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Ford Models' Digital Runway


As the most casual Web surfer knows by now, the ease of showing video online has led to a deluge of video from nonmedia types everywhere, be they random YouTubers or big companies beefing up corporate Web sites. Making video into something resembling an actual business, though, is another story: Just because everyone can do it does not mean everyone can do it well or make a buck off it. Unless, that is, a company has long been familiar with life in front of a camera and the power of image and imagery.

This year Ford Models began cranking out all manner of Web videos, and the move seems neither ill-advised nor born of abject fear. It's far too early to know if this ends up a short-lived sideline for the 60-year-old modeling agency or becomes another way to make decent money off its picturesque assets, but it's not crazy to think that this nonmedia company may figure out new ways to make Web video work.

For one thing, models require little persuading to take star turns on film. "It's really great. I am not a still-life picture," says Ford fitness model Kim Strother, who sometimes appears in workout videos with her tiny, ill-behaved Yorkshire terrier, Moose. Ford's videos range from the instructional (think workout and styling tips) to the semi-informational (the breathless, trendspotting 30-second Fashion Flash). Also the frankly voyeuristic: Changing Room Confessions, in which Ford models critique clothes they try on in department store dressing rooms, predictably draws catcalling commentary on YouTube (GOOG). Production costs are low. John Caplan, Ford's president, says some vids cost as little as $100. Production quality, as you might imagine, is high: Modeling agencies know from flattering angles and lighting.

AT TIMES FASHION'S inherent absurdity bursts right out of the footage. In one Fashion Flash episode, an overly excited host revealed "it's all about platinum blonde hair, so get out your bottles of bleach and hydrogen peroxide because everyone is doing it!" in tones befitting an exultant American Idol contestant.

Ford just launched fordmodels.tv and has partnerships with targeted community sites such as BlackPlanet.com and women's portal iVillage.com as well as with a host of video sites and distributors, such as YouTube and Mochila. (Ford's strategy resembles that of CBS (CBS), which in late April announced nonexclusive video deals with 10 Web sites instead of becoming an exclusive equity partner with NBC (GE) Universaland News Corp.'s (NWS) nascent, still-unnamed video-sharing service.)

Ford has cut ad-sharing deals with Web partners, and the models in the videos get around 30% of Ford's net. The agency does not have an ad sales team, which may limit the dollars it can cadge from the videos. But it has something potentially better: long-standing relationships with practically every biggie in beauty, fashion, and retailing, some of which are discussing the possibility of sponsorships or placing brands in Ford's videos. As you might expect from a model-mad culture, many parties are interested. "We are targeting twentysomethings who want to be cool," says Pamela Seidman, a spokeswoman at retailer Express, which is in talks with Ford. "They want to be a celebrity. They want to be a model....It's kind of a no-brainer for us."

Everyone wants to be next to a model. But models—or at least their reps—are more careful about the venues they frequent. Ford remains fully in control of its image; that wouldn't have happened had the agency gone whole-hog into reality TV with a production partner. ("We are purposely uninvolved in shows like America's Next Top Model," claims Caplan.) Ford's video ventures also position it as an arbiter and authority on obvious subjects, such as hair and make-up, and less obvious ones, like health. Of course none of this would matter were it not driven by something basic. People like looking at models. Who knew?

For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia

By Jon Fine


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