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Finding the Right Pitch

Companies Rely on Star Databases to Match Personalities With Products

July 30, 2001|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The celebrity needed to exude warmth, trust and credibility. She had to be a woman 50 or older. And--here comes the tricky part--she had to encourage millions to buy a line of absorbent undergarments and other incontinence products.

"A challenge," recalled talent broker Jonathan Holiff, "but not at all impossible."

Not with the Fame Index, a trademark database listing more than 10,000 celebrities by 250 criteria such as age, sex, residence, birthplace, career highlights, charity affiliations, hobbies, fears and addictions.

The index spit out the names of 436 candidates for an adult diaper ad. A search--narrowed to celebrity interests, health concerns and past endorsements--cut that to 51 contenders, including psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers and actresses Vicki Lawrence, Loretta Swit, Sandy Duncan and Shirley Jones.

A computer at Holiff's Hollywood-Madison Group, a Studio City agency that sets up celebrity endorsements and has poured 10 years of research into the database, churned out the names in less than five minutes.

As more and more companies court celebrities to praise products or businesses, appear at events or support causes, talent brokers and agents say they no longer rely solely on brainstorming sessions, phone calls and connections to find the ideal candidate. Sophisticated databases can do the work for them.

"If anything happened to my database, it would be the end of me," said a half-joking Wendy Dutwin, vice president of talent acquisition and media services for Celebrities Plus Inc., a Westside marketing firm specializing in bookings for health and beauty campaigns.

Each day, Dutwin adds to the company's Act Outreach Database, which lists about 50,000 celebrities and 5,000 experts who can be cross-referenced by categories both broad and specific.

Dutwin said she started the database a few years ago because, in the cutthroat field of celebrity endorsements, everyone needs an edge among the hundreds of talent bookers in Southern California.

"A good database is crucial," she said.

William Morris, one of the area's three largest talent agencies, maintains its own information about celebrity projects and personal matters. As technology advances, said Rick Hersh, the agency's senior vice president and worldwide head of commercial endorsements, "the lifeblood of a good agent is accurate, fast, early information."

Inside Hollywood-Madison's airy and tidy office near Laurel Canyon and Ventura boulevards, Holiff, 36, booted up one of the computers.

He said he started collecting celebrity factoids a decade ago while working as a television producer in Canada and continued later as a personal assistant in Los Angeles for actors Alan Thicke, Faye Dunaway and Don Johnson.

When Holiff started Hollywood-Madison in 1993, he envisioned his database as an information clearinghouse, a compass for navigating Hollywood's rough waters. He and his staff of four update it daily with tidbits from the Internet, magazines and newspapers.

They also take notes from the television set that is on all day. He said there haven't been problems with accuracy because the agency gleans its material from credible sources.

"We get as much information as we can," said Holiff, whose father and cousins worked in the entertainment industry. "It's all about matchmaking."

On the walls hang autographs and photographs of him with celebrities he has worked with: Matthew Perry, William Shatner, Cindy Crawford. On his shelves are statuettes of Jay Leno, David Letterman and Larry King.

On his desk is the computer that holds the Fame Index. The database pops up on the computer screen, nondescript as a budget spreadsheet.

It reveals that actors Tom Cruise, Jim Belushi and Jason Alexander like hockey. Carol Burnett and Rosie O'Donnell collect dolls. Cher, Aretha Franklin and Whoopi Goldberg fear flying.

Holiff types in Kirstie Alley's name. Her head shot appears with biographical facts and a subjective analysis of the former star of "Cheers" and "Veronica's Closet."

The computer profile shows Alley was born Jan. 12, 1955. Her interests include auto racing, Scientology, the environment and motorcycles. She supports charities concerned with AIDS, children's welfare and animal rights.

No detail is insignificant, Holiff said. Some celebrities become insulted if they're approached to endorse a product or appear at an event in which they have no interest. And clients--who will pay a star tens of thousands to millions of dollars--get angry if their time and money are wasted wooing a star who balks at a campaign.

The database also rates celebrities by their popularity among certain groups. For example, although Florence Henderson isn't on Hollywood's A-list, the Fame Index gives her an "A" with women age 40 or older because they recognize her from the "Brady Bunch" and commercials.

Atlanta-based Philips Consumer Electronics hired Hollywood-Madison in 2000 for a yearlong campaign to promote high-definition, wide-screen televisions.

The Fame Index offered director Martin Scorsese as a film preservationist who supports the wide-screen format, and Hollywood-Madison brokered a deal.

"The Fame Index was critical," said Lori LeRoy, public relations manager for Philips.

Home Delivery Incontinence Supplies in St. Louis called on Holiff last year to find a celebrity to endorse its Reassure products.

"It's unrealistic to expect a celebrity to claim it as their problem," Holiff said, so he went for recognition and trustworthiness, testing his ideas with focus groups.

And the winner? Shirley Jones of "The Partridge Family" fame, because, Holiff said, she imparts sincerity, empathy and responsibility. Although Jones does not suffer from the health problem, her staff said, she has friends who do.

The company confirmed it is testing Jones in commercials for its products in smaller markets.

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