You've got to give them credit

American Express uniquely involves celebrities in campaigns

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 as much as $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 at 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," he added.

The company declined comment on the financial terms of its celebrity contracts, but Amex is believed to pay A-list talent significantly less than what 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 top celebrities, Amex gets the 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," he added.

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 Angeles to New York at Amex's initiative. The in-flight show was orchestrated by Amex to help promote its Stress-Free Travel campaign.

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, 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.