USA touts new in-house agency to ad buyers

Character Brandworks aims to identify the 'face' of brands

The salad course has been reduced to the odd gnarled clump of frisee by the time Chris McCumber gets to the meat of USA Network's upfront presentation.

It's a Tuesday night in April, and USA is hosting the last of its eight private dinners with New York media agencies. Up in the Bronx, the Yankees have just beaten the Angels in their home opener, and many of tonight's guests have come directly from the Stadium.

Bolstered by the presence of NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker, McCumber -- USA's executive vp marketing, digital and brand strategy -- proceeds to announce the formation of Character Brandworks, an in-house creative agency designed to help clients identify the "face" of their brands. (As part of an exclusive arrangement, the pitch is being observed by Mediaweek's senior editor.)

An extension of the ongoing "Characters Welcome" brand campaign, the initiative is a think tank for clients that suffer from something of an identity crisis. To hear McCumber explain it, USA has been so adept at creating associative links between its on-air characters and the consumers who make up its audience that it can just as easily devise similar connections between sponsor and character.

"This is a team of people who come together to visualize the character or characteristics of your product and then build a solution around it," McCumber says. While he's addressing all 25 people gathered in the back room of Robert De Niro's Tribeca boite Locanda Verde, McCumber is particularly focused on the executive on the other side of the table.

As executive vp and director of national broadcast of Interpublic Group's Initiative, Kris Magel oversees a roster of clients that includes Hyundai, Bayer, MillerCoors, SC Johnson and the Home Depot. Along with the clout that comes from steering Initiative's TV business, Magel also is renowned for his ability to absorb and assimilate multiple data streams.

McCumber screens a brief reel of Character Brandworks spots, including a 30-second ad for the Subaru Forester that features a schoolteacher from Vermont and her energetic dog. As the dog does dog things, the spot creates an almost intuitive association among the woman, her pet and the Subaru. In a sense, both characters become understated brand ambassadors for the vehicle.

"It's still in its infancy, but this is the idea we're most excited about," says Mark Miller, senior vp of NBC Universal cable entertainment ad sales. "If you want to play in this sandbox, we'll find the character in your brand."

The clatter of flatware dies down when McCumber plays a clip from the special "American Character Along Highway 50," a one-hour exploration of life along the country's macadam backbone hosted by Tom Brokaw. As a documentary, "Highway 50" speaks to certain unhappy truths about 21st century America -- economic disparity, an education system in tatters, the anomie of small-town life. But it also serves as a unique marketing platform for sponsor Pfizer and an entryway for USA's prosocial initiative, Characters Unite.

Magel's team seems particularly receptive to the Brandworks executions, and a good part of the dinner chat alights on the possibilities inherent in USA's character-centric platform. A few days later, Magel notes that the evolving Characters push opens up a lot of space within and around the network's programming.

"It places a disciplined filter on their programming, but also, and more importantly, it allows for an expansion of the advertisers' presence on the network," Magel says.

Naturally, USA has a sizzle reel to unspool, though as senior vp original scripted programming Bill McGoldrick notes, there's no need to rush any projects to market. "With six successful scripted series, we can take the time to get things right," he says.

USA will bow two original series this year; both are one-hour dramas with strong female leads. First up is "Covert Affairs," a spy thriller starring Piper Perabo and Peter Gallagher that premieres in July. In the fourth quarter, USA will premiere "Facing Kate," which stars Sarah Shahi as a San Francisco litigator who ditches her briefs to become a mediator.

Filling in tonight for USA president of original programming Jeff Wachtel, McGoldrick says that though he won't make any predictions about "Covert" and "Kate," the network's "Royal Pains" and "White Collar" were the two most-watched new shows on cable last year. ("Pains" beat all comers, averaging nearly 7.5 million viewers.)

"From what I saw in the clips, both (new) shows are clearly in keeping with what they've already had success with," Magel says. "They're very similar in look and feel with their recent hits, and the production values continue to evolve."

At the end of the evening, Bonnie Hammer, president of NBCU cable entertainment and Universal Cable Prods., says that though drama has been the key to USA's success, she's been mulling over an evening chat show and the odd half-hour comedy. And while either genre would be a departure from the proven formula, Hammer won't make any decisions until all the variables have been sized up.

"We'll push the boundaries, but we'll never lose sight of what has driven our success," Hammer says. "We're our own biggest critics, and a big part of what makes us tick is that we question every single move we make."