Beyond 'Limits’: Strike Up The Brand

Len Fogge likes it when people are talking — about Showtime, that is. And lately, he likes what he’s been hearing. The Showtime Networks Inc. executive vice president of creative and marketing joined the company in April 1996, but he’s particularly struck by the “real live buzz” that the network’s shows have been generating in the last couple of years. Fogge is no stranger to buzz — helping create it and knowing how important it is. As one of the founding members and eventual president of Grey Entertainment, he helped grow the agency from three people and $6.5 million in billings, to 110 staffers and $250 million in billings when he left.

Before joining Showtime, he was president of another ad agency, Franklin Spier Inc. He now oversees Showtime’s creative services and marketing divisions, as well as its digital media unit. Considering his advertising background, it’s no surprise that Fogge also spearheaded the launch of Red Group, Showtime’s in-house agency, which was responsible for the seminal “No Limits” brand campaign in 1998. Fogge, a former chairman of the Cable Television Advertising and Marketing board, spoke with Multichannel News’ George Vernadakis about Showtime’s marketing efforts, as well as what he sees as the challenges and opportunities for the industry overall.

MCN: Over the course of the decade that you’ve been at Showtime, the network has shifted its programming emphasis to more original series. What do you think that has done for its brand?

LEN FOGGE: Premium original programming by its very nature is going to be very different from what you get on network TV. In the beginning, we were doing original movies. Some of them broke through. Picking up Lolita was a big deal for us. Bastard Out of Caroline made a lot of noise. Queer as Folk was a big deal series for us. Here was a new subject being put on TV in a way that it never had been before. So, those successes: every couple of years we’d have one. Now, since [entertainment president] Bob [Greenblatt] got here, it’s one after another. It’s really great stuff, and people are starting to take notice.

MCN: What do you think it is about the programming direction that’s getting people’s attention?

LF: It’s about making great shows that really are the edge of programming. To be at the forefront of what’s happening on television.

MCN: How has the focus on original series affected what you do, from a marketing standpoint.

LF: When we were doing [the network’s] 'No Limits’ [brand campaign], we didn’t really have series, we had movies. And we were trying to build a brand around Showtime with a statement about who we are. We wanted people to get a sense of who Showtime was less from programming and more from the essence of the brand. How that has changed, and one of the reasons we moved away from that, was that we got great programming. We had something to talk about, something to really hang our hat on. And that’s our series. We’ve evolved from a marketing standpoint by focusing on our series … on getting the knowledge that we have great series on the air out there.

MCN: No Limits was an important campaign for Showtime. Does its basic message of pushing boundaries still apply?

LF: It was a terrific slogan for the time. We introduced No Limits in 1998, and it ran for about five years. But I think, in the end, No Limits had limits. It spoke to a certain kind of programming, whereas what Bob [Greenblatt] is doing goes to programming that is culturally more relevant. Programming that’s at the beginning of a trend, setting a stage for what’s going to come next. We use a line “Showtime What’s Next” — it’s not a tagline, it’s a line we often use in our materials — and that’s more of what it’s about. We’re looking to put on programming that’s going to inform the TV landscape of the future.

MCN: Are you ever surprised when a particular show hits or misses?

LF: You never know what’s going to tap into the zeitgeist of the moment. Weeds, for example, I thought it was going to do well. And The L Word, I thought it would do well. But I don’t think I really expected that they would become, from a buzz standpoint, as big as they became.

MCN: You were instrumental in setting up Showtime’s in-house agency, Red Group. How did that come together, and what sets it apart?

LF: I was at an ad agency before coming to Showtime. When I came to Showtime, there was a creative services department and a small design department. And it felt very natural for me to build an in-house agency. So we did that. Many companies will say, 'Oh, I have an inhouse agency,’ but they usually have a few people doing some of the work. This is a real agency that, if we wanted to turn it into a profit center — which we don’t want to do because we have enough work to do here — I would feel very comfortable going out and pitching against the top agencies out there.

MCN: In March, it was announced that the Interpublic Group’s Initiative would handle media buying and planning for CBS and Showtime. What prompted that, and why Initiative?

LF: We recently became part of CBS and my counterpart at CBS, [marketing group president] George Schweitzer talked about where we can pool resources. One of the areas was our media buying. So we decided that we would put our media budgets together and look for an agency that would do it all.

We went through the process of interviewing agencies and having them pitch, and Initiative blew us away. Their people just got it and were smart and they presented great ideas. And they were very forward thinking.

MCN: You also oversee the digital media division, and the network has a lot going on in that area. What’s the strategic thinking behind those efforts?

LF: We want to be a major player in the new technology and digital space. We were the first premium network to launch on [Apple Computer Inc.’s] iTunes. We successfully launched user-generated content on L Word. [Showtime was the] first one to put a show [Fat Actress] on Yahoo. We’re doing ring tones for cell phones. All of that, coupled with our premium programming, informs who we are.

The landscape continues to become more and more crowded. Entertainment choices keep growing. So breaking through the clutter is job No. 1. Part of that has to do with new technology. And that’s part of the challenge — how do you stay relevant in that world. But obviously the challenge is also a great opportunity because you’re able to reach out in new ways to new audiences if you do it smartly.

MCN: Are there any risks associated with pushing your content onto all of these platforms?

LF: In truth, I don’t see a risk in doing all that. I believe we’re expanding the audience with all of these new ways of getting our content out there. We’re reaching an audience with our product and letting them see how great it is. When we put Weeds and Sleeper Cell on iTunes, those shows were in the top 10 downloaded shows for weeks.

For me, it shows that when we’re on a level playing field in terms of distribution, which we’re not in the TV space, our shows rank in the top 10. So getting our shows out there to more of an audience provides a great platform and great possibility of getting more subscribers.