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ON:Meeting Oprah’s Product-Placement Gatekeeper

December 7, 2006
7 min read
Harriet Seitler Is Where Creative Meets Business at Harpo Productions

Why you need to know her
: A brand doesn't get on "The Oprah
Winfrey Show" unless it gets by Ms. Seitler first. Having started at
Harpo in creative services, Ms. Seitler is where creative meets
business at Oprah Winfrey's production company. She has helped build
Oprah.com and has been involved in some of the show's biggest
brand-placement efforts, including a giveaway of 276 fully loaded
Pontiac G6s in 2005. Along with Ellen Rakieten, Ms. Seitler, an 11-year
vet of Harpo Productions, is taking charge of Harpo's latest
initiative, the launch of a development group to aggressively pursue TV
shows and other programming beyond "Oprah," which just entered its 21st
syndicated season.

Credentials: Ms. Seitler served as VP-marketing and creative
services at ESPN for two years before joining Harpo. Earlier in her
career, she worked for 12 years at MTV, eventually climbing the ranks
to senior VP-marketing and promotions.

Describe how you work with brands. "We are not primarily in the
sales business. When we go out to work with sponsors, it's to
accomplish a creative end. We aren't just inviting all pitches. We have
built a number of really good relationships, and many of them were
built online first. Where there are opportunities and a brand wants to
do something exceptional, and we've already built a great relationship
with [the brand], we might bring [it] into the show for this wonderful
experience. Those are the people we work most closely with because
those are the relationships we have."

How big is your sales staff? "We have four sales people for Oprah.com and a small sales support team."

That's a pretty small staff. How does that work? "The sales
people in place are well-rounded enough and can think creatively enough
in terms of the bigger opportunities. We hope to be small and smart and
have an impactful voice. The partner opportunities that have bubbled up
within the 'Oprah' show environment are fairly unique and pretty
special. We feel like the partners we work with are really special
people because they go with the flow and help us make our show better."

How do you want to be approached? "I think we have good
relationships with many of the brands that are out there that share our
values, and I think we would want to be approached on a values basis.
It's a question of shared philosophy and shared values and shared
creative vision."

What are some of the brand integrations you are most proud of?
"The high-school essay contest around the novel "Night," by Eli Wiesel,
sponsored by AT&T. We were going to go way above and beyond the
show budget by doing a field shoot at Auschwitz with Wiesel and flying
all 50 contest winners to the show to participate and give them a
scholarship. Each winner received a $10,000 scholarship, with $5,000
coming from AT&T and Oprah matching with $5,000. AT&T was very
generous in helping to support the program, and it was an elegant
execution. ... The feedback from [the marketer] is that among many of
their 26,000 employees, this was the most proud moment they had working
at AT&T."

Explain how Harpo works with brands across its multiple platforms, from the magazine to online to the show.
"We tend to work in an organic way with people. There are advertisers
and brands who value what Oprah is about. They will pursue
participating with the Oprah brand in lots of the different platforms.
Sooner or later, those roads come together where one enhances the
other. There aren't a series of templates. We approach each
relationship personally."

What are some of the challenges of working with marketers that want to be embedded into entertainment content?
"We're really straightforward about it, and the lucky thing for us is
that we are not primarily in the sales business. We are very much about
finding the right kind of fit with brands who share our vision and our
voice and are willing to take the leap of faith. The biggest challenge
is to find partners who trust themselves and trust us well enough to
close their eyes and jump. We don't tend to look at opportunities from
a media value point of view."

Is it hard for some brands to measure the impact of integration deals on the show? "We say our measure comes from intangibles. It is hard to quantify and to measure the value of what we do."

What are some of the best brand-integration deals you've worked on for the 'Oprah' show?
"We love our relationship with Dove and with Target. Target has done
everything from being an annual sponsor to working with us as partners
on the Oscars to helping us provide goods for our homes we built in
Houston. We work with them on many levels and we love working with
them. And with Dove, Oprah is very aligned with what they are doing. We
had the Dove girls on a few times, and we will do more with the new
campaign that is coming out."

Where do the integration ideas come from? "Almost 100% of the
ideas come from us. It's not to say we are not influenced by ideas. But
we are in the business of doing 'The Oprah Winfrey Show.' When there is
a need to go out in the marketplace and to have someone enhance the
show, we will. That's not to say we aren't open to ideas. It's just not
what our creative process is."

How has brand integration on the show changed since you came on board in 1995?
"I think we have a bigger view of it, doing it more carefully and with
greater creative scope and elegance rather than doing it on a
producer-by-producer one-off plug basis. Today there are fewer deals
but bigger partnerships that have more of an impact."

How do you think it will evolve over the next 10 years or so? "I
think that our hope is to have reached a level of finesse and
effectiveness and elegance so that it continues to have a premium value
and a premium impact. Our intention is not to grow this thing in terms
of volume but to continue to be able to partner with people in exciting
and elegant ways so they therefore work for our partners. To the degree
that multiple platforms continue to have an impact on media and
consumers, we have to have a presence in many different kinds of
platforms, and hopefully we will be able to create value for our
partners in many different kinds of platforms. We are primarily a TV
company, but the world is not just a television world."

Who has the final word on what makes it onto the show? "It's is
absolutely the senior creative team of the show -- and I work very
closely with the executive producers of the show, and ultimately it's
Oprah. Nothing of that scope is going to happen on the 'Oprah' show
unless she is comfortable."

How do you price the value of integration deals? "We have a
sense of what the marketplace is for being included in TV shows. We
think being included in any way on the 'Oprah' show has extraordinary
value. A lot of times we look at what are the needs of the show and
what are the premium values we can provide for an integration presence
for a product. We are not really in it as a profit center; we are in it
to fulfill a creative goal."

How do you define branded entertainment? "We do entertainment
and to the degree we can make it better and bigger by having a brand
participate, that's what's in it for us. It's entertainment first."

What's on your TiVo? "I watch the 'Oprah' show every night. I
love Jon Stewart, 'Grey's Anatomy,' and my daughter loves 'Project
Runway,' which we watch together all the time."

What's on your iPod? "Heavy jazz."

What do you do in your downtime? "I hang with family, my two children and husband."

ON:Meeting Oprah’s Product-Placement Gatekeeper via @jpenabickley

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