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Living in the Limelight – A Colorful Q&A with Media Expert Wendy Dutwin

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Wendy Dutwin is the founder of Limelight Media, an entertainment marketing firm. Her line of work sounded intriguing, so I thought I’d ask her a few questions. As we are on opposite coasts, we had to use the telephone. I’d like to meet her in person one day, as she turned out to be a very engaging conversationalist, but for now, here’s some of what she had to say about her life and career…

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The NewsWhistle Q&A with Wendy Dutwin 

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Date: December 7, 2016

Hometown: I was born and raised in New Jersey, went to school in New York for a little bit (NYU Tisch School of the Arts), finished my degree at the University of Texas in Austin, and then moved to Los Angeles in 1997, and have been there ever since.

So now you’re a California girl?

California girl, now for sure!

Occupation: Founder of Limelight Media

So, Limelight Media is an agency that specializes in placing celebrity endorsements with marketing campaigns, bridging the gap between the “talent world” and the “corporate world.” Can you tell us a little bit about how that works?

Yes, absolutely. We are an independent boutique celebrity procurement and marketing agency. Starting back in 2004, we were wanting to provide something a little bit different, individualized service for more impactful results for PR and advertising campaigns. We work closely with clients to link celebrity talent to prominent and successful PR and advertising campaigns. Clients get everything associated with celebrity procurement under one roof. For example, some agencies identify celebrities and broker the deal but then move on, and the clients have to handle the details. We forge partnerships, not just to identify the celebrity regarding budget and demographics, but to execute the partnership from start to finish. That has ensured much more success then just leaving once the deal is made.

I don’t have a background in public relations but I do know a bit about translating from English to English…that’s something I really enjoy doing as a lawyer…talking to someone with a particular knowledge or specialty, getting that jargon into plain English, and then putting that into “legalese.” It sounds like you are doing a similar type of translations.

Yes, translation: it is absolutely fair to say that. The talent world sees things from a different perspective than the brands and the corporate world see it. Our job is to know how to speak to both, so yes, we are translators and we have to speak both languages. Especially when it comes to helping clients understand what the talent is looking for, and for the talent to understand what the brand needs to do and needs them to do. When we do pharmaceutical deals, pharmaceuticals are bound by the FDA and many regulations; they have specific medical and legal regulatory requirements. Over the years, as we’ve carved a niche with the industry, we’ve developed an expertise in this arena. There is a lot of education that’s needed for both sides. What can’t be said, because of the regulations. Celebrities won’t understand why they can’t just be themselves and say whatever is on their mind. We have to explain what they can and can’t say. And why. In educating them, it helps to keep the campaign moving slowly, while building trust. When it comes to legal negotiations and long form contracts…we have an attorney that can speak corporate legal department language and also can speak the entertainment lawyer language. Law is law, right? You’d think so. But an entertainment lawyer speaks very differently than a corporate lawyer.

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What are the particular challenges that come with this kind of work?

 We wear a lot of hats, because our services are very far-reaching. A client comes up to us with a campaign, with a budget or not. We identify their criteria, the demographic that they’re trying to reach, the budget, and how can we identify and secure celebrity talent. We’ll advise them on budget early on, and what they can and can’t afford regarding the name they’re looking for. We are negotiating compensation and services, legal agreements, all the documents. We serve as the liaison between the client and the celebrity, and their representatives, when it comes to approvals, deadlines, payments, hair, makeup, wardrobe, travel arrangements, invoicing. There are a number of challenges. A specific partnership we put together was between SHIRE and Jennifer Aniston and is described on our website: an A-list celebrity, a big corporate pharmaceutical company, and having to make sure all the elements aligned so it was a successful partnership. We launched in August and the campaign has been a great success for all parties so far.

I am thinking of you as a bit of a matchmaker…what are some of your most successful and memorable matches?

 A matchmaker! I like that idea. We secured Jennifer Aniston for Shire’s “EyeLove” campaign as I just mentioned. Another campaign we did was a partnership with Susan Sarandon and a non-profit, InnovAge: that campaign provides resources for senior citizens who have needs, but don’t want to go to a nursing home. Susan has a 93-year old mother who was looking for services like that, so it was an organic partnership. We look for that organic fit.

We also did an ADHD campaign called Own It with Adam Levine that resonated well with our client’s target audience.

And we secured and oversee Amgen’s long running partnership with pro-golfer Phil Mickelson, who has been their spokesperson for over seven years now.

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How important is a celebrity endorsement or a celebrity spokesperson for a product or a campaign? It is something that is quantifiable?

It is absolutely quantifiable. T here are lots of ways, different brands use different metrics to gauge the return on investment. It allows consumers that the client is trying to focus on to engage with someone aspirational, or inspirational. If it is a celebrity with an organic tie to the campaign, and someone who has a tie to the demographic, it works. It is important as a matchmaker to make sure those criteria are being met across the board.

The stigma on endorsements is long gone. Those days when you’d see A-list celebrities doing commercial endorsements only overseas is over. The desire, in the US, where celebrity has a pop culture focus: it’s there. And there’s more original concept and content happening beyond traditional PR and advertising deals. Social and digital media have opened up a lot of ways to reach consumers…

Less one-off deals and longer partnerships, where you are really marrying the celebrity and the brand, are more quantifiable because you’re building a relationship beyond a one-off try. Brands are being much more strategic about how they utilize celebrity today.

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Do you work in the non-profit sector? Is it easier or harder to match talent with a cause than with a product?

We have done work in the non-profit sector. A lot of what we do today isn’t non- profit, it largely depends on budget. Non-profits will have a certain limitation as to what they can do and what they can achieve. InnovAge was closer to the non-profit sector. A lot of times, those companies will have existing relationships with celebrities, and can use them at a lower cost. Our traditional campaigns will also sometimes have charity components.

There are challenges in the non-profit sector, mostly in terms of budget.   But our doors are always open, and we will help to the best of our ability.

When celebrities work to represent non-profits is the work usually done pro bono?

I can’t speak to that. I haven’t ever procured such a deal, but I think celebrities can and do lend their talents free of charge for passion projects. They have lent their voice and their image to those causes that they really care about.

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Do you find that your job requires a certain amount of creativity? What kind of unique solutions have you come up with?

 Yes, it’s absolutely creative. Negotiations aren’t cookie cutter. You have to be very creative because what you’re trying to do is marry two different objectives together. The talent wants certain things, but the client does as well. Creative solutions allow the deal to go forward. We do a lot of programs for Merck and challenges come up. FDA regulations or services that our clients want, often require us to negotiate in a different way. Our clients rely on us not just to come to them with a problem, but with a solution. Counteroffers, and proposed offers back. The most creative negotiations are when both parties leave something on the table. My job is to discover what is the creative solution that makes the celebrity feel like they are in a partnership with the brand. We answer to our clients first, but we want all parties happy.

So the business model is that you are hired by the corporate world and help them find the right celebrity partner, is that correct?

That’s right. We don’t rep talent, we rep the brands. We find the partnerships, but we have very deep contacts with the entertainment industry, agents, managers, attorneys…doing deals over and over again, so we become allies. The entertainment world will often come to us proactively with ideas for spokesperson to consider for campaigns, and we love that. We work both sides to keep things as amicable as possible. Our job is not only to identify the right celebrity, but to make sure they execute every element of that partnership from start to finish. Managing expectations, services, budget, making sure the clients are looking at unforeseen costs. Background checking to make sure they have enough going on in the TV and film world to make them viable and current and trend-setting.

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I always love learning about interesting niche jobs and industries and what people do. (One of the reasons it is fun to interview people…it gives me an excuse to ask nosy questions!) How did you end up in this career? Was it something you’d always wanted to do?

I fell into it by accident. I had wanted to be a writer and had gone to Tisch to be a screenwriter, but when I moved to LA I secured a job at MTV as a production coordinator. And then I started moving into assisting producers and directors, how to be a good executive assistant, how to multi-task. Those jobs are very different from what I’m doing now, but they gave me a lot of skills and experience that I use today.

When I left my last executive assistant job in 1999, I worked for someone who did this for a living, I was his assistant, then moved up. I ran his company for a while, then I wanted to go out on my own. And like I said, I founded the company because I wanted to provide one-on-one individualized services with the client. Not based on volume, but on quality. The structure is set up in such a way that the clients are always getting upper management. They can always get me, or a VP, on the phone. I wanted to make sure that each of my clients felt that they were my only client. We are always accessible to the clients, we provide service continuously.

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What is your typical workday like?

We did recently open a New York office. Our VP of Marketing there is Ian Weintraub, he has a ton of experience in entertainment celebrity procurement. He starts earlier than we do. My VP Christina Roach and I run the LA office. Ian has a head start on the East Coast and we get emails from him when we get started, with the order of work, and we go through our project lists, and do a staff meeting every morning over the phone, go over projects and what things need to be done, and then we get to work. Every deal is in a different phase, some are just getting started, sometimes we’re dealing with logistics for advertising shoots for a deal that closed a month ago. We wear lots of different hats all day long, lots of phone calls and emails with clients and agents and managers. Troubleshooting problems, bouncing ideas off of each other, getting in touch with our legal expert who is a like partner for us–we involve him in all legal aspects of the deals we do as an important service to our clients.

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With the proliferation of social media and the sheer volume of information out there, how is that changing the work you do?

With social media, it is only enhancing the work we do. So many celebrities feel comfortable with a social media presence, and it makes them appealing to our clients. Marrying those two together allows our clients to be more creative in their content and how they’re getting it out to their target audiences.

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Have you ever had a true PR disaster, where someone was involved in a scandal?

We have had certain situations that have been a little sensitive, not a direct felony (fortunately I haven’t had that!) but gray areas where the contract had to be interpreted a little creatively. We sit with our client and review what their options are. If you go with route A and let the celebrity go, this is the potential impact. If we work through the situation with the celebrity, here’s the impact. Without getting into specifics (which I unfortunately can’t) our clients will usually go with our counsel. And those experiences allow us to tighten the contract each time around to ensure that the situation doesn’t happen again. We are often able to see the red flags before they happen. We can’t control the actions of a celebrity, but we’re looking for talent that hasn’t had a bad situation and probably won’t. The more research we do early on, the less chance we’re going to have where our clients find themselves in a situation like that.

Where did you get the name “Limelight” from?

You’re going to laugh. When I went to NYU I loved the nightclub Limelight, it was in an old church. I used to dance there with my friends.

Now it’s a shopping center, it’s so depressing. MTV had VJs then, and they had shows there. I was a huge music fan. So the name is just a nod to my days in NYC while also having that entertainment connection.

I was wondering if it was the club in New York! The other thing I thought of is the song “Limelight” by Rush.

I do know that song! But that’s not it. It was something that meant something to me personally, but had that entertainment element. Putting client projects in the limelight they deserve. I thought the celebrity component would resonate.

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What is a book everyone should read?

I love literary fiction. I got my MFA in 2012 in creative writing. I still do writing on the side when I can, though not as much as I would like. I love short stories, reading fiction. I cannot recommend enough Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. The movie is okay, but the book is much better! The way this man can just create a very post-apocalyptic book, but with characters who are so humanly moving: it’s a miraculous story that comes alive on the page. I love it…it’s one my faves.

And I loved Atonement by Ian McEwan. He just came out with a new book called Nutshell that’s also incredible. It’s told from the point of view of a fetus, watching its pregnant mother plot the murder of its father with her lover.

Is it the Hamlet story?

That’s a good question. I don’t think it is, the idea came to him in a whirlwind. I don’t know if anyone else has written from this point of view, the point of view of a fetus, but he does it masterfully.

I did like Atonement, although I was kind of taken aback by that major twist at the end, when it really went into meta-fiction territory.

The movie was horrible. It didn’t capture that twist. I had to reread the last few paragraphs to make sure I understood what I was reading. I was so shocked, I threw the book across the room! But, ultimately, I found it beautiful and moving, the girl being haunted by that lie, and the themes of guilt and redemption.

Did you read Saturday by McEwan?

I read that too, but I didn’t like it as much. I love that you know this author.

Another one he wrote that was good was Enduring Love.

I didn’t read that one.

It was turned into a movie with Daniel Craig and Samantha Morton. And that movie was very good.

So what is your favorite movie?

I’ll tell you, I have favorites I go back to that I repeatedly watch. The Shawshank Redemption, I just love that movie. I also like Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I like old 80s movies, anything by John Hughes and also LA Confidential.

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What is your favorite musical artist or album?

My tastes have changed since dancing at Limelight! I’ve been a Counting Crows fan forever, though. I see them every summer when they come to LA. I’ve never missed a show, not once. Any of their albums are genius.

Being a little more classical, anything by Nina Simone, I think, is extraordinary.

And there’s a new band, (I’ve gotten folky in my old age) the Head and the Heart. Their first self-titled album is pretty incredible and their second one is as well. I saw them this summer at the Greek in Los Angeles.

I’ve heard of the Head and the Heart but I don’t think I’ve heard them. I don’t know much of the Counting Crows except for August and Everything After, which was rather ubiquitous back in the day.

 August and Everything After is good. This Desert Life is underrated in my opinion.

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Can you tell us a joke?

I’m terrible at jokes!

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If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?

I’m going say…I really think everything is ordered the way it should unfold. Changing one thing might undo that. Everything has unfolded the way it should, and continues to. I’m lucky to own my own business, and have so much joy and passion and flexibility. And it’s so interesting how I’ve been able to develop that entrepreneurial side of me, and match it with the creative side of me.

To go back to the book talk, you don’t want to be that time traveler who goes back in time, and steps on the butterfly, and alters the course of world history, like in that story by Ray Bradbury.

Exactly!

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What is the best advice you’ve been given?

I really think I’ve come to embrace this, but it took me a while. Not to worry and to say in the present. When I’m focused on what I’m doing, I’m not tripping over the past, and I’m not fretting over the future, so I’m enjoying what I’m doing when it’s unfolding.

I used to constantly worry, but now I focus on doing the best job I can for my clients and if I keep that focus, it falls into place, new business, new opportunities–like the opportunity to talk to you this morning. I’m working on keeping my feet planted where they’re supposed to be, and then I don’t worry. I don’t stay up late and I don’t lose sleep. That was advice from a mentor at MTV.

She also told me, do not ever let them see you stressing out. Do not let your clients see that. I would run around the set panicking, and after she pulled me aside and told me that, I never did it again. Clients need to know we’re confident and we have the solution. And we do. I should be assuaging their fears, not adding to them.

It sounds like you owe her a lot.

She gave me great advice. An excellent mentor. I still keep in contact with her.

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What’s something most people don’t know about you?

I’m vegan. I’ve been vegan for four years. I do it because I’m passionate about animals. I don’t bombard people with it. A lot of people sit down to dinner with me for the first time and are surprised.

Do you find the diet difficult to follow?

Not at all. Maybe if I lived in Wisconsin? It’s not hard in LA. I live in Silverlake, and there’s a vegan restaurant on every corner. And many restaurants that aren’t vegan offer vegan options.

I recently went to Turkey and Greece, and I had a little bit of a hard time in Turkey. Greece was a piece of cake. I’ve been all over Europe. I would imagine France and Italy might be harder.

I think Italy (well, maybe depending on where you go, since there are so many local cuisines) isn’t too hard to do vegan because they rely so much on vegetables in their diet. I have a friend who was a very serious vegan for a while there (she’s less strict about it now) and she had the hardest time with French cuisine. They put beef stock in their onion soup! That diet really relies on animal products. (So maybe be forewarned if you travel to France!)

A lot of meat and cheese! Yes, that could be difficult.

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What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in life?

I would say the biggest risk I’ve taken in life is leaving a secure job to start my own business. But also moving to Los Angeles. I literally had a couple of hundred bucks in my pocket, and a beat-up Geo Prism when I drove from Texas to LA. But it was the best risk, because everything unfolded this way and I’ve been in in LA for 19 years and have had my company for 12. It’s pretty extraordinary how things worked out.

So you’re in California to stay?

It would take a lot to get me to move. Living abroad has always appealed to me, though… maybe someday.

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Last but not least, is there anything you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?

Well, I would love it if anyone is interested in our services: our doors are wide open, you can go to our website and all of our contact info is there, case studies, testimonials, all of our projects, and up-and-coming things that we’re excited about as well.

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PHOTO CREDITS

Lead-In Image Courtesy of NewsWhistle; All Other Images Coutesy of Wendy Dutwin

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

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Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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