Branding For Me, Myself And I

22 Nov, 2011

Jesse Draper towers 6ft 3in in her hot-pink suede high-heeled shoes. She takes a seat in a light-pink armchair, in front of a pink coffee table, and adjusts her hot-pink dress, brushing the brown curls away from her brown eyes, umbrella'd in pink eye shadow.

She leans over to the gentleman in a pink armchair across from her, and confirms that he's won an Emmy and an Oscar. The cameras roll and Ms Draper assumes her signature giggle. She engages her guest, Peter Gotcher, in chit-chat about the nature of entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley, the music industry, and the evolution of his career, from a job at Dolby Labs to founding Digi­design, maker of the hit music-editing software ProTools, and back to becoming the chairman of Dolby.

"And now you're the chairman?" Ms Draper interrupts, shaking her head in amazement. "High-five!" she says, extending her arm. He hesitates before meeting her palm in the air.

So goes the typical taping of an episode of The Valley Girl Show , a web-based talk show starring Ms Draper as the sort-of-serious, sort-of-ditzy "valley girl" host to the digerati of Silicon Valley. She calls it the "Ellen DeGeneres of business", with guests "you'd only see on MSNBC".

The show launched its fourth season on November 15 with a record 50 episodes in queue, adding as many entrepreneurs and CEOs to its growing star-studded guest list – former guests include Eric Schmidt, former chief executive of Google, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, and boxer Mike Tyson.

Behind the high-fives and the pink and gold set, 27-year-old Ms Draper is also chief executive of her own entertainment business, and one of a growing number of people who are using the internet to build their own personal brand.

Ms Draper considers herself an actress first and foremost, but rather than "sit around in LA and wait for an agent to call", she decided to start her own new media production company on the web and put herself on camera.

James McQuivey, media analyst at Forrester Research, calls this calculated approach to self-promotion the "elaborate audition." He has seen many people launch a video blog, podcast or TV show on the web – where costs are low and distribution could go viral – in the hope of getting discovered, either by a movie director or a book publisher.

Armed with a camera, lights and a free platform "the web – "you can make it work with pure sweat", he says. "It's really the American dream."

Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal also turned to the web to promote themselves as a comedy duo. The self-proclaimed "internetainers" produce quirky music videos, including the viral "Facebook Song", non-scripted reality videos and sketches. "Everything that we put online has a chance to lead to another opportunity," says Mr McLaughlin, "and it pays in the meantime."

Like Ms Draper, the pair created an online web series. They called theirs I Love Local Commercials, which had the explicit intention of attracting a mainstream TV deal. It worked. "Multiple Hollywood production companies saw our work and wanted to develop it into a show," Mr McLaughlin says.

Their new reality programme, "Rhett & Link: Commercial Kings," debuted in June on cable channel IFC, with the hosts travelling to small towns across the US to develop and produce commercials for local merch­ants using local talent.

Daisy Whitney, who worked as a freelance journalist, began producing her own video podcast, which she called Daisy Whitney's New Media Minute . She built a niche interviewing experts about the internet video market and packaging the information into one-minute video podcasts starring herself.

When she later got a book deal with Little Brown to write a novel, The Mockingbirds, she used her 6,000 Twitter followers and video personality to promote the book, an appealing bonus for a publisher looking to save on marketing costs. Then there are the producers who have so much success on the web that they do not need to look for anything better. Teenager Megan Parken attracted brand-name sponsors so successfully to her self-produced online make-up and shopping-advice videos that she dropped out of high school, finishing her studies part-time online, to pursue her own YouTube channel, meganheartsmakeup. The 15-year-old has made enough money to buy her own car and save for university.

Unlike Hollywood, where nepotism and networks are key to success, the web is a more level playing field, where being discovered is helped by having a good idea, good execution and a good audience. Choosing a niche, focusing on it and posting content on a regular basis are important factors in building viewers, Ms Whitney says.

Reaching bigger, mainstream markets requires podcast producers to "have a big enough following", Mr McQuivey says, or they "have to have enough sex [appeal] in them to be appealing on their own, or they have to have a brand name behind them".

Ms Draper is hoping to draw on all three. Her father, Tim Draper, is a prominent venture capitalist in Silicon Valley who invested in companies such as Hotmail and Skype. Ms Draper admits to tapping into her dad's connections to convince certain tech stars to brave her pink set.

Financially, however, she bootstraps just like any other web producer, she says. She invested $50,000 of her own money into the business, which she earned during the three years in which she played the nanny on The Naked Brothers Band, a Nickelodeon sitcom. She borrows office space in a Silicon Valley office for her makeshift studio and hires freelance or volunteer producers and crew.

Fashion designers donate the short dresses and pumps. She is just breaking even. "Ellen DeGeneres didn't become Ellen DeGeneres in a year," she says.

Right now The Valley Girl Show has a few web distribution partners that air selected programmes online, inc­luding AOL and Glam.com, a site that syndicates the show to others in exchange for a third of the advertising revenues.

Her big break may come from Clear Channel, which operates 850 radio stations in the US and has promised Ms Draper a half-hour talk radio show to reach 1m listeners, provided she comes up with half the sponsors needed to fund the programme.

That means she is constantly shifting back and forth between being "the Valley Girl" and the CEO-businesswoman, brokering deals and searching for opportunities.

"When acting, you have to be very vulnerable and open," she says. "But off-camera you have to be really stern and bad-ass. And less pink."

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