He Got Game

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Tomorrow's debut of MTV's newest series marks a milestone of sorts in the delicate dance between entertainment and advertising. The Gamekillers is unique in that it was born out of an ad agency to help promote a brand, but instead of becoming a glorified commercial, it's been developed as an entertainment property first and brand platform second. The process began more than two years ago at BBH, New York and resulted in a one-hour pilot special that ran on MTV in February 2006, a ton of subsequent tie-in advertising, and a quiver of industry accolades. But the premiere is significant in that it's the first chance to see how the idea will play out as a recurring series. We spoke to BBH, New York executive creative director Kevin Roddy about the process of putting the series together, the natural tension between Hollywood and Madison Ave, and how the entire experience has changed the way the agency looks at brand entertainment.

This has been quite a long process. Are you excited about the series premier?

I think the series premiere's going to be fantastic. I mean, the pilot was great, which was an hour and the series episodes will only be a half hour. But I think that's good because it works incredibly well in a half hour. It's nice and tight and precise, so I think it works well.

From what we hear, it was a big challenge to tie Axe in to the pilot show. What made MTV relax its policy on product mentions this time around?

I think a lot of it has to do with when we were in early discussions with MTV about the pilot, even all the way up to airing it, we were still in discussions about what we could do to find where, in terms of script development and other aspects, to fit Axe in to the show. We even had a whole campaign built around it that was specifically built into the show to make sure people connected the two but there was a big debate on just how closely the two could align. The one thing we found coming out of the pilot is, because it was handled so well in terms of the entertainment value of the show itself and Axe within the show, that our audience didn't mind. They weren't sitting at home saying, Oh my god, you've broken down the sacrosanct wall between advertising and entertainment and we hate you for it. It was actually the exact opposite. So I think that relaxed MTV quite a bit to where, as long as we keep the values of this thing high and it doesn't become a huge hard sell, there is some room to maneuver. And they did loosen up quite a bit.

There were skeptics on the entertainment side whether ad folks could produce an original series. Do you think this will waylay some of those doubts and open the door to more opportunities?

I absolutely hope so. It's funny, as I personally get executive producer credit on these things, all of a sudden for reasons I don't quite understand, I've got all this new credibility in this community because I can say I was EP on The Gamekillers. You're right though, when we first walked into this thing Hollywood was incredibly skeptical. They were like, "We know you guys can do a 30 second commercial but c'mon, this is 60 minutes. What gives us any confidence that you can do this kind of thing like keep a story arc and all that sort of stuff?" But when you do it once, and we also did it with Order of the Serpentine, so we've done it twice, people say, "OK you know how to do this." But we're also very upfront and honest in that we bring in a lot of outside help on these things. We work with @radical.media and we bring in long-form writers. We're still intimately involved, we don't just step back and say, "OK you guys go do it." But we bring in people who help Hollywood feel comfortable that this is going to be done well and up to their standards. So it's not simply an ad agency doing this, it's an ad agency with the help of some Hollywood insiders.

Did you guys have any self-doubts to overcome in putting together a project like this?

Yeah, but it's funny, when we first had this idea, I'll be honest, we went into it with all the hubris of we can do this without anyone's help. We quickly got beat back by networks and others saying, "Well, you might think you can do this on your own but the truth is it's much more complicated than than you think." And we learned they were right. It's a lot more complicated than putting a 30 second spot on a screen. But, with the help of the Unilever group and @radical.media, we learned a tremendous amount. So we went into this round of work in a different way. We knew there were certain things we needed help with and certain things we needed to control more and others we needed to let go of. It wasn't as scary this time. Last time it was a lot about not knowing quite what to expect and having to trust a lot of people and this time we knew a hell of a lot more, so while we had to trust a lot of people we also knew that people had to be able to trust us.

You could make the argument that this kind of project has never been done before like this, but the way I look at it is that Hollywood can absolutely bring a lot to this process, but we can also bring a lot that Hollywood doesn't know how to do. This isn't product placement, this truly is a branded effort. I call it brand entertainment as opposed to branded entertainment because we don't just take entertainment and brand it, this is entertainment that emanates from the brand and its positioning. Each party has to protect its place and that's the most complicated part of this process. Hollywood is protecting their entertainment by not wanting it to be too hard of a sell, which I totally understand and support because we don't want to pollute it so much that consumers are turned off. But at the same time we do have a brand that we're trying to support through this, so it has to have a place and has to have a role. That's always where the tension is. If anything, we know more about entertainment than they know about the brand, so in a way they have to trust us to a certain extent. We know the brand incredibly well and know what the consumers of this brand like. They know what the MTV audience likes but this isn't just an MTV show.

How has this experience informed how you approach brand content projects since?

It's totally changed the way we approach it. I have to say that working with Radical was a huge help for us because, we obviously worked on the pilot together, but they understand the world of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. They know both worlds incredibly well, so they truly were a great partner in bringing this thing to life. Now, I can't say what, but we're certainly working on some somewhat similar things for other clients. And what we've been able to bring to that based on what we learned from this experience is absolutely invaluable. It's also about walking into a room with a particular network and being able to say "We've done this, this and this." That opens doors that wouldn't have been open if we just came in and said, "We make 30 second TV commercials." There's just a trust factor that we didn't get back then, that we do get now. People listen to us differently.

Has that made you want to do more of these types of projects with more clients?

Well, without a doubt, this isn't right for some clients. It's not about, "Wow we know how to do this now let's just force it down the throats of some clients, even though it's not right." But it definitely does give us the confidence to meet with a client and be able to show the way this side of the equation works and we have a lot of experience with this and we bring something to the table that can get your brand into a place it has never been before and you can feel confident that we can help you get it there. So, yes it gives us some confidence but I'm hoping it also gives our clients confidence to say, "I think we can trust these guys with this, let's see where this can go."

Speaking of content creation – are you guys looking at content creation with out regard to a specific client, just ideas from in-house people that may develop into an entertainment or product property?

We do have that door open to us through a company we started a little over a year ago called Zag. It's sort of a brand generation company we started that's opened up to anyone in the company to bring ideas forward, including products, movie scripts, TV show ideas. If they bring it forward and the Zag folks like it, they'll put some effort and money behind it. And to be honest, there is one such thing in development in that regard. It's an entertainment property but I can't tell you what it is yet. The whole Zag idea is a huge opportunity for anyone within our company to have a great creative idea and actually have it made real.
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