Michael Heller is one of the branding world's most in-demand matchmakers linking companies and celebrities. And he's doing it by doing the reverse of the way most companies blare celebrity brand ambassadors.
His New York-based Talent Resources, a global strategic marketing firm, is at the forefront of promoting brands through less obvious participation of celebrities. While he's responsible for several long-term agreements between brands and talent, he believes that shorter-term hookups often can be just as effective.
"The wave of the future is putting brands with celebs on smaller activation but not marrying them to the brand long term," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "We're finding ways that don't necessarily make the celebrity a full endorser for the company. Instead, they are ambassadors for the company organically and quietly."
Quietly is key for the company that has preferred to remain out of the spotlight during its development during the past six years.
"We've kept the company very quiet while we grew it," Heller says of his strategy.
Talent Resources has grown thanks to this under-the-radar approach that also extends to its famous parties.
"Most of our events are very intimate," Heller said of parties at Talent Resources' Malibu House that average about 30 guests. "It's very strategic, very handpicked."
At the Malibu house, Heller and his team take over a house for two months on Carbon Beach and throw parties, brand-sponsored events, charity functions and private dinners.
This year's eclectic mix of Malibu events included Ashley Tisdale's birthday party, a Taylor Armstrong charity event and a joint birthday bash for Minnie Driver and Kathleen Robertson's sons in July, then a Hello Giggles Party with Zooey Deschanel, a birthday party for Diana Ross' son and a Dancing With the Stars cast barbecue in August.
"We create an environment that's not overwhelming," Heller says. "Now, with social media, you don't really need a lot of people at an event. You need a celebrity. We create an environment where they feel comfortable that they can enjoy time with friends as long as they give us a few shots that we can give to the companies sponsoring."
Heller's brand-celebrity love affair began in 2005 after he worked as an entertainment lawyer and manager of Lindsay Lohan.
"I realized there were a thousand other celebs out there," Heller says. When Lohan went off to rehab, he says, "It gave me time to think. I said: 'I need to make this into a real business. There's a need for this type of modern-day marketing agency.' ”
Heller started out working with just one assistant in his N.Y. townhouse that has now expanded to a seven-story home/office space with a dozen employees.
Talent Resources just opened an office in Brazil, where Leighton Meester signed on to promote a shopping center that Heller describes as "The Rodeo Drive of Brazil." Other recent endorsement deals include Amber Heard's campaign with Montblanc luxury watches in Hong Kong and Mario Lopez repping Staree.
The entrepreneur is rarely in one place for long, traveling back and forth from N.Y. to L.A. and across the globe seeing clients everywhere from London to Sardinia to Brazil.
"We are a modern-day agency that works parallel or in conjunction with major marketing agencies and PR firms. We’re not in competition with them," Heller says of such companies as Ogilvy and Unilever, with which he collaborates on various projects.
At a recent event for Dancing With the Stars' Derek Hough, for example, Hough was picked up in a Kia car, tweeted about the car, thanked Kia and was seen using the car. TR then took all of the images and sent them to several platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and blogs.
"I look at it as the new way of advertising because everything is going viral," Heller says, adding that advertisers prefer this immediate marketing to traditional and slower forms of promotion. "At the end of the day, we're getting the message out there just as well as any advertisement. If I have an event, 45,000 people are looking at it on Facebook now."
Talent Resources is all about getting things out quickly. At Malibu beach house events, celebrities or their camps can look at the pictures and approve them before they leave the party.
"It buys me 24 hours," he says. "The company usually has to get back to you and then approve the photos. This way, we give it to the bloggers and social media sites before the party is even over."
At another event this summer, Adam Levine's new protege Rozzi Crane brought John Mayer and Lauren Conrad to the Malibu house for a listening party, where Conrad took a picture with a life-size cutout of the Kia Motors hamster and put it on Instagram. Heller's team sent it out to the web, and the photo had more than 38,000 views within 24 hours. Plus, says Heller: "This shows you the power of celebrity. She took picture with her iPhone. I didn't ask her to. She's doing my job at my event. It’s amazing."
So how does Heller get friends like Conrad to do his dirty work?
"There are no surprises," he says. "I was a lawyer first, so I train my staff to make the contract spell out exactly verbatim what the celebrities who come to our events have to do. People know the money is going to show, and they know we're not going anywhere."
They are going somewhere, namely across the country for six key events during the year, including the summer Malibu House, the Sundance Film Festival, the Super Bowl, Coachella, the Kentucky Derby, Fashion Week and an upcoming Labor Day polo match in the Hamptons. After that, TR will strike a pose during New York Fashion Week with a Modelina gifting suite and the Style 360 Fashion Show featuring lines from Avril Lavigne and the Kardashians.
And remember those recent photos of Robert Pattinson smoking an electronic cigarette at the New York premiere of Cosmopolis? That was Heller too.
"I personally gave Robert Pattinson those electronic cigarettes at the wedding of my friend," he says. "It was before he and Kristen Stewart broke up. I gave it to both of them."
Heller also doubles as a Hollywood producer. He's behind Sundance title Arbitrage, starring Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere, which is looking at a fall release via Lionsgate.
He also produced Adult World, with Emma Roberts and John Cusack, and Sony Pictures Classics' recent acquisition At Any Price, starring Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid.
Heller has even done some self-matchmaking with his own two passions, namely branded entertainment and production, by implementing strategic product placement in the films.
"It gives us opportunities to expose talents and expose brands in cool, organic ways," he says. "I get in at an early stage so I can work with the directors and writers."
However, Heller doesn't plan to launch a full-time career in film production anytime soon.
"I love Talent Resources and what it does because I feel like I created this bridge that didn't exist," he says. "There are a hundred people making movies but not many bridging celebrities with brands."