Editor’s Note: This weekly series profiles those who capitalize on our obsession with celebrity while always standing just outside of the spotlight.
Mike Heller connects the dots between his clients and products
His first big win: Tying Mariah Carey's Grammys party to LG phones
Lindsay Lohan approached Heller to throw her 20th birthday party in Malibu
Open any celebrity magazine or website and you’ll see countless seemingly candid pictures that feature a celeb with a favorite product like this, this and this. But do you know the intricacies and anatomy of a celebrity photo op?
Mike Heller does.
As founder, president and CEO of Talent Resources, Heller aligns celebrities with corporate brands in seamless, natural ways. Or, as his company’s motto says, “We connect the dots.”
Heller, a former entertainment lawyer who specialized in contracts for celebrities’ appearances and endorsement deals, founded the boutique company six years ago while working closely with Lindsay Lohan. He began to notice the fan following that the tabloid starlets were garnering and the rabid interest in their lifestyle. What brand of handbag is Paris holding? What beverage is Britney drinking? Which club did Lindsay go to last night?
Heller had another question: Why not capitalize on this interest by getting clients paid for the things they were already doing in their day-to-day lives?
This was the mid-2000s, and Heller was all but alone in cracking the new marketing code.
“I’m not saying I was the first person to do this,” he says, “but I was one of the foremost inventors of monetizing celebrities’ names and brand integration. Less than half a dozen people were doing (commercial management): There was Larry Rudolph for Britney Spears and Jason Moore for Paris Hilton. And then me.
“I saw this from being with Lindsay and every photographer taking pictures of her, and they’d show up all over. I knew the power of Twitter before Twitter even came out, because they came to me for Lindsay. (Lohan, Hilton and Mischa Barton) opened a tremendous amount of doors for me to meet brands and let them find out that my company exists. I know what works when a celebrity connects with a brand.”
Heller’s first big event was Mariah Carey’s Grammys party in 2006.
“Her reps came to me and said, ‘We have an opportunity for a Grammy party, what can you do?’” he recalls. “I’m sure they went to 20 other people like me, but I searched around and found out that LG was releasing a new cell phone with a camera, one of the first ever. I proposed that Mariah do a video invitation for the party using the LG phone and we’d send this phone to everyone who was invited and it would work for a year. The phone invitation came in a silver box and when you opened it, there were instructions for how to view Mariah’s message. LG spent a fortune on it, and they were really happy with the results,” Heller says. “That party made me realize this was a real business.”
Lohan, who was a guest at Carey’s party, approached Heller to throw her 20th birthday party in Malibu, California.
Heller arranged for Life & Style magazine to sponsor it alongside brands like Fiji water. He secured celebrities like Eva Mendes, Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson “to welcome her into the older Hollywood crowd,” he says.
Heller and Lohan went on to do many deals together, including traditional ad campaigns for Miu Miu and Jill Stuart. But Heller recognized the power of incorporating these products directly into the celebrity’s life.
He hatched a plan for Lohan to cut down on cigarettes by using a smokeless tobacco product called Ariva. For a while, no paparazzo shot of Lohan was published without a package of it in her hand, conveniently visible and perfectly legible to viewers.
This, of course, was no coincidence.
Lohan was paid to be seen with the product – and Heller was the one who masterminded the deal. Even bloggers who were writing about her actions with skepticism or scorn continued to put the name of the product out and perpetuate the marketing of the brand.
“If you take a look at what it costs to do an advertisement versus having a celebrity do a deal with us, it’s less expensive our way, and the exposure is tremendous.”
Heller says that are certain deals he won’t touch. “When Lindsay was being accused of having an alcohol problem, alcohol companies were still coming to me saying, ‘Will you bring her this deal?’ I was like, no, you’re crazy!”
Lohan says of her work with Heller, “Mike and his team at Talent Resources helped me understand early on in my career the value of my brand and how to best offer it to corporate America. While my deals are now handled by my agents at ICM and managers at Untitled Entertainment, I still keep in touch with Talent Resources and appreciate their introducing me to the world of celebrity endorsements.”
“When I started my company, people laughed at me,” Heller says. “I was looked at like a used car salesman. Now, those same people are coming to me saying, ‘Do you have a deal for my client?’ And ‘How do I get involved with your company?’ But I respect everyone’s opinion. I don’t smack anyone down.”
He won’t reveal the names of the brands he currently works with on “subliminal” opportunities, because of an ironclad confidentiality agreement that he drafted using his past legal experience. But it’s a safe bet that if you keep up with entertainment news at all, you’ve seen his handiwork. Today, probably.
In addition to parties and brand integration, Talent Resources sets up annual brick-and-mortar destinations in celeb-packed cities like the Hamptons and Malibu, and at events like the Super Bowl, Sundance and Fashion Week, to bring clients and brands together.
Heller’s secret is to be simultaneously as prominent and as unobtrusive as possible. This summer, for the fifth year in a row, he set up a house on the beach in Malibu that served as the backdrop for many of Talent Resources’ events.
On the day the company hosted a “Dancing With the Stars” party, the house was outfitted with brands that would cater to the celebrities’ every need: Skinny Water for when they were thirsty, Heineken for when they were really thirsty, Dyson bladeless fans for when they were hot, Candy Rappers bikinis for when they were so hot they wanted to get into the ocean, and Lacoste robes for when they got out. The video game “Just Dance 3” was set up in the living room, there was Cottonelle toilet paper in the bathroom, and Fiats waited out front in case they needed a ride home.
“We don’t like to be in their face, but at the same time we use the house as a blank canvas to show what brands we’re representing,” says Heller. “These are all things you would want in your own home – and we give it to them for their own home. But before that, can we get a picture, can you talk about it, can you tweet about it?”
Heller and his team – whose talent and expertise he is always mindful of crediting – serve all sides of the industry: agents, managers, PR firms, corporate brands, marketing agencies and the stars themselves.
“I always look to go above and beyond what I promise,” he says. “And in most cases we do. That’s why they always come back to us. Neither the company nor the celebrity is my client, but I want to make sure everyone is happy, so I can go back to the celebrity and do more deals with them, and I can go back to the company and make sure they give me more opportunities.”
Most of the credit for this “marketing genius” seems to go to the brands themselves, but Heller doesn’t mind. In fact, he prefers that his company’s involvement appear invisible.
“At the end of the day, my biggest success story was believing in myself,” he says. “I didn’t have a paved road. But I liked being a cowboy and blazing my own trail and bringing people into a company and into a vision that I had.”