Propaganda at its best
Swiss Style recently had the great pleasure to sit down with Ruben Igielko-Herrlich and Anders Granath, the founders of Propaganda GEM, a leading entertainment marketing agency specializing in product placement.
The puppet masters
“We are workers of the shadows. Our finest work is when people don’t even know what we did,” says Ruben with a smile. Immediately, they had our attention. The next hour and a half proved to be a fascinating encounter with two of today’s finest members of the world of product placement, where the best go undetected.
The more we talked to these gentlemen, the more we realized how passionate they are about their work. “The privilege to be involved in something that you love is clearly a luxury,” Anders says with undeniable enthusiasm.
Firms like Propaganda are in a sweet spot right now. TV audiences are fragmenting and more and more viewers are skipping through commercials and heading to the Web. Advertisers see product placement as one of the most efficient ways to put their brands and products in front of large numbers of people. Blockbuster movies are particularly attractive because they reach an international audience of hundreds of millions. And blockbusters just happen to be Propaganda’s specialty.
Ruben Igielko-Herrlich and Anders Granath founded Propaganda GEM (Global Entertainment Marketing) in 1991. They specialize in product placement and promotions for film, television, music videos and video games. Headquartered in Geneva and Los Angeles, Propaganda has offices across the globe and their clients include Panasonic, the BMW Group, Lacoste, Lamborghini and Nokia, to name but a few.
“Before founding Propaganda I had worked in investment banking and the luxury business, mostly in New York,” Ruben explains. “When I came to Europe I was looking for a change. I joined Enigma, a company started by Gianni Bulgari. While working there, I received a call from MGM, who wanted to use one of our products for a movie.”
Around the same time a mutual friend introduced Ruben to Anders. “We were both in a period of transition and decided to do something entrepreneurial. We knew what we did not want to do,” says Anders. “Basically we were done with the corporate shell, with its preconceived notions of how things should be done.”
“Professionally we both had accelerated careers,” intervenes Ruben. “When we met we were at the point that, in order to move ahead in our respective fields, we would have to wait for the guy above us to die. This was not an option for either of us”.
Frustrated with this situation, they decided to join forces. “The fact that we channelled all this energy and ambition into our own project is what has brought us to the point where we find ourselves today. I was 28 at the time I met Ruben and had seven to eight years of professional experience in marketing. This was 20 years ago, so most of my professional life has been spent with Propaganda.” “Tempus fugit,” quips Ruben laughing.
Having worked together for 20 years, the two entrepreneurs claim to have never had an argument. “This is one of the secrets of our success. We are very different people but we agree on the fundamental points,” Ruben adds. “In terms of ethics and dedication we are both on the same page.”
“When we started out and told people we work in entertainment out of Geneva,” Anders goes on to tell us, “the reaction would be: ‘You must either be stupid or on drugs. You should be somewhere else.’ They all laughed at us. Now the same people are calling us back for advice.”
Hollywood for the whole world
The two maintain that their success is also a product of their education. The son of a Slavic Jewish mother and a Cuban father, Ruben was born in Cuba. He came to Switzerland as a refugee after the 1959 revolution. “Here I grew up in an international environment,” he says. Anders on the other hand is of Swedish and British origin but born in France.
Hailing from such a multicultural background, “We applied what our upbringing had taught us to advertising,” Ruben explains. “In the past nationality and language defined how a brand would communicate in a given territory. Twenty years ago we predicted that the tribal aspect of our existence was going to dominate. Rather than focus on the differences, we decided to concentrate on what unites people worldwide.”
They identified the common denominator in the storytelling ability of Hollywood. “At the time the only thing that everybody across the globe watched, were Hollywood movies and television productions,” Ruben relates. “When we started, the idea was to get stars associated with our clients’ products. In this manner we worked on the subjective level of what makes a product cool or not.”
They admit that “it had a lot to do with luck and connections in the beginning.” Nowadays it is no longer a matter of luck but of resources. “Movies are expensive to shoot and advertisers want to get their message across. The trick is to not turn the movie into a two-hour long commercial.” The old days of product placement where products are presented in an unnatural and forced fashion are over. “The audience is too sophisticated to fall for it,” says Anders. “We are in the storytelling business; our job is to help tell the story. If the placement is so blatant that the audience wonders, ‘Wow! I wonder how much they paid to get that product in the movie?’, then we made a mistake. Not only that, but we spoiled the viewing pleasure.”
“The idea is to give people the impression that the thought process is theirs and not ours, but in reality we are the puppet masters,” Ruben adds with a slightly mischievous smile.
“In terms of the budgets we command, we are a marginal activity for most companies,” Anders goes on to explain. “For the past 18 years product placement has been perceived as something fun and entertaining to do, but something that takes place on the sideline.”
In recent years, however, this perception has started to shift. “With such products as Tivo,” Ruben comments, ”you can record and watch your programme whenever you please. A little button lets you fast-forward, meaning: you no longer have to watch the ads. Research shows that 98% of people no longer watch commercials. This is where we come into the picture.”
Enter a new era
Propaganda’s breakthrough came in the 1999 movie “The Matrix”, which established the company as capable of sniffing out a blockbuster. At the time, Nokia was introducing a Web-surfing phone, one of the first. Ruben and Anders persuaded directors Andy and Larry Wachowski to use a version of it in the movie as a portal through which the star, Keanu Reeves, entered the digital world of the film’s title. The Matrix became a huge hit – and so did Nokia’s 7110 phone. Since then Propaganda has been involved in numerous blockbusters: The Dark Knight, Transformers, Hitch, just to name a few.
“In the movie ‘Hitch’ with Will Smith, we placed a bright green Lacoste polo shirt. When the movie came out, there was a rush to the stores with people asking for exactly that polo,” Anders tells us. “So what we do is not only about image building, but can sometimes have a direct effect on sales. It was a landmark in Lacoste’s marketing history.”
“Jack Nicholson even walked into a Lacoste shop in New York and asked for a polo like the one his friend Will Smith wore in Hitch!,” adds Ruben. “These are the kind of stories that build brands.”
For the past 20 years Ruben Igielko-Herrlich and Anders Granath have had the privilege of doing what they love. “This is clearly a luxury, one that the majority of people don’t experience,” Anders states. “But there are two sides to that,” Ruben admits. “I wanted to get into entertainment when I wasn’t in entertainment. I used to love going to the movies. What has happened is that I am no longer a spectator but a participant. So, yes, I am involved in the universe that I am most passionate about, but this universe has also shifted on me. Clearly, I have no regrets, but you have to take the good with the bad.”
So what are these two gentlemen passionate about outside their profession? “People are my passion,” Anders reveals. “My family has taken a big portion of my extra-professional life. I don’t have a big family, but I have an intense family! I no longer golf or sail because I have too much work to do. I love art. I need it to evolve in life, but I am not a collector of art. I could leave for the other side of the earth tomorrow with nothing. I could replace everything I have, except the people in my life. I would say that I am a collector of magic instances, not of objects.”
Ruben on the other hand is an adrenaline junky. “I need the intensity of real life to balance out the virtual world that we work in, which is all numbers and theories. I love being in contact with the elements and living the moment. Two great passions of mine are extreme skiing and motorcycling”. As well, Ruben is also a family man. “I am proud of my kids! However, since I am hardly ever around, the credit for raising them goes to my wife!”
The satisfaction of a job well done
Although Ruben and Anders both need to get away from their work sometimes, their love for what they do is undeniable. “We travel around the globe about three times a year,” Ruben explains. “When I go to Beijing and am driving through downtown, I see the flickering blue light of a television screen out of people’s windows and I say to myself: ‘My work is here’. I go to Cape Town and I see a poster for a movie we just worked on. No matter where we go, we see the result of our work and it gives us immense satisfaction.”