VI Power-Sixer: Claudia Cahill, a True ‘Instigator’ for Brands and Hollywood

By Sahil Patel

Claudia Cahill was destined for the ad business — after all, she grew up in it.

“My dad was the art director for Jax Brewery down in New Orleans, which back in the day was quite the boutique brewery,” says the chief content officer of Omnicom Media Group and the founder and head of the agency’s in-house entertainment unit The Content Collective. “His ad agency was Leo Burnett and he did some pretty revolutionary things back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, producing early black-and-white commercials.”

Skip half a century and the same revolutionary tag can be applied to his daughter, who has been blazing a trail for major brands such as Pepsi, Lowe’s, and General Electric to do more than what the typical advertiser does. This, especially, as the media and technology landscape continues to shift and provide them with new opportunities.

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Above is one of the ads created by Cahill’s father. It features the voices of Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

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Prior to OMG, Cahill spent close to four years at Medium, a branded entertainment business inside Levity Entertainment Group. There, she had one of the most interesting titles an executive can have in any industry — that of “chief instigator.” It’s an apt moniker for an individual who’s done a remarkable job of convincing brands and media partners to take more risks and break past the status quo.

“I am an instigator and always have been,” she says. “Think about the business we are in. If you don’t have courage and are not willing to forge ahead, it can be difficult.”

“She’s always pushing the boundaries and advancing her vision to change the ‘rules’ within which brands operate,” says Seth Kaufman, the SVP of Pepsi and Flavors Portfolio at PepsiCo.

Kaufman knows this first-hand. In 2009, Pepsi announced the landmark “Pepsi Refresh Project,” a social initiative to award $20 million in grants to nonprofits, businesses, and individuals leaving a positive impact on society. As part of the program, Pepsi teamed up with more than a dozen media partners including NBC, ABC, MTV, Univision, and a number of digital platforms to create original content spotlighting grant recipients. More than 300 “stories” were told — not by the brand but by credible media partners, according to Kaufman.

Cahill and Kaufman worked hand-in-hand on the initiative, years before the idea of a brand as a content creator really took foot. “Back then it was a groundbreaking thing, that lead to an adopted practice by Pepsi across the board,” says Cahill.

It also laid the groundwork for the next bold thing Cahill was about to do.

“The approach, the process, the relationships, and the strategic thinking she brought to Pepsi was clearly differentiating and allowed us to truly elevate our content practice on Pepsi,” says John Swift, CEO of OMG Investment, North America. “It was almost a natural progression for her to join us and lead our content practice.”

Don’t utter the term “branded entertainment” around Claudia Cahill. “Who has ever said: ‘I can’t wait to see the next piece of branded entertainment?’ It’s an industry term that we need to do away with. We have never referenced what we do as branded entertainment. It’s content that we hope people want to see.”

To make that type of entertainment, Cahill, as head of The Content Collective, has built a model inspired by her work with


Pepsi. The Content Collective doesn’t produce content, it finds talented individuals who know how to do it better than anybody else and then connects them with the right clients.

“We made a conscious decision when we created this group to not produce our own content,” says Cahill. “We leverage our money to produce content with partners that are best-in-class and know their audiences. That kind of constant interaction with the community is critical.”

In this way, The Content Collective is also able to build relationships with innovative individuals from all walks of media.

“In 2010, I took a trip to LA to attend a day-and-a-half session that Claudia set-up on behalf of the Pepsi media team,” says Kaufman. “There we sat around a table…brand stewards, agency partners, media influencers, showrunners, MIT media lab professors, authors, tech leaders, and so on and so on.” From these meetings, the Pepsi team walked away with different ideas that it was later able to act on. “Not a single person left without being inspired and without learning something that would help shape their own part of the landscape,” adds Kaufman.

Maybe the most influential thing that Cahill has done since joining OMG is the “Final Front,” a tentpole event held every fall during which media companies ranging from Crackle to Warner Bros. get an opportunity to pitch ideas to the agency’s robust list of clients. “The intent was for us to allow our clients to come to one event — versus multiple events — and see a collection of ideas that are created exclusively for them,” says Cahill. “They can sit in that one day and see multiple ideas that they can act on, it’s literally an auction of ideas that they can bid on.”

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Crackle is one of the companies that presented during last year’s Final Front, which VideoInk covered via on-site video interviews. Here is one with James Smith, head of digital media sales for Crackle and PlayStation.

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You won’t be surprised to learn that a lot of deal-making happens at the Final Front. It’s the setup that makes this possible: Brands listen to pitches that are fashioned to their needs; they bid on the ideas that interest them the most; and then sit down with the media companies to develop projects from those ideas.

Everything is actionable, everything is with a purpose of accomplishing a goal.

It’s one of the many reasons why you shouldn’t bet against Claudia Cahill.

“I wouldn’t,” says Swift. “Why? First, because she is driven to never accept the status quo and to always deliver the best work for our clients. Secondly, she is not afraid of trying new approaches and models and will stop at nothing to make a great idea work.”