Former TV exec drawn to branded entertainment

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Bill Hilary took over in August as president of Magna Global Entertainment, the branded entertainment arm of Interpublic Group's Magna Global media agency. He was the first top-level executive hired to replace veteran branded entertainment producer and executive Robert Riesenberg, who left Magna in late 2004 after developing high-profile projects like NBC's "The Restaurant" and Bravo's "Blowout" to start a new branded entertainment division for IPG rival Omnicom.

One of Hilary's first projects at Magna has been co-developing a new Web site for General Motors featuring exclusive behind-the-scenes content from the many events it sponsors such as the Grammys, the Super Bowl and NASCAR races, and offering consumers the chance to interview celebrities at the events and blog about them for the Web site, www.igotshotgun.com.

Hilary spoke to The Hollywood Reporter's marketing reporter Gail Schiller about his vision for Magna amid the dramatic changes taking place in the worlds of advertising and entertainment.

The Hollywood Reporter: Now that you've settled in, can you tell me about your plans for the company?

Hilary: My mission is to find new ideas to ramp up production, to grow the business especially in the new-media area, and to be at the forefront of the branded entertainment space. Since Robert Riesenberg left, they've had a team in place here and they've done a great job at maintaining the existing business -- the Johnson & Johnson Spotlight Presentation series on TNT and "Blowout" on Bravo. Magna Global hired me to expand the business, look at new media and at new ways of doing things. I think they felt I could look to the future and take the business to another level, which is what I'm striving to do.

THR: How do you plan to take MGE to "another level" and lead your advertiser clients into the future?

Hilary: We're on retainer with seven or eight clients to come up with content ideas, and every single one of them is multiplatform. We're working on several projects for mobile phones and VOD; we're working on ways to get several advertisers to work together on projects. We're in the broadband space, which is very important. Another thing we're focusing on is getting some of our clients to own the back end of the programming or content they fund. Most producers make money off the back end. For advertisers to fully fund series and not own them, to me that's foolish and bad business. I would like for some of our clients to own the back end, so while it's not their primary business it does become part of a secondary business and will actually fund the development of further content for them. We're also providing a strategic service for our clients by identifying trends and creating programming around those trends. For example, we just recently began taking an interesting presentation out to advertisers to help them get into the "green" space. We believe that's an area to be in, not just because it's important for the entire world but because it's a space advertisers have been absent from -- yet they have a lot to offer. So far we've had a great response.

THR: What type of "green" content do you have in mind? Would the brands also be integrated into the content?

Hilary: They could make shows with us that they sponsor about the environment. The important thing is that they are the driver and the creative force behind the content, so it is on brand message. The content needs to reflect a message the advertisers want to get across, both about their brand and the environment.

THR: Many people consider branded entertainment to mean that advertisers are somehow integrated or featured in the content. Is that how you would define branded entertainment?

Hilary: There is no one definition. I think that's what people are finding most difficult. Branded entertainment is about connecting the client with the consumer through content. That might be a mixture of product placement with sponsorship banners and an online element, or it might be the total ownership and production by one advertiser of a series of programs, or it could be a mixture of all those things. There is not one business model, and I think the reason Magna Global Entertainment works is because we have a team of expert people in each of these areas who put individual, complex creative business deals together for each of our clients.

THR: Who are some of the clients you are working with?

Hilary: We are on retainer with quite a number of people. We're working on original content ideas for MasterCard and the U.S. Army, among others, and Brown-Forman for product placement. Not all the clients we work with are inside the IPG family. Projects come to us through many different channels like PR agencies and sometimes even television or production companies. For example, Weber Shandwick went into partnership with us to create a new Web channel for GM, which is not a Magna Global client.

THR: Can you tell me about the Web site you co-developed for GM?

Hilary: We run the creative side of the channel with Weber Shandwick while GM owns the site. It is called igotshotgun.com because it gives the consumer the opportunity to ride shotgun and get access behind the scenes to the major events that GM sponsors throughout the year like the Grammys, the Super Bowl and NASCAR. It gives the user an opportunity to interact with GM and its entertainment assets in a unique way. This is an example of the type of new, creative ideas that we're really excited about.

THR: Can you tell me about your career path before MGE?

Hilary: I worked as an independent producer and director for many years for different companies in London. Then I became a network executive at the BBC in London about 19 years ago. After that, I joined Channel Four in London as commissioning editor of youth and entertainment programming, where I did the first integrated branded content series in the U.K. It was called "Passengers" and was paid for by advertisers. Then I ran the entertainment division of Granada Television for five years. In 1999, Comedy Central offered me the job of general manager and executive vp, which I did for five years. Then I went to BBC America for two years as president and CEO and then this past August I was hired by Magna Global. I was actually educated and trained as lawyer, but I was so bored I left it after several months and embarked on my career in television.

THR: What motivated you to go from running a network to running the branded entertainment division of a media agency?

Hilary: The best jobs I've ever had were the ones that were most challenging, and this was an opportunity to do something completely different and to be part of a new era of branded entertainment, which is very much part of the future of television in the U.S. I had been a producer and director for a long time, and the thought of being the studio of a huge advertising conglomerate was very exciting for me. It's the new wave of production and also not just about traditional methods of producing shows but looking to broadband, VOD and mobile. It's almost like you're a pioneer because you're creating new content, distribution channels and business models.

THR: I detect a very distinct accent. Where are you from originally?

Hilary: I was born in Belfast, Ireland and lived there until I was 23, when I moved to London.

THR: Did you experience a great deal of violence in Belfast?

Hilary: I certainly did. My office at the BBC was blown up four times when I worked there after college.

THR: What is your favorite TV ad?

Hilary: The Geico ads are my favorite. They're funny and they get a message across. They appeal to every age group and demographic. They're smart and they're water cooler TV ads. I think they're amazing ads.

THR: Which branded entertainment initiative has been most successful in your opinion?

Hilary: The one that is just so out there because of its sheer size is the Coca-Cola/"American Idol" integration. You can't get bigger than that. "American Idol" is part of the psyche of America. To be integrated into the show is just so huge you can't ignore it. It's probably one of the best known and biggest integrations ever. But our J&J Spotlight Presentation series has also been a really lasting and important initiative over the past five years. Our movies are high-profile and high-quality, featuring actors like William Macy, Rob Lowe, Patricia Heaton, Matthew Perry, Mary Tyler Moore and Burt Reynolds. The ratings are up every year and the movies, which air on TNT, have been nominated for numerous awards.
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