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Freddie Starr ate your mortgage

Real celebrities in advertisements don't come cheap, but often they're worth it. So says Ron Mowlam, but he would, wouldn't he? By Serena Mackesy

Serena Mackesy Ron Mowlam with Freddie Starr, left. Other stars netted by The Talent Corporation's dealings include Ulrika Jonsson, top left, John Peel, top right, and Thora Hird, above

Combine the right advertising with celebrity endorsement and you're on to the sort of sure-fire winner that few other types of commercial can equal. It's no secret. Roughly half of non-animated TV ads these days involve celebrity participation.

Advertising agencies are well aware of the power of the celebrity figurehead. The problem starts when you have to land precisely the right star. And an astronomical-sounding fee doesn't necessarily swing it. Agencies may think in figures and demographics but celebrities, particularly where endorsement is concerned, tend to have one thought alone: is it right for me? Approach a celebrity with the wrong package, the wrong talk, or just the wrong demeanour for their notoriously sensitive egos and a deal can be lost forever.

How do you go about wooing a world-class face to lend their armpits to your deodorant? Step forward Ron Mowlam. Mowlam's company, The Talent Corporation, specialises in just this field, acting as a sort of broker between client and celebrity, tying up approaches with enough tinsel, bows and straight-talk to persuade the flightiest film-star that public consumption will enhance their career. He recently landed a deal for a major ad campaign for the Bristol &West building society, which involves Freddie Starr, Ulrika Jonsson and Thora Hird.

"It's certainly true that many people in show business are not totally motivated by money," he says. "It very much depends how you go about the approach and who you speak to. Everybody in the chain of command is going to make money out of it. So it is important to speak to the people who are motivated by money. If they want her to do it they'll find ways of making sure she does." And it may not be cash in the pocket.

Among deals negotiated by the company have been a large donation to Richard Attenborough's old drama school , or a plethora of free air travel; it may even be an endowment to a seat of learning.

Or it may be something that tickles their fancy. "We've done cars: people have wanted particular cars and we've got them. Someone wanted a very rare Ferrari. He was trying it on in a way, thinking it couldn't be done. But we got the car and we got the deal."

The Talent Corporation, a 10-person outfit based in Marylebone, London, has been functioning for more than a decade, since Mowlam, then a Fleet Street photographer, found himself brokering deals to place celebrities at functions in return for exclusive picture rights. "After a while I found that for them to get the maximum coverage out of it - it wasn't always possible for me to get shots into every newspaper - they would ask other photographers down and I wasn't making any money. So I started asking for fees and, surprisingly, they didn't mind."

The company, which now works on a no-deal-no-fee basis, currently turns over roughly pounds 3m a year "but it's difficult to actually put a figure on it as one deal can bring that in". Much of their business is generated by their enormous celebrity database. If you want to know who smokes what, drives what, plays golf, uses which computer, has children, likes certain perfumes, these are the people to come to. Some of it is culled from press cuttings, but much comes from questionnaires which they relentlessly send out to public figures. "People are often curious as to how we get them to give us this information. The fact is, they love it." Much endorsement involves contra-deals - free swimming pools, fitted kitchens, sit-on lawnmowers, in exchange for photos - and celebs love freebies as much as the rest of us.

Advertising agencies can get a bit overexcited and approach Mowlam before they have secured agreement from their own clients. The client, who will actually be paying for the ad, may not share their enthusiasm. The Talent Corporation recently worked on a soft drinks campaign which, had it come off, would have been worth pounds 5m and involved a voluptuous Hollywood blonde. The problem was that, though it was to be a pan-European campaign, no one had actually consulted their European marketing director. "I think," says Mowlam with a resigned grimace, "that all the guys in the agency got a bit too worked up about the prospect of meeting her." Six months' work went down the drain.

This, it seems, is fairly much par for the course. You may think of celebrities as difficult but, according to Mowlam, when things go pear-shaped it is rarely the celebrity back-tracking. "It's never the celeb that pulls out: almost always the client for some reason or another. The hit rate is so low that we have to go through nine of these heartbreaks for one to actually come off. Agencies are always causing problems for themselves. Changing scripts, changing locations. When all the negotiations are done, they'll suddenly turn round and say they are leaving out three of the locations and want to cut the fee by a third. The artist is not really concerned about territories. As far as they're concerned, its a three-day shoot that pays so much money. The difficult thing at the time is not to be absolutely furious. You can't be angry with the client. You don't want to embarrass them."

Projects that Mowlam has worked on have ranged from the relatively dinky - Joanna Lumley opening a housing development, Nigel Hawthorne walking the Princess of Wales at a ballet gala - to the frighteningly enormous. They set up a worldwide deal for Steffi Graf to endorse Rexona-Sure anti- perspirant, scores of celebs to make sure the National Lottery launched itself with something more than a whimper, 32 household names for a national TV link-up for the First Choice Holidays relaunch. "We once got a phone call from an agency that was working on a worldwide campaign for Mastercard. They wanted people like Mikhail Gorbachev, Benazir Bhutto, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush and Henry Kissinger to front it. They were willing to pay up to $10m (pounds 6m) per person. They decided to go with a different tack in the end, but we had Gorbachev and Kissinger's agreement before they pulled the plug."

But Mowlam has to admit failure sometimes on the actual talent-getting. "It used to be an old cliche that to get involved in advertising was to get in bed with Beelzebub," says Mowlam, "and there are still some agencies that make it very well known that they will not have any of their clients do commercials."

It isn't, however, always advisable to take your agent's views as gospel. "Take Catherine Zeta Jones. When she was at the height of her popularity we must have gone to her agent two or three times with different projects: quite nice things like beauty products. The sort of money on offer was pretty good: pounds 500,000 or pounds 600,000. And the agent simply said `Nope, not having any of it'. If she was offered 500 grand now she'd probably jump at it".

The Talent Corporation, 12 Nottingham Place, London W1M 3FA (0171-224 5050).