 in 11 offices spanning from Los Angeles to Tokyo, with a mission to imbed corporate brand messages across all media platforms: TV shows (“Dexter,” “In Treatment”), musicvids (Kings of Leon), videogames (“Top Spin,” “Law & Order: Justice Is Served”) and buzzworthy events (the Independent Spirit Awards).

The plug can be as fleeting as a Bulgari shoutout woven into a snippet of dialogue on “Desperate Housewives” to as overt as repeated shots of Bruce Wayne speeding through the streets of Gotham in a Lamborghini in “The Dark Knight.”

“Be part of the fundamental reason why the audience is watching — the content itself — rather than being randomly plugged in commercial breaks around it,” preaches Granath, who teamed up with Igielko-Herrlich on the venture after MGM approached the latter to supply products for 1991’s “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man.” “That was the original idea, and this hasn’t changed much.”

Los Angeles-based partner and managing director Daphne Briggs, who joined the company in 2000, spends the majority of her time on Propaganda’s film efforts, which represent more than 50% of the company’s business. The former Sony exec has placed everything from Rimowa suitcases to Piaget watches into more than 700 films, including “The Hangover,” “Cloverfield” and “Mission: Impossible III.”

“Instead of asking ‘What client makes sense for a film?’ I now ask, ‘What’s next for entertainment marketing? ‘ ” says Briggs, who sees the event sphere of the business as one of the most ripe for expansion. ” ‘What do our clients need to be doing now to be impactful 10 years from now?’ ”

Contrary to popular belief, product-placement deals rarely see money changing hands between the company and the studio. Instead, carmakers provide needed wheels for the set of a film, TV show or musicvid in exchange for screen time. Clothing companies fill wardrobe needs in a similar, quid pro quo fashion. Propaganda serves as the middleman, commanding large fees from its corporate clients.

However, on tentpole films — which have become a specialty for Igielko-Herrlich and Granath — Propaganda frequently brokers deals hovering in the eight-figure range. Studios are only too ready to work a product plug into their content.

“I was two weeks into my job, and we did a $20 million-plus Global Nokia deal for ‘Charlie’s Angels’ together,” says George Leon, exec VP of worldwide consumer marketing at Sony Pictures Entertainment, of the first of many pacts he has inked with Propaganda. “It was unprecedented at the time, and it also changed the way you marketed films with hardware. Needless to say the film was a tremendous success, and the campaign was innovative and well ahead of its time.”

High-profile directors often bristle at the idea of a corporate sales agenda hijacking their films. Yet, Propaganda has ingratiated itself with some of the most unyielding auteurs, including Roman Polanski, who showcased star Ewan McGregor driving a BMW in “The Ghost Writer.”

“What sets them apart is they work with the full respect of the filmmaker,” says Summit chief Patrick Wachsberger, who has aligned with Propaganda on nearly every one of its films including the “Twilight” franchise (Brioni suits, Bombardier airplanes) and “Letters to Juliet” (Fiat). “They are extremely smart, and Ruben stands out for figuring out some strategy or product integration that we might not even think of.”

Atlas Entertainment’s Charles Roven, who produced “The Dark Knight,” echoes that sentiment.

“Ruben and his team are very production-friendly in that they don’t just try to place their client, they want to make sure the placement works for the film, which in the end result is better for the film and the client,” says Roven, who has worked with Propaganda on films from the Batman franchise to low-budget “Revenge for Jolly,” the first film from Atlas Independent. “They also always go the extra distance to make sure they can deliver what they promise.”

Perhaps Propaganda’s biggest challenge is staying ahead of sophisticated auds, who someday might turn on even the most veiled forms of product placement in the same way they did on traditional commercials.

“The good news is that more content is being viewed, but the power has shifted from the broadcasters to the consumers,” says Igielko-Herrlich. “The truth is that in any idea company, you are only as good as your latest program.”

Propaganda GEM at 20
A placement in the sun | Savvy auds drive need for seamless show stuffers | Outsiders looking in

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