The merger of two Hollywood publicity agencies was designed as a marriage of celebrity clients and corporate brands.
In order to make the marriage work, however, the two firms had to learn to live with each other.
PMK/HBH, a publicity shop with Hollywood A-list clients, merged with BNC, a product placement and brand promotion agency, at the beginning of this year. Both companies were units of Interpublic Group, an advertising conglomerate based in New York.
The new company, named PMK BNC, was designed to create a “powerhouse” agency that would help corporations use entertainment and pop culture to “connect with consumers,” according to the merger announcement.
“What’s wonderful here is the marriage of consumer brands and entertainment,” said Michael Nyman, chairman and co-CEO of PMK BNC. “The marriage can take many forms from endorsements, personal appearances, product placement, created events or sponsorships.”
PMK BNC has an impressive pedigree. The “K” in PMK came from Pat Kingsley, the now-retired grand dame of Hollywood publicists, famously nicknamed “Dr. No” because of her tight control of access to stars. The “B” in BNC was Howard Bragman, who now runs Fifteen Minutes, another Hollywood publicity firm, and is oft quoted as a spokesman for PR celebrity culture.
The combined agency has 165 employees on both coasts, with about 100 in the West Hollywood headquarters and the remainder in New York. Its client list features 280 celebrities, ranging from contemporary stars Miley Cyrus and Vanessa Hudgens to mature artists such as Jane Fonda, Robert Redford and even the estate of John Lennon.
On the corporate side, PMK BNC represents more than 50 companies including T-Mobile, Activision, Target, Hasbro and Audi.
Although the agencies came to the merger with different expertise, they dabbled in each other’s business enough to consider themselves rivals. Both had similar corporate cultures, but being a personal publicist for a celebrity is much different than working on the Audi account. The main challenge facing the company is educating each side about the other.
That happens every Monday, when the company holds a meeting where 20 to 30 managers bring each other up to date on what they’re doing.
That said, the agency remains divided into two main divisions, entertainment and consumer brands. Cindi Berger, a veteran PMK publicist, is chairwoman and chief executive of the entertainment division; Chris Robichaud holds the same title for the consumer brand operation. Nyman, the “N” in BNC, is responsible for oversight of the entire company.
An example of the advantages gained by combining the agencies occurred in July when client Unicef needed urgent help raising money for relief efforts in the Pakistan floods. Within 48 hours, the agency lined up celebrity clients to make public service ads. The names included “Charmed” star Alyssa Milano and “American Idol” crooner Clay Aiken.
Jenny Craig coup
Another example shows the advantage of the new business model. PMK has represented actress Valerie Bertinelli for more than 30 years and handles her magazine, TV and online interviews, even when she was acting as official spokeswoman for Jenny Craig diet program. After the merger, the agency decided to get Jenny Craig as a client, an effort that quickly succeeded.
The merger sparked an exodus of high-level publicists who started their own shop, Slate PR. Berger said the basic disagreement was that those who left wanted to continue to focus exclusively on celebrity publicity. Calls for comment to Andy Gelb, a principal at Slate, were not returned by deadline.
“Those people who left just wanted to do their own thing, and that’s OK. The good news is that everyone that showed up for work in January was on the same page,” said Berger.
However, PMK BNC’s new strategy pits it against established competitors. Jessica Nelson, senior manager of public relations for Davie Brown Entertainment in Marina del Rey, said her company has connected brands and celebrities for 25 years.
Davie Brown, however, approaches the celebrity through a talent agency, which gives it more flexibility than the PMK BNC model, which is limited to the agency’s client list.
“There are always agencies popping up saying they do it,” Nelson said. “But it’s not an easy space to get into. It’s about relationships and those take time to build.”
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