TBWA is looking to energize and monetize its in-house musical talent with an initiative that's a cross between iTunes, American Idol and an old-fashioned Battle of the Bands. After 300 top TBWA employees were given a 10-year timeline to make the agency "the world's most creative company" in a summit last May, Los Angeles ECD Rob Schwartz saw tapping some of the musical potential at the network as a good start. An office-wide email call for original music netted 40 different songs, and Schwartz figured he was on to something. Thus Disruptunes was born.
"I brought them home for my kids—they're 11 and 9—and they had to have the songs downloaded on their iPods," Schwartz says. So, the idea became to take the challenge to the 9,000-employee strong company, orchestrated through the MyTBWA.com internal network. "It's really for us," Schwartz says, "But if other entities hear it—other agencies or clients, or if Hollywood gets wind of something good—we'd love to share the music with them." A player on the MyTBWA site records how many people are listening and downloading the songs to see what proves to be the most popular, a top 10 that will be compiled into an album. And if any of the songs cross over to become a phenomenon, or sound just right for that next Nissan spot, the musician responsible gets paid.
"What we're thinking of doing is creating a sharing agreement between the artist and the agency," Schwartz says. In addition to potential cash and the album, there's the potential for a TBWA-a-palooza-type charity benefit, and, of course, the HR bonus that comes with being a company that encourages employees to mess around with their bands. "There's chronic pressure on the big agencies and the networks to produce revenue, and I think that that's driving a lot of this extra-curricular stuff. It's not that we don't have the pressure to create revenue but our first mandate is creativity."
Here's another dream, says Schwartz: "That the song becomes wildly successful; no one had ever heard it and we were able to bring it to a wider audience. And if it winds up on an Energizer spot, more power to our clients. TV commercials are our radio. Now more than ever, something plays on a commercial and all of a sudden the band's hot again or a new band gets discovered." (NP)
Wieden + Kennedy, New York
In 2004 Wieden + Kennedy asked, in a memorable ESPN campaign, "Without sports, who would cheer for the Nimrods?" and introduced the high school basketball fans of Watersmeet, Michigan to TV audiences. "Nimrod Nation," an eight-episode documentary which debuted in November on The Sundance Channel, is asking if people will still cheer for the Nimrods when the small town sports mask is peeled back to reveal real issues in a rural community.
"The joke 'Nimrod' lasts for 30 seconds," says director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Chicago 10). "We knew, going forward into a television series, we shouldn't even make that joke." The series portrays a community rife with modern problems yet very much grounded in the past—fewer trappings of celebrity, more trapping of beaver; it's the anti-Laguna Beach.
Morgen and W+K executive creative director Kevin Proudfoot (who's an executive producer on the show) decided soon after their success with the Nimrod spots the town would be well suited to a longer portrait, and after first shopping the idea to ESPN the project landed at Sundance.
The series was produced through Morgen's company, Public Road productions, with Wieden + Kennedy Entertainment, the agency's idea-enabling system (which produced Nike's "Battlegrounds" series), receiving a co-credit. Most of the budget—$1.5 million, about four times as much as the original spots—is on the screen. A team of 15 spent four months in Watersmeet while 30 worked on eight months of post production.
According to Morgen, it'd be difficult to get a similar show onto Sundance were the process to start again today, in that "Nimrod Nation" has no corporate partner, and not much of a prospect of finding one—the kids curse, the grown ups hunt and there are few punches pulled, including subjects dressing a deer and somewhat comically putting a bullet in the brain of a kept pig in the first episode.
"Being involved in the production of the show was important for Wieden + Kennedy Entertainment," says Proudfoot. "It was a show we wanted to see on the air, and that was important to us. Let's do something we want to see, something we want to watch." (NP)
Mother is exactly the type of agency you'd expect to have its nimble fingers in entrepreneurial pies, and it does—the London Mother ship has been known for colorful side projects like the awarded "Uncarriable Carrier Bags" (a series of shopping bags emblazoned with humorously retail-unfriendly slogans) since its inception.
All three offices— London, Buenos Aires and New York— also recently collaborated on a project for New York's BlueQ. BlueQ produces novelty items like gums and soaps for which Mother handles branding, design and advertising. In October the New York office gave its first party to kick off the new venture, BlueQ Books, The Mother Series. A half-dozen drag queens fully costumed signed copies of the tiny books, with such titles as 18 Things You Never Knew You Could Do With A Small Stone, Yo! Check the Perm, I Date A Hooker and The Holy Bibel.
But Mother really got cooking in 2006 with the creation of a gourmet hot dog business, The Dogmatic Gourmet Sausage System. Partner Andrew Deitchman and his wife Heather Baltz conceived of an haute dog cart while living in London and with Mother on board (as well as Jeremy Spector, former chef at stylish NY boozeria Employees Only) set up shop in August 06 in Manhattan's Bleecker Street Park. And no, this isn't your run of the mill street meat. Dogmatic dogs are made of happy pasture raised creatures, tucked into Pain d'Avignon bagettes toasted on a spike, and topped with the likes of jalapeno cheddar and truffle gruyere sauces. Mother has has since sold Dogmatic, but will continue to collaborate on the deluxe dog company's next incarnation. (NP)
Recognizing the dearth of well designed online shopping sites, New York-based Sarkissian Mason took the initiative and developed Shopnik, its own web shopping brand.
Shopnik allows users to customize the items shown on the site (digital cameras, laptops, big screen TVs) based on product attributes controlled by sliders, narrowing down cameras, for example, by image quality, price or brand. As users move through the array of products, the slick interface automatically resizes images based on a proprietary technology Sarkissian Mason has patented.
Of the eight people in the company who worked on the project, the main contributors received equity in the form of phantom stock in the project, meaning if S-M sells the site they get a percentage of the sales price. Agency president Patrick Sarkissian says the equity part of the deal pushes everyone involved in the project. "The guys want to go to usability; they want to go be involved in every little decision, because they feel like it's partly their company."
In soft launch now, the site will be soon be part of a brand-building and PR campaign to reach out to 25-40 year-old men who live in urban centers with high disposable incomes and internet usage. While several brands have expressed interest in licensing the technology, Sarkissian says, the company is looking to build the brand first and worry about how it fits into others' plans second. For now, the site makes money by referrals—when a customer goes to the purchase page on a retailer's site through Shopnik, S-M gets paid.
Products featured on the site are hand-chosen rather than added willy-nilly. Sarkissian says placing that premium on good looking products that will entice shoppers sick of bland retailer sites. "Long term, I want to have this as the alternative to C-Net," he says. "I think a lot of people buy based on the emotion of design."
Sarkissian sums up the rush to ownership nicely: "I think you can differentiate, from what we're seeing, those using existing tools to build [things] and those companies that go out and completely create their own language. You can create a system that makes billions of dollars and you sell it, but there's uniqueness in a lot of the small companies I see around me that are saying 'Well, I'm hiring computer science engineers that can create a new language or their own scripting invention and then create a tool that nobody has.'" (NP)
The Ghost of Bobby
Sometimes creative collaborations spring up from unlikely places, as demonstrated by 72andSunny Publishing's inaugural effort, a children's tale called The Ghost of Bobby. Creative director John Boiler partnered with old chum David Miller—the two crossed paths when both were at Wieden + Kennedy, Amsterdam, where Miller was managing director until 2005—to publish a tale David had told his daughter.
The story, set in London in the 19th century, follows twins named Sammy and Thomas as they flee a villain named Skeets, helped along the way by the titular canine. In addition to using agency artist Julia Kuo to illustrate the 138-page book, 72andSunny has designed a website and animated short to accompany the title's launch. For now, the book will be available on Amazon and other retail channels, or directly through the website, but the agency is working to get the book in Los Angeles-area stores. (NP)
Razorfish Idea Labs
Spearheaded by its VP of User Experience Garrick Schmidt, Avenue A | Razorfish's Idea Labs allows its staff to take a breather from client accounts for a few months to build and develop new media concepts and services to promote client brands, with the hopes of generating new income. "Basically, we solicit ideas from the organization so it's a very grassroots thing," says Schmidt. "The goal is to really come up with things that our clients haven't begun to think about yet. We'll put a really small team, typically a developer, a creative director, maybe a copywriter or an experienced designer, and say let's give them 90 days or so to bang it out and see what happens."
Among the current creations (most still in alpha), the agency's Smartpox site (www.smartpox.com) is community-run and based upon the development and distribution of mobile bar codes, a tool which has been used more recently on a campaign for Red Bull. Using what's actually a 2D barcode filled with data, visitors can decode the barcode with a Smartpox reader and create Smartpox tags using either a URL, an email address, a telephone number, or plain text.
"Basically, with the camera on your cell phone, it takes a picture of the barcode and then it translates whatever that is into an image, a movie, a music file, whatever has been encoded in that two-dimensional image," Schmidt explains. "Apple did some neat stuff with it in Asia, the BBC's played around with it in the U.K. We get great international traffic, and it gets about 500-1,000 people a day hitting that site. A lot of our clients have also played with prototypes of it."
There's also MMOD, an internal prototype of a dynamic ad-insertion platform for podcasts, videocasts and other downloadble media; Newsbreakr, a community site, this time for journalists, allowing users to post text, image and video via mobile devices; and more recently, BuzzMap, an RSS subscription service focused on people versus content. (KA)
In April 2006, BBH launched a brand invention division called Zag. Headed by Neil Munn, a former global brand director for Unilever, Zag has a presence in all of the agency's world offices. The goal of the division, according to Munn, is to identify "brand lags," places where consumer activity outpaces brand activity, and create projects that will fill the demand, projects the company can develop on its own, license to a third party or around which it can create partnerships.
"Strategically we're always looking globally to find where the most fertile brand lags are and that drives a lot of our focus in terms of conceiving new brands and concepts," says Munn.
There are a few projects that are close to fruition, and Munn remains mum on most of the details, saying only, "We're going to launch a brand in the seduction space [ed: whatever could this be?], we've taken equity stakes in a health and wellness business, and we are on the verge of taking an active stake in a foods business."
One project that is past the point of ambiguous description is Dogside, a pet apparel brand launching this month that will be initially only available online and is said to cater to canine fashion needs beyond the Paris Hilton set. "The idea originated in London," says BBH, New York executive creative director Kevin Roddy. "BBH developed the products, graphic identity, built the website, outsourced manufacturing; literally from soup to nuts, we've done everything."
"This is an essential evolution of any big, successful, brand-building agency like BBH," says Munn. "Where are we in terms of our long-term trajectory plan? I think we're very excited by the potential and possibilities that we're developing. At the same time it's very challenging because we're trying to put a business model in place that's not been there before."
Both Munn and BBH, New York executive creative director Kevin Roddy say that an initiative like Zag is more than just a small side project for the agency but a legitimate business arm of BBH. It's this fact, they say, that sets the agency apart and sends a message to its current and potential clients. "To some degree, it helps clients understand that we understand what they do," says Roddy. "We're not just an advertising agency that's coming in to help with their communications, we actually have a business of our own where we have to do everything they do, from manufacturing to marketing. I think this is one of the more exciting things we've got going on in the company because it truly is putting our money where our mouth is." (JB)
JWT: The Nursery
Deep in the bowels of JWT, New York lurks a small cadre of creative talent that has nothing to do with advertising. Well, almost nothing.
In January 2006, JWT launched a creative initiative for original content dubbed The Nursery within its post/digital studio JWTwo. According to managing director of JWTwo Drew Vogelman and director of emerging media David Rosenberg, there wasn't any set plan for what The Nursery was to accomplish, the agency just knew it was something that it needed to do.
"To me, it was about having this huge shop in JWTwo that has amazing facilities and technology and we're never running at 100 percent capacity, and I thought why not get some of these kids, untapped talent, to come in?" says Vogelman. "For them it's an opportunity to work in this incredible technology environment, where they can run free. The idea is it's not about clients. They make things they want to make but if we see opportunities to utilize that stuff then we can find ways to do something with that."
Rosenberg adds, "I think it was more a matter of, we don't know where it's going—no one really does— but we do know this: If we're not doing it and trying things, we're going to be far behind everyone else that is and at a lot more disadvantage if we don't."
Through the website, TheNursery.tv, the creative experiment has spawned a number of recurring animation series. "Predators of the Sprawl" is a video and web comic series that gives various urban characters the Brothers Grimm treatment, "14th Dimension ER" follows a doctor who's been zapped to a bizarro hospital in another dimension, and "Flex N' Zephyr" are two metrosexual cops who trade grooming tips while fighting crime. The latter series was picked up by Comedy Central to run as webisodes on the cable channel's site.
While the agency doesn't use The Nursery for client work, Rosenberg says the project has benefits which do apply to the client side of its business, like, for example, relationships formed with YouTube and Google, originally for The Nursery, that now help with client work. "We have more than four million views of our content and with (Nursery) stuff getting picked up on blogs and various sites, as well," says Rosenberg. "The lessons we get from it about being transparent and authentic and all the things that really come into play when you're talking about content and brands online, we can pass on to our client."
As a brand of sorts itself, Rosenberg says it's not unfathomable that The Nursery will extend into the gaming realm and possibly clothing. But regardless of its original intention, Rosenberg is confident the experiment has paid off. "The Nursery plays a very important part in how we put ourselves out in new business discussions or discussions about business development or strategic partnerships," he says. "Having the capacity to create original content is pretty much a part of every conversation I get into (with clients)." (JB)
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