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Ashton Kutcher, Studio Boss: Brand Building in the Post-Agency Era

Ashton Kutcher is a figure I find so unsavory that it is difficult for me to see him as worthy of anything other than endorsing POS Clothing.  He is the “dude” who stays at the party an hour too long, holding court and announcing his own coolness long after others have started to yawn.  Image is hard to change.

That said, the man is not stupid, and very well may be ahead of the pack in terms of social media and brand endorsements.  His innovative partnership with Popchips, Inc. proves the point well enough. Kutcher built his fame on mild talent, good looks, and a variety of attention-grabbing stunts (whether via Punk’d or geriatric marriage).  His cultural relevance, though, came through a carefully engineered drive to be the first person to have 1 million followers on Twitter (@aplusk now broadcasts in real-time to more than 5 million people).  Mr. Kutcher saw what other stars — and major brands — have missed: that building an audience and managing a direct relationship with it is the way forward.  Notably, his work with Popchips does not involve MadAve’s services.  It is the latest example in what I’ve written about as the the trend toward post-agency markets

Though Hollywood agencies such as Endeavor and CAA will insist on their essential role to these new types of deals, it is worth noting the fly in their oily ointments: they “brokered” the deals.  A broker and an agent are far from the same thing, an entire business model separating them.  Indeed, the role reversal becomes all the more evident when one realizes that Mr. Kutcher, in fact, is well on his way to building what we might call the first “social media studio.”  He, of all people, the Samuel Goldwyn of this new media and distribution model?  Just as Kutcher hijacked Alan Funt’s candid cameras for Punk’d success, he’ll likely do the same with Hollywood’s studio history.  There is nothing new, indeed.

And this talent for hijacking — more kindly put, reinterpreting and reinventing — is indeed a key to Mr. Kutcher’s success.  Notably, his deal with Popchips names him as President, Pop Culture.  It’s a title that my friend Grant McCracken will surely find significant.  Kutcher, and other forward-looking stars, recognize that they do not simply help produce pop culture material but are conduits to and interfaces for it.  With that understanding, Mr. Kutcher see that access to him personally is worth far less than access to the real-time pulse of the pop world.

It is odd for me, personally, to watch this unfold for Mr. Kutcher.  A year ago I met with an A-list celebrity — a household named action-hero with every connection one could imagine.  We presented to him the precise strategy now unfolding for the new generation.  In the meeting, we discussed the essential need to make a move that was post-agency and pro-broker, one that would take star power and brand management from “paid endorsement” to “vested endorsement.”  It was a move that would be transparent, credible, financially smart.  Doing so would put the star back at the center of the deal — the place where the studio had been.  It was too much change for someone deeply emerged in the status quo.  As difficult as it is to say: Mr. Kutcher got there first, and we must acknowledge he has more vision and more courage than most stars.  Welcome to the post-agency era, Hollywood. Your new studio boss will see you now.


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