"I am on a drug. It's called Charlie Sheen. It's not available. If you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body."
That was Charlie Sheen last year, during his bizarre, extended, very public mind freak, describing what a toot o' Sheen will do to your person. What he didn't say is that it might also annihilate your brand.
In 2011, the Los Angeles-based startup, which tied celebrity endorsements to social media, made waves for signing Sheen to its roster of A-listers. Sheen's outbursts brought Ad.ly universal media attention (from the LA Times, Forbes, CNBC, and so forth), and solidified him as a Twitter-advertising powerhouse. But like so many celebrity endorsements and partnerships, there was an inevitable downside. When the tiger blood buzz wore off—and all that was left was a history of drug abuse, alleged domestic abuse, and a reported love of prostitutes—Ad.ly found itself trying to contain a rare, unpredictable species of Hollywood animal.
"You won't hear me talk about Charlie Sheen—I won't even say the words 'Charlie Sheen,'" says Ad.ly's Walter Delph, who became the company's new CEO in March. "We are not working with Charlie Sheen. I just think it was detrimental to our business."
Delph adds that associating with the wrong celebrity—in this case, Sheen—can, in Hollywood speak, get your brand typecast. And Ad.ly found itself in a role it never intended to play. "It ruined our credibility around town, meaning Los Angeles," Delph says. "And it made this entire space—not just Ad.ly, but influence marketing in general—weaker. It dumbed it down. It took this business back six to 12 months."
Sheen's taint was so bitter that Ad.ly has decided to pivot. Delph says he has replaced most of "the old regime with new people" and changed the company's business model from one that focuses mostly on tabloid stars to one that relies on an increasingly niche set of influencers. The Kardashians are still free to use Ad.ly, of course, but it's looking to expand its roster to include less expected "publishing partners," Delph says. "I wanted to reposition the business away from just talking about celebrity tweeting ... we're not just working with celebrities, but artists and musicians and chefs and physicists and business leaders—anyone who has an engaged audience." Additionally, the company has expanded to Facebook and YouTube, and is looking into other platforms such as Pinterest and Tumblr.
Ad.ly's pivot allows for the company to provide its sponsors with better branded content, which is far more authentic than it ever was with Sheen. "GE, for example, will not be a good match for the Kardashians," Delph says. "If we're working with Nikon, for example, I'd prefer to have 10 photojournalists over one Kardashian [sister]."
Delph acknowledges that it will take some effort to change the perception of Ad.ly as a platform for Charlie Sheen and any associated warlocks. He points to Ad.ly's influencer roster, which has grown to about 2,100 relationships, as evidence that progress is being made. But growing that roster effectively and authentically is likely to get harder as the startup transitions from mass-marketing to specific, niche markets like travel and leisure or food and wine.
"We recently got a request for a vegan product, so we put together a list of top-tier vegan and vegetarian influencers," Delph says. "They came back and said, 'We just want vegans.' I was like, 'Guys, this is not that easy to do! There isn't a Vegan 'R' Us out there!'"
[Photo Illustration: Joel Arbaje]
[Ed. note: For about as long as it takes to say "winning!" this story mentioned Charlie Sheen under house arrest. But that was just for a Fiat ad (good luck with your brand, Fiat!). It never actually happened. Instead, we went with prostitution, drug abuse, and alleged domestic abuse. Better ways to prove the point in the end.—TG]