Scott Carlson & Liev Schreiber
HAVING a celebrity as one of its executives can help an advertising agency open doors with prospective clients, but the actor Liev Schreiber, who founded an agency with the industry veteran Scott Carlson, has not been having great luck with doors lately. Mr. Schreiber, who stars as a Hollywood fixer on “Ray Donovan,” was on the set of the Showtime series recently when he walked into a door and broke his nose.
“I was just trying to walk through a glass door, and it wasn’t opened,” said Mr. Schreiber, who had a cut on the bridge of his nose from the mishap, as he and Mr. Carlson sat down recently at their agency, Van’s General Store, which occupies a storefront on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “I really wish it had something to do with some large Brazilian guys on the subway, but it didn’t.” The office doubles as a gallery and pop-up store for clients.
With Nergia, a natural energy-shot drink, for example, the store recently featured a half-dozen sleek bicycles and a surfboard, all with the Nergia logo, which the agency designed. Passers-by, some mistaking the storefront for a bike shop, wandered in and received samples of the drink.
The current display, for Vespa, features one of the brand’s scooters alongside contributions from artists, including scooter rearview mirrors mounted to walls, their reflective surfaces covered with photographs of street scenes.
“The foot traffic down here is great, especially on the weekends, so we’re able to educate people about brands,” said Mr. Carlson, who has been a creative director at agencies including the Love Collective and Mother. “Look at how much advertisers spend for a billboard that people drive by, as opposed to paying almost nothing to have a storefront where people walk in and become part of the brand.”
The agency opened its offices at 47 Orchard Street last November and formally announced its formation in January. Mr. Carlson’s grandfather owned a store called Van’s Hardware in Santa Monica, Calif., and Mr. Carlson has a son named Van, too.
Last year, as a pro bono project, the agency produced a promotional documentary for Success Academy Charter Schools in New York, with Mr. Schreiber narrating. It has also produced four music videos for Bon Jovi and promotional programming for Optimum, the cable and Internet provider in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Mr. Carlson and Mr. Schreiber first collaborated in 2011 on a short film, “Felt,” narrated by the actor, in which a character in a cheerful bunny costume reveals an incongruously dark past and existential crisis. The two met through Mr. Carlson’s wife, who was a high school classmate of the actor.
“Scott always wanted to be an artist, and I always wanted to be in advertising,” said Mr. Schreiber, who studied semiotics, visual literacy and media criticism at Hampshire College before attending the Yale School of Drama. “And I was like, ‘Do you want to switch places?’ — except I really don’t want to see him act.”
For the Nergia brand, which is made by America’s Naturals, the agency shot commercials that may be introduced in late April. Mr. Schreiber, who wrote the screenplay for “Everything Is Illuminated,” which he also directed, pitched in on copywriting for the spots.
The agency is stressing with prospective clients that Mr. Schreiber will not be their pitchman, but that he will be working behind the scenes, including tapping Hollywood connections to help with commercials and web series.
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The agency, which calls itself a “creative collective,” assembles teams of writers, designers and filmmakers for projects, and Mr. Carlson said that while it had a full-time staff of 14, 38 people are now working on campaigns.
While at Mother, Mr. Carlson was creative director for a documentary web series for Chevrolet, “The Road We’re On,” which chronicled how a Chevy dealership in Bridgeville, Pa., was woven into the fabric of the community. Along with traditional advertising, the agency is focusing on such so-called branded content, which aims to strike a chord with consumers without selling products overtly.
Shane Atchison, the chief executive of Possible, an agency owned by the WPP Group, said that this was an opportune time for an agency to emphasize its skills around branded content.
“If they say our play and our DNA is about creating experiences through original content creation, then that’s pretty interesting,” Mr. Atchison said. But he added that Van’s General Store might lack the analytic capability that larger advertisers also require.
“If these guys said they had a big-data person as their third partner, they would be onto something with much more ballast that could really scale,” Mr. Atchison said.
Celebrities including the rapper Jay-Z and the filmmaker Spike Lee have also formed agencies. In 2010, the actors Jason Bateman and Will Arnett formed Dumbdumb, which has produced humorous videos for brands including Denny’s, Wrigley’s Orbit gum and the TBS network.
Mike Duda, who is chief executive of the Johannes Leonardo agency, also co-founded Consigliere Brand Capital, a marketing and venture capital firm, with the basketball star Steve Nash in 2010. He said connection to a celebrity had its advantages.
“For getting in the door, it can be hugely helpful,” Mr. Duda said. “But at the same time it’s not the only way in the door.”
While Hollywood may seem glamorous to advertising executives with their screenplays stashed away in desk drawers, the reverse is true for Mr. Schreiber.
“The reality of being an actor is that it’s not as exciting as people think, particularly when you’re on a television show and you do the same thing year in and year out,” Mr. Schreiber said.
“Part of what I love about this is it changes all the time,” he continued, referring to the agency’s work. “Every three months you meet this new client and you go on this new adventure, and it’s actually really fun.”