Since it’s a given that many of us are anticipating The Sopranos’ long-delayed new season as if it were the second coming, an extensive, multi-channel campaign to promote it seems almost unnecessary. Perhaps that’s why Ian Schafer (left), the CEO/founder of New York interactive agency Deep Focus, took a different approach with the HBO series’ online execution, opting for a much-publicized team-up with Google Maps and Klipmart to provide fans and newbies with a “refresher course” on everything Sopranos.
“We knew that we were cast with catching people up, effectively, because the show hasn’t been on for two years,” says Schafer from his Big Apple headquarters. “In our mind, everyone knows that the series is based in New Jersey, and they’re familiar with the locations in the series because they keep on popping up. People all over the country, whether you’re familiar with New York or not, are familiar with Shea in some way, or there’s a scene under the Brooklyn Bridge, you recognize the Brooklyn Bridge. The problem is, you don’t really get the perspective on proximity for all these locations. One of the things that we decided to bring was the world of fiction—which was set in a real place—further into reality, [allowing] people to see where all this stuff happened.”
The Google Maps “mashup” on the The Sopranos’ official HBO website (below) features clickable locations of characters, famous show venues like the Bada Bing and prominent events from past seasons. Regardless of its novelty, the promotion is an important step forward for interactive advertising, as innovations like these in entertainment branding are about as scant as a dancer’s ensemble at the Bing. But thankfully, Ian Schafer lives, breathes and more importantly, knows online entertainment marketing, a medium that’s been his muse since he left school and found a job in early ’97 at a burgeoning (now Agency.com-owned) boutique called iTraffic.
“It was under a year old, but it was supposedly revolutionizing the online advertising landscape,” Schafer says. “They offered me a job on the spot as an account coordinator. I was the twelfth employee that company ever had. So it was really early on in the stages of that company, especially considering it was started by four people.”
One of the big draws for the novice online media lad was the chance to work with one of the world’s most recognizable brands. “One of the reasons I took that job actually—aside from the generous stock options—was really because I was going to be working on the Disney account there, basically doing media reconciliations until about 2:00 every night.”
But Schafer’s practice of burning the midnight oil paid off, his steady rise in the iTraffic echelons mirrored the growth of the online space itself. “As time moved on, I accelerated through the ranks of the agency rather quickly—which was part hard work, part dedication, and part good timing. And then within I would say about 6 months I was a media planner. And within 6 months after that I was a senior account executive. And after a year I was the number two guy on the account.”
Schafer’s new second-in-command post — which called for the overseeing of all the online Disney entertainment properties, including Disney.com, Touchstone Pictures, Disney Pictures, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, ESPN and ABC — did not go unnoticed. Another (at the time) Disney-owned property, Miramax, was looking to inject new blood into its nascent interactive division. Appropriately enough, Schafer’s name was brought up in the conversation, expectedly leading to a career at the Weinstein Bros’ studio.
“I wound up at Miramax for four years,” he says, “where by the time I was through there I was vice-president of the media, in charge of all of the advertising for all of their films and television properties.” Schafer’s legacy at Miramax and its subsidiary Dimension is cemented by the interactive executions he managed for films such as Scream 3. But after four lauded years at the studio, high turnover rates and agency outsourcing left Schafer both frazzled and enlightened. “We went through about four CFOs in my four years at Miramax,” he says. “At that time, they were still Disney owned, so they were being held to a pretty tight bottom line. So I was forced to let go of most of the department. So the attention turned to outsourcing.”
He continues, “We were looking for the right agency to work with us to handle a lot of the media buying and help us execute on our strategy efficiently and effectively. The problem is—and we brought every agency under the sun and every local NY agency that we could find to meet about this stuff—no one really understood how to market entertainment properties. They were used to building year-long campaigns to launch some consumer brands. But they did not understand the tight timelines necessary—or how to manage assets—when launching a film. Because you’ve literally got three weeks to make an impact with your audience until the film hits the box office. Needless to say, we had agencies coming in that didn’t even look at our release schedule, which was public information. They didn’t understand half the terminology that we were using. It was getting very frustrating. And after I was frustrated for about a month, that’s when the light bulb went on, saying “Why don’t I just start an agency that does this?”