When Pénélope walks down the street, she turns heads. Especially if the street is Madison Avenue.
Before you accuse me of objectifying women, let me reveal that Pénélope is no dame; rather, it's a new branded content company just launched by Chad Ostrom and Steve Horton. The pair eschews titles, but you should know that Ostrom is a director and digital maven who seems to be as comfortable discussing digital strategies as lens selection, while Horton is the EP and devoted Francophile whose company, Grand Large, bridges American and European approaches to advertising production.
They've unveiled Pénélope at a time when the branded content arena is in massive flux, displaying elements of TV commercials, web content and so-called native advertising all mixed together. What they bring to agencies and marketers is an unusually broad array of exclusive relationships with creative talents, directors, web designers, experiential marketing boutiques, technology providers and other like-minded companies. The Pénélope network – call it her fan club or community, if you will – extends their talents, capabilities and skill sets far beyond just producing film and video for agencies and brands.
But first, what's with the name? "I wish I could tell you it was inspired by Homer's Odyssey, but it was really graffiti," confesses Horton. He and Ostrom had been struggling to come up with a handle for their branded content venture, and they both saw this name tagged on a sidewalk in Williamsburg, not far from McCarren Park. It just stuck.
The two make an interesting duo. Horton's the veteran producer who's worked with agencies on both sides of the Atlantic, as his company maintains busy offices in both New York and Paris. Ostrom is the younger Renaissance man, a refugee from the talent agent business in L.A. who gave up his trainee's post at ICM to follow a more creative path. He moved to New York wanting to be a visual artist, and ended up working in the studio of Douglas Keeve, the photographer and director who invented the fashion documentary with his feature film "Unzipped."
Keeve was repped for a time by Curious Pictures, whose EP was a friend of Horton, which is how he and Ostrom met. By then Ostrom was directing and running his own Brooklyn-based production company, TBG Studios, which focused on digital content. They teamed up on a branded content project for Cartier and Fast Company out of Publicis Modem, and the seeds of Pénélope were sown. Ostrom joined the roster of directors at GLX, Grand Large's division devoted to up and coming, alternative and digital talents, and the two started plotting.
"Cartier started it, but other projects kept coming that gave us the impetus to keep moving," says Horton. While still putting Pénélope's plans in place, they produced a series of web videos for Wendy's (directed by Ostrom) and created an Emmy-nominated YouTube series titled "Capture." With the renowned celebrity photographer Mark Seliger as its host, the show has attracted not only brand sponsorship but the participation of major publishers like National Geographic.
The Seliger project was a key, says Ostrom, as it taught them the value of owning their content. Their next episodic venture, "In Deep Shift," an eight-episode series exploring life-changing decisions hosted by the filmmaker Jonas Elrod, is their property. It's currently running on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) and on Ovation and can be found on iTunes.
What the partners believe sets Pénélope apart is the range of talents and services they've assembled to function essentially under one roof. For example, early in their planning Ostrom brought in digital consultants who'd sold their company, DBG, to Alloy Media. Among this group is Seth Perkovich, who was DBG's Head of Marketing is now Pénélope's Director of Digital. They've also tapped other members of the DBG team who assemble combinations of platforms, analytics and strategists that lets them offer clients a robust digital back end.
Pénélope also provides the ideation and creative services of a group of highly-accomplished international creative directors. "These are people we've known for some time and have a lot of respect for," says Horton. "They come from different disciplines, so we offer some varied specialties." They may work individually on projects, partner with each other or collaborate with the Pénélope directors, he adds.
The list includes A+B, the creative team of Amarina Kealoha and Brian Rigney Hubbard, who not only develop original creative but can execute it as well. Also on the list is Craig Ward, the British designer and creative director known for his innovative work in typography and motion graphics, and Matt Lester, a former Group CD at McCann who's created broadcast, print, social media, experiential and digital campaigns for a range of brands, many in the fashion, beauty and retail categories.
Another Pénélope creative partner is Kristin Moore-Gantz, a veteran beauty creative who's worked on global luxury and cosmetic brands for such agencies as Leo Burnett, Gotham, McCann and others. She's joined by Rajan Mehta, an eclectic visionary who's co-founded his own hybrid apparel company and production company called Surface to Air and also directed films, partnered with brands on creating digital experiences and curated design exhibitions for major arts institutions like MoMA. Rounding out the team is Roye Segal, an award-winning, multidisciplinary artist and creative director who's generated ads and content for Intel, Chevrolet, AT&T, MTV, Comedy Central, VH1 and other media and consumer brands.
But Pénélope has done more than just team with a who's who of creative talents; they also have a roster of companies on tap that are steeped in digital technology and media savvy. Indeed, Ostrom and Horton seem as focused on areas like activation and distribution as they are with coming up with breakthrough ideas.
"All of our solutions are highly customized because of our creative talent, so we want to retain flexibility to create an effective and unique activation strategy for each," explains Ostrom. "As such, we chose our media partners because they offer flexibility and quality and are on the vanguard of innovating across the digital landscape. Groups like Nativ.ly, which represent scores of the hottest digital startups, or Sigma Software, which has been instrumental in developing backend solutions, are precisely the sort of partners we seek out to help us ideate and execute across the earned, owned, paid and social spaces."
As you might expect, Pénélope offer a deep roster of production resources to work with their creative, media and tech partners. This includes the entire directorial roster of Grand Large, which comprises not just experienced commercial-makers but feature talents, music video specialists and new media content creators. "We're also able to source talent from DNA, Prologue, Artists & Derelicts, Rehash Studios, The Marmalade, Consulate and more," says Horton, rattling off a list of companies that run the gamut from visual effects, creative editorial, digital production and other disciplines.
And in addition to working with companies like Nativ.ly and Sigma, they've partnered with companies like Tracx to provide social media analytics and with Strauss & Quint, a photo agency that can help identify still photographers, illustrators and other print talents.
So why set up Pénélope with these exclusive relationships, rather than a more ad hoc network? The partners explain that many of the directors they deal with have begun to get calls directly from clients to help them create and produce content. With Pénélope, they'll have access to a roster of world-class creative directors to partner with in this process. "It's like giving them an arsenal," says Ostrom about the potential.
It's also because the nature of the digital landscape is changing, he adds. "The word 'digital' can be pretty vague in terms of how people market themselves. Does it mean that you write code or that you can work cheap? For us, it meant that we needed to have talent on the digital technology side that matched up with our creative talent. And that's what the exclusive relationships provide; they let us offer true management of a campaign, from soup to nuts, and do it while maintaining a singular creative voice and vision."
Given that branded content projects are coming from all areas of the industry these days – directly from marketers, from Hollywood talent agencies, from publishers and media agencies and creative agencies, too – Ostrom and Horton say they're looking to all of these areas to build relationships. And they're not worried that the presence of creative directors on the Pénélope roster will deter creative agencies from calling them in on projects. If anything, "the agencies we've worked with have seen this as a benefit," says Horton. "They see us as a partner rather than just a production company."