MBPT Spotlight: GroupM’s Tortorici Recalls Mindshare Entertainment’s—and the Industry’s—‘Extreme Makeover’ Moment

Mindshare Entertainment recently began its 11th year in business and Peter Tortorici, who started the unit along with Irwin Gotlieb and Marc Goldstein, fondly remembers the early days of experimentation in a business practice that is now a must for media agencies.

“Ten years ago, the idea of media agencies creating content for their clients was a curiosity. Today it’s a mandatory part of the toolkit,” says Tortorici, currently CEO of GroupM Entertainment.

Under the GroupM umbrella, each of three media agencies—Mindshare, MediaCom and MEC—have their own entertainment units; GroupM Entertainment helps support each unit, while also serving as a distinct content acquisition unit.

“We’ve separated GroupM Entertainment from the agencies in that we are primarily a property-focused business,” Tortorici says. “We take no money from clients. We invest in programming opportunities. We invest in content. We help fund programming with publishers and production companies. We become business partners with companies like Hulu and then our agencies decide whether their clients should get involved in those projects.”

GroupM Entertainment coproduced a Hulu reality series titled My Side of the Sky that follows the athletes and coaches at an Oregon high school that specializes in training action sports athletes. The six-episode series began airing in early February. GroupM clients were given first-look opportunities within certain ad categories.

Last fall, GroupM Entertainment invested in two reality series from Alloy Digital: Encore, a series about high school reunions, and the second season of Chasing, a music-themed reality competition series. Both have a target audience of 12-34 year-olds.

“Each agency has its own entertainment capabilities,” Tortorici says. “It’s important for each agency to be able to deliver these types of services as their own. This also avoids conflicts and allows our agencies to distinguish themselves from one another.”

Tortorici, who earlier in his career was CBS entertainment president, an executive producer at Carsey-Werner and president and CEO of Telemundo, was running his own production company in 2003 when he decided to talk with GroupM CEO Gotlieb and Mindshare North America president and CEO Marc Goldstein about jointly investing in the production of a TV series.

“I had just produced a series for Bravo called Significant Others and wanted to talk with Irwin and Marc about doing something like that as a partner with the agency,” Tortorici recalls. “We discussed how we could produce a series at a reasonable cost that the agency could use for its clients to advertise in. Irwin had already been thinking about getting into that type of business, so together we approached ABC and they agreed to work with us on the development of a series.”

‘Anatomy’ of a Deal

Tortorici says a partnership between himself and Mindshare was formed to do one series together. “Basically we were given the opportunity by the ABC development team to look at all their shows and from the group that didn’t get selected to be on their fall schedule, we would pick one that we could produce for our clients,” he says. “The one we picked was titled The Surgeons, but when we went back to talk to ABC, we found out that the network had decided to pick that series up. The name was changed to Grey’s Anatomy.”

The second choice of Tortorici and the Mindshare execs was a series called The Days. It was a series produced by Tollin/Robbins (responsible for One Tree Hill among many credits) that didn’t make it onto the fall 2003 schedule. The series was a scripted drama based around a family named Days with an attorney husband, ad agency creative director wife and children of various ages. Mindshare would become a coproducer and bring in interested clients such as Unilever, American Express and Sears. ABC agreed to run it during the summer of 2004.

Tortorici says when the deal was announced he was “amazed” by the media coverage it received. “The Wall Street Journal ran it on their front page. I had originally formed a partnership with Mindshare to do one series together. But the noise surrounding this deal got to be so great that we decided to form a unit within the agency and look for other projects that clients might be interested in.”

A second deal with ABC resulted in a reality series called Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. “We got Sears involved with it and it became the centerpiece of the chain’s media strategy for many years,” he says. The series actually premiered Dec. 3, 2003, before The Days. While The Days lasted six episodes, Extreme Makeover was on the air for nine seasons.

With those two deals in the hopper, Tortorici says, the Mindshare execs decided to create a unit within the agency to specifically target entertainment projects. In January 2004, Tortorici officially joined Mindshare to head up Mindshare Entertainment, investing some of his own money in the unit. “Mindshare had to make an investment and it was a risk, so I co-invested with them,” he says.

Once Mindshare Entertainment was established, Tortorici worked to start up entertainment units at MEC in 2005 and at MediaCom in 2006. Today, Tortorici says, each of those agencies has its own units that have grown to global scales.

“To Irwin and Marc’s credit, they realized that if they were going to make an entertainment unit involving programming work, they had to bring in people with expertise in that area,” Tortorici says.

David Lang joined Mindshare Entertainment in 2005 from Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video, where he was senior VP of development and production. Prior to that, he was producer of the syndicated Rosie O’Donnell TV show. With Tortorici moving up to broader duties with the creation of GroupM Entertainment, Lang was named president of Mindshare Entertainment in 2007. This November, he was named chief content officer of Mindshare, while continuing as president of Mindshare Entertainment.

Chet Fenster joined MEC in 2006 from Fuse Network, where he was head of programming development, and he launched MEC Entertainment.

Adam Pincus came aboard in 2007 after running his own production company Hour One. Prior to that he was senior VP at Sundance Channel where he produced a branded entertainment series called The Iconoclasts in association with Condé Nast Media Group and Grey Goose Entertainment. Pincus headed up MediaCom’s branded entertainment unit, which is now called MediaCom Beyond Advertising. Also in November, he was named to the newly created position of executive VP, programming and production at GroupM Entertainment.

“They all came to the agency world from the entertainment side like I did,” Tortorici says.

Mindshare Entertainment also scored a first in 2009 when ABC picked up In the Motherhood, a Web series the agency produced for clients Unilever and Sprint two years earlier.

Tortorici says between GroupM Entertainment and the units at the individual agencies, the projects invested in number in the hundreds.

While the agencies’ objective is to help their clients meet a need through media, GroupM Entertainment is “a property investment business funded by GroupM. We invest in programming that we think will be successful and we can make money on and we create access for our agencies’ clients in the programming we invest in. They are open to all advertisers, but we try to get the opportunities to GroupM clients first.”

Tortorici says the TV networks are still open to working with agencies’ entertainment units, but the agencies have to realize that no network is going to want to create programming based around an advertiser. The advertiser has to fit into programming the network believes will draw viewers and be successful.

“When you go to a network programmer, the brand you represent is secondary,” Tortorici says. “The focus is on quality programming first. It has to be something the network believes will succeed before clients can be brought in.”

Digital publishers are also changing the game and bringing more opportunity for agency entertainment units. But Tortorici says for most clients today, the lines between linear TV and Web TV have pretty much disappeared because marketers want to reach consumers everywhere.

So, as Mindshare Entertainment enters its second decade and the MEC and MediaCom units approach their 10th anniversaries, is there still room for growth?

“There’s über competition out there, but we’re continuing to grow,” Tortorici says. “It’s the end of the beginning for us.”