Amex uniquely involves celebrities in campaigns


NEW YORK -- An American Express spot that features Martin Scorsese, Ellen DeGeneres, Sheryl Crow, Alicia Keys and athletes Andre Agassi and Shaun White is the latest example of how the credit card company is partnering with celebrity endorsers in deals that go far beyond traditional endorsement contracts.

The commercial, directed by Scorsese, promotes Amex's Members Project, which invites card members to submit, discuss and vote on project ideas that will make a positive impact on the world. American Express said it will spend up to $5 million to bring the winning idea to fruition.

The way Amex does it, the stars help to develop and execute the creative for the campaigns in which they appear, with the company often financially backing the creative or philanthropic projects the celebrities want to produce or support.

"We have unique working relationships with talent," said Michael Aaron, vp advertising for American Express. "It's not a model where we just pay them a large sum of money and they say what we ask them to say. The philosophy behind it is one of collaboration and creating reciprocal relationships.

"First and foremost, we identify people who are extraordinary and demonstrate a lot of the values we think are representative of this company, such as professional achievement and creativity, and then we work with them very much in collaboration creatively and very much on projects that are very dear to them."

While the company declined comment on the financial terms of its celebrity contracts, Amex is believed to pay A-list talent significantly less than they would typically be paid for such wide-ranging endorsement deals because it is funding or sponsoring the talent's other initiatives. So in addition to getting the top celebrities, Amex gets the added promotional and marketing bonus of being tied to other high-profile entertainment projects.

"I think American Express has been a little bit ahead of the curve, and we always strive to be on the advertising front, blurring the lines between advertising and content that people want to consume," Aaron said. "We believe there are financial benefits based on the model we work with in terms of talent playing a very significant role in the creation and development of the creative.

"We go in selecting people who we know will bring a high level of creativity and inspiration to the process. Over time we have become more accomplished at structuring deals that allow for this kind of relationship to evolve as time goes on."

The prime example of Amex's strategy is probably its six-year sponsorship of celebrity endorser Robert De Niro's Tribeca Film Festival, born out of the actor's desire to revitalize lower Manhattan after Sept. 11.

In the case of DeGeneres, Amex has done numerous integrations or tie-ins with her daytime talk show, some of them at her initiative and some like last month's taping of an episode of "Ellen" on a flight from Los Angles to New York at Amex's initiative. The in-flight show was orchestrated by American Express to help promote its Stress-Free Travel campaign.

"It was a multipronged marketing program and representative of the kind of reciprocal relationships we create, where they tie into our initiatives and we tie into theirs and it's a win-win for all parties," Aaron said. The approach also allows Amex to work directly with talent to orchestrate brand integration and sponsorship deals rather than having to work through studios, networks and production companies.

DeGeneres also was instrumental in developing the creative for her latest spot, in which she appears in her offices and on the set of her show with a turtle, elephant, a kangaroo and other animals as her colleagues. The inspiration came from Amex's Questionnaire print campaign in which its celebrity endorsers supplied answers to some personal questions. In hers, DeGeneres wrote that working with animals was her childhood ambition.

Last year, DeGeneres hosted Amex's forum for small business owners in Manhattan, which also aired online, and she has hosted programs for company employees, Aaron said.

Amex has also worked collaboratively with famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, who takes photos for the company's ad campaigns. Amex has sponsored a number of her tours and gallery showings that even include some of her work for the company.

For Scorsese, Amex funded his documentary on the Statue of Liberty, which aired on the History Channel in 2004. The director was heavily involved in developing the creative for the Members Project spot and has done the same for all the Amex campaigns he has directed or appeared in.

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Aaron said the motivation behind the Members Project is to enhance the value of card membership and build a community of card members who can share and discuss their ideas on issues of importance to them.

"This is really one of the first high-profile, substantive online initiatives designed specifically to deliver on this value of membership and the power of community building," he said.

Crow was one of the first celebrity endorsers to engage in a collaborative relationship with Amex -- the company produced and sponsored a Crow concert in Central Park in 1999.