Tom Baer grew up watching James Bond movies and playing with Hot Wheels. Now, he gets paid for it. The vice president of the entertainment marketing division of Chicago-based Frankel & Company has spent the last four years developing relationships between Frankel clients and the major entertainment studios, creating corporate sponsorship deals involving such films as The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Batman & Robin and the upcoming Godzilla and The X-Files with companies like McDonald’s, Amoco, Dreyer’s Ice Cream and Oldsmobile, respectively.
The business of partnerships between corporate America and Hollywood is still fairly young. Baer has taken Frankel’s reputation for developing innovative concepts and has quickly earned the trust and confidence of Hollywood studios, turning Frankel into a leading player in entertainment promotions. Additionally, his many years of working in kids marketing have given him a unique perspective on how to reach that always fickle audience.
Baer took some time out to talk to KidScreen about his career, Frankel’s entertainment group and the state of the kids promotions business.
What got you interested in entertainment promotions?
When I was running the adult promotion business on McDonald’s, I saw how the power of entertainment could really make an impact for our clients in promotions. It had been a frustration as a creative director that we didn’t have access to get the best promotions out there for our clients because we didn’t have access to Hollywood. So I convinced Frankel that we needed that as a capability. It has worked out really well. It turns out to be the area of this business I enjoy the most.
What was the climate for corporate partnerships with entertainment companies like when you launched the division in 1993?
There wasn’t a lot of it going on. The most savvy of the studios was Disney way back then. When I started, there were still studios who didn’t get it. I once called a studio and told them I was representing McDonald’s, and they transferred me to the catering department.
How has that changed?
With the competition among the studios being so great, and the cost of films going up, they need much more revenue out of films, licensing and video. They realize the value of corporate partnerships and now every studio is set up to operate that way.
What problems do you encounter now?
There are still difficulties working with people whose job it is to put out creative material. They don’t necessarily feel that their creative material should be borrowed by corporate America to sell things. For example, The X-Files had never allowed a corporate partner before, and it makes us feel pretty good that we were able to put together that promotion. The X-Files people are very protective of their property, as you can imagine, so we had to do a bit of convincing that the Oldsmobile Intrigue was the right fit for them. But we made it happen, and now it is the title sponsor of the X-Files Expo [a 10-city tour] . . . [and] is also featured in the movie.
Would you equate Frankel to a matchmaker?
We’re consultants to our clients and we’re almost like a free agency to studios, because we will help sell their property to our clients, but only if it makes sense for our clients’ objectives, strategies and timing. We’re in a nice spot in the middle that can save a heck of a lot of time and energy for both because studios don’t know how our clients market, [and] . . . our clients are sort of in the same boat.
What makes Frankel’s approach to business so successful?
We pride ourselves on our strategic thinking. On the entertainment side, we bring ideas, we just don’t bring properties. For example, years ago, McDonald’s did a Jurassic Park promotion. Everyone knew Jurassic Park was going to be the big movie that year. We sat down and looked at Jurassic Park and said, ‘You should do dino-sizing. Don’t just give away a free dinosaur cup with the purchase of a Big Mac and fries, make it so they have to dino-size their meal, and get more fries and more drink, and then they get the free cup, and it’s a bigger cup.’ Dino-sizing became the promotion, and . . . eventually evolved into super-sizing, which is now a regular menu item. That’s an example of an idea that came from looking at the property and really bringing an idea to them, instead of just bringing a property. That’s what we try to do with all of the properties, especially in kids marketing.
What are some of the specific challenges when marketing to kids?
The biggest challenge is that in order to market to kids, you have to think like a kid, but, it’s also impossible to think like a kid. It’s impossible to think like a kid because things are changing so quickly that kids just don’t live in the same world that we, who are asked to think like kids, lived in as kids. You have to be aware of the limitation that you have in trying to think like a kid, then try to think like a kid, and look back and figure out if you are thinking like a kid, or if you are an adult thinking you are thinking like a kid.
What are the differences and commonalities about kids today as opposed to when you started out in this business?
There’s a phrase that some people use called ‘KAGOY’-kids are getting older younger. When we were five, we weren’t nearly as mature as a kid who is five today. And to some extent, that’s true, but there’s also truth to the fact that kids still want to be kids. They may be growing up faster, but they still want to be and deserve to be kids, and deserve to be treated as kids and have some fun.
All kids are pretty darn smart. If you try to talk down to them, they’ll get turned off. If you try to talk like them, they’ll get turned off. You have to respect them and treat them right and recognize they are consumers like everyone else.
What other pitfalls do kid marketers face?
You have to break down the age group of who you are after because kids are very different at slightly different ages. I once got an assignment from somebody who said they wanted me to write a promotion plan targeted to kids two to 14. You can’t do that. There’s no way a three-year-old thinks like a 13-year-old. I tend to break it in three-year increments. But the more narrow your target, the more you have to have a budget to cover the whole range with different campaigns. Or you have to decide who’s really important to you and go after that one.
Any rule of thumb of the best way to reach kids?
It depends on what you are trying to reach kids for. One of the advantages of promotion is that you can go at them in a lot of different ways that straightforward advertising doesn’t necessarily reach. It’s becoming very popular to reach kids through schools, from teacher’s kits that get them in the classroom, to special lunch menus to get them in the lunch room, to book fairs to get them after school.
Are you embracing new technology in your promotional mix?
We try to have a Web site portion at least part of every promotion we do. The number of computers is growing, but it’s not mainstream enough to do simply a computer medium promotion.
How much do you have to keep parental considerations in mind when you market to kids?
You don’t want to have a promotion that’s a total turnoff to parents, although that can often be a turn-on for kids. We did a promotion for Nestlž’s Quik called the Nickelodeon Splat Sweepstakes, which, in order to enter, kids had to splat Nestlž’s Quik onto the entry form. It was a mess for us, but parents seemed to like that one. Nickelodeon has made grossness a little more mainstream. We take advantage of that when we can.
What current trends in the kids business have impacted how you do your job?
The proliferation of kid properties and the number of media outlets aimed at kids affect what I do on the entertainment side in a big way because there is so much more to look at. Entertainment marketing is becoming bigger and bigger, and there are more corporate players becoming part of it. You have to jump on the big properties quicker than before because there is more competition for them. But if you don’t get the first one, there’s more backup to it. It’s making the job more challenging in that we have to know a lot more about what’s happening, we have to keep up-to-date on all of these properties, which ones make sense for our clients, and keep building relationships.
Has becoming a parent changed your perspective in promoting to kids?
Having kids helps in this business [Baer has two]. One of the best ways to learn about kids marketing is not only to think like a kid, but to watch kids in different environments. Don’t just watch kids TV shows. Watch kids watching kids TV shows and see how they react. When you watch them watch something, you notice that they react to things a lot differently than you do, and that’s the kind of stuff you need to take a close look at because your job in marketing to kids is to get them to react.
One thing I don’t recommend is only watching your own kids. That’s too small of a focus group to get any real value from. Watch them at birthday parties and when they are with friends, and you can learn a lot.
Has anything they’ve done given you an idea for a promotion?
A few times. For example, one thing I do is read to my kids every night. Visa came to us looking for a promotion that would help it develop a personality as being a good corporate citizen. We developed ‘Read Me a Story.’ The goal was to read a million stories to kids nationwide. It was an extremely successful promotion. It did well from a standpoint of increasing card usage and also brought four million stories to kids nationwide. . . . That partially came about from realizing that my kids love it when I read to them.
Where do you see the future of entertainment promotion going?
A lot of people have kind of slammed the amount of deals that happen on particular programs, like The Lion King and Tomorrow Never Dies. . . . A lot of press keeps hitting on how it’s so overcommercialized and is a sellout. What our research tends to show is that consumers haven’t had enough and don’t mind at all when there’s a whole bunch of partners for a particular film or a particular video. . . . I think you are going to see entertainment marketing continuing to grow, and you will continue to have mega-event pictures with many partners. Some studios may say that they don’t want many partners, but if they can get that many partners, they’ll take them.
I think the major exclusive alliance trend [like Disney and McDonald's] will not last. I think people have realized that entertainment, unlike sports, is an industry better served on a promotion-by-promotion basis rather than by making major long-term exclusive alliances with a particular studio. The variety of material that’s out there is so great that most players and studios are better served by being able to shop around.
Do you have any one particular favorite promotion?
When I was on the McDonald’s group, I designed and wrote a Happy Meal. I was able to put my kids in a little puzzle on the side. It was kind of a Where’s Waldo puzzle. I had them drawn in there. The most fun thing was watching my daughter holding up that Animaniacs Happy Meal box in her show-and-tell class and say, ‘Look, I’m on this box!’
Is it still fun?
If it wasn’t fun, we shouldn’t be doing it. Especially when it comes to kids. Kids are in the fun part of their lives, and anything we do toward them we have to make fun.
We’re pretty proud of what we’ve built here at Frankel. The relationships we have with the industry are very strong. It’s fun to break new ground, and we’re the agency that has done that. I take some pride in that.
Career at a glance
1979: Graduates from University of Wisconsin.
1979: Joins the advertising agency Robert Sprock & O’Hara as a writer and media buyer.
1983: Moves to the promotion business at Davidson Marketing, and eventually becomes creative director, working on accounts such as Flintstone vitamins and Kellogg.
1991: Joins Frankel & Company as a creative director on United Air Lines and Miller Brewing accounts. Also works on accounts including Hershey, Tyco and Cracker Jack.
1992: Becomes head of the McDonald’s national adult promotion business at Frankel.
1993: Founds and heads up Frankel’s entertainment marketing group.