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#AWXI: Celebrity Storytelling in a Social World

VP Director of Celebrity Services Peggy Walter joins Steve Ellis, Debra Messing, Anson Mount and Wayne Brady in a discussion on celebrities and advertising in today's social world.

Hey, Hollywood! We're kicking off Advertising Week with a discussion on celebrities, and VP Director of Celebrity Services Peggy Walter is hitting the stage in New York City at Liberty Theater today at 2pm with moderator Steve Ellis, CEO and co-founder of celebrity social magazine WhoSay, Actor Anson Mount from "Hell on Wheels," comedian and host of "Let's Make a Deal" Wayne Brady and "Will and Grace" and "Smash" actress extraordinaire Debra Messing. The dynamic panel will dive into how celebrity talent can add or detract from brand marketing in today's social world, and no one knows that better than our very own Peggy Walter. Have a look at our sneak peek Q+A below and be sure to check out the panel.


Let’s talk about fans. How is a brand’s need for a fan base similar to that of a celebrity’s?
Shorter attention spans and instant information have made people fickle about the messages they see in the media – whether about celebrities or brands. So if there is a thread that can be picked apart, to some degree, it will happen. Authentic is a word that gets tossed around, but truly, people sniff out phony messages and undo them. Brands that endure, including celebrity brands, have to be authentic, and whatever attributes are authentically part of that brand have to be appealing to people over time. So, David Beckham is authentically a gifted athlete and extremely good looking. Those attributes endure and sell. Betty White is an authentically funny older lady, which is delightful to a broad audience. Coke opens Happiness. True and universally appealing. Paris Hilton was a debutante who made a sex tape? Next…

When is celebrity storytelling the answer to a brand’s business solution? How do you encourage clients to take on that risk?
When adding a celebrity's "story" helps to advance the brand's story. When we see or hear a celebrity in advertising, we instantly get a lot of information about the brand and what they want to tell us. So we don't have to spend valuable time establishing a character. For example, when we hear John Krasinski as the voiceover, we hear "friendly and clever." So when he starts telling us about insurance for the modern world, we know that for Esurance, modern doesn't mean cold and dystopian. If a celebrity is right for their communication, it usually doesn't take a lot of encouragement to get a client to agree. With the way that we approach it, there's not a lot of risk.

What is the process by which you go about pairing a celebrity with a brand?
I start with the creative. My colleagues engage with the brand much more closely than I do as they develop their work, so I respect their insights. And because I have been doing this job for so long, I have built some trust in my knowledge of the industry and my taste level. We whittle from a big list that interprets their idea in several valid ways, then we narrow to the celebrities that best express what they have in mind, then we add folks that work within that vein, then whittle again to a recommendation and maybe two alternatives. Then we build the case for the recommendation and hope that no one in the room has an irrational hatred of our choice!

How critical is that match, specifically in terms of audience? How does social come into play?
Social has become vital in the process. Celebrities who use social media well – whose channels authentically represent their brand, who have gained fans' trust and who participate in a dialogue with their fans – are often great communicators for a brand. By dialogue, I don't mean that they need to engage in online chats with each fan, but that their online life is consistent with AND adds to the public conversation about them. Angelina Jolie is amazing at this. She uses the spotlight that falls on her inevitably to illuminate the projects and causes that are close to her heart and that improve the world. So when she does something that the web will eat up, like getting married, she personalizes and humanizes the story by having a veil covered with her kids' art. It's a great thing for every outlet to key on, because it works within her story and it gives us all a Pinterest moment, feeling "That's a clever thing I could adapt to my life!"

We’ve all seen celebrity storytelling go wrong. What is the key to maintaining authenticity?
Know all that you can know about the actor you're hiring. Know about their perception with the public, but also delve into what kind of a person they are, what their colleagues say about them, what kind of professionals choose to work with them. I read everything from the trades to the gossip websites. And I have developed great friendships with agents and am grateful that they sometimes steer me away from their clients who might be problematic for our work. Finally, if you hire someone and they do something rotten, pull the cord as soon as possible and create distance. People aren't perfect and you can't anticipate everything but you can try to steer clear of the wreckage.

In your opinion, what is the best brand/celeb pairing of all time?
I'm actually pretty partial to the pairing of Dean Winter and Allstate. I think he was the right degree of well-known at the start of that campaign – kind of a cult guy but the people who knew him were big fans and thought he was very cool. He's a really good actor. And like Mayhem, he's a little bit dangerous and…nuts, but in an intriguing way.

Some might say you have the coolest gig at the agency. What’s your favorite part of the job?
I love that moment when it clicks. When I know that we have found the perfect person for the work and that we have the right deal to bring that person in. I am kind of a born matchmaker, and I get such a jolt of satisfaction when all the heads are nodding together.