Will Wieden Give Up The Entertainment Ghost?

Iconic shop's entertainment unit nearing crossroads

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%%STORYIMAGE_RIGHT%% It may be prime time for branded entertainment— thanks to the disruption in today's marketing and media businesses—but don't think the space is lucrative or easy to tackle, according to Madison + Vine pioneer and creative guru Dan Wieden.

"There's never been so many opportunities and people's brains are so open to experimenting right now," says Wieden, chairman of independent Wieden & Kennedy. "That's the good thing about crisis," he says. The bad is the significant problems marketers and agencies face from a marriage begun during what Wieden termed an "Oh, shit" moment as Hollywood was facing a cash crunch and Madison Avenue was struggling with the waning hegemony of TV advertising.

Wieden & Kennedy Entertainment was launched partly in reaction to the 1996 Michael Jordan-Bugs Bunny film "Space Jam," derived from a Wieden Nike spot, as the agency was unhappy that Hollywood was capitalizing on its ideas. But making deals has been like "a bunch of people trying to dance and nobody's listening to the same music," according to Wieden. He found himself naïve "to the politics of the entertainment world," where relationships "are not long-term or as grounded as they are in the agency business." "I know that is a strange thing to say," he adds, given the mercurial nature of client-agency relationships.

JUST LIP SERVICE

Despite lip service about being partners, "distributor networks and media companies really only wanted a check for sponsorship," asserts Bill Davenport, an agency partner and executive producer, Wieden & Kennedy Entertainment, who runs the unit.

That changed last year, says Davenport. "People [in the TV industry] are willing to experiment to see what works and what doesn't," he says. Even client Nike has created a "content group" headed by former ad executive Adam Ross.

Still, the prospect of working on branded entertainment provides drama worthy of any soap opera. "The client is not used to it and frankly we were not used to it," says Davenport. In the ad world, "the client writes a check and things happen [as promised] nine times out of 10," he says. With branded entertainment, "you've got a lot of planets to control," says Davenport, with the bulk of time spent setting up a deal.

Longer-form projects require thinking a year or two out, and even getting the client to watch an hour project in a corporate environment "requires the stamina of a marathon runner," says Davenport. On the agency's part, "you've got to really like the project because it's not going away in two months," he says. And in the end, "nothing is approved until it's on air," he notes.

LONG ODDS

"In the agency business, you know what you're getting into. Branded entertainment is primarily speculative in nature. No money is made unless it's a hit. And the odds of a hit are not in your favor," says Davenport.

Wieden thinks of it as a "wildcat oilman digging holes." A key to success in the space is securing intellectual property rights, he believes, not working as "for hire" agents. Even so, Wieden says, "one riddle" is whether an economic model exists which will make as much profit for agencies as traditional ad forms.

Wieden declines to discuss how much money he has lost or made on the operation over the years, or whether he has a limit on how much he would invest.

Indeed, the agency has had its share of dry holes, a few successes and no real gusher. One project, "Hurricane Season," about a girls' basketball team, made the rounds in Hollywood for four years, says Davenport, and then failed to make the final cut. Wieden, and partner @radical.media also spent four years in developing a Broadway musical, "Ball," inspired by a Nike commercial, about an aging basketball player and a budding young star. Nike is an investor and the parties are hopeful that the project will finally come together in the next month.

%%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%% Six projects came to fruition last year, including two-hour Nike documentary "Battleground," about an inner-city basketball tournament that aired on MTV and BET at no cost to the client. It'll be sold as a DVD and is under consideration for a TV series. Wieden's New York office produced "Jordan Love Stories," which aired on TNT at no cost to Nike's Brand Jordan and "Sweet Science," a 45 minute documentary on ESPN about Roy Jones Jr.'s heavyweight-championship fight.

Other branded entertainment projects included three CDs from its Tokyo office on its own record label, W+K Tokyo Lab, including the No. 1 Japanese club music selection.

NEW PROJECTS

Projects in progress include a possible TV series based on the Miller High Life man featured in Wieden's lauded TV ad campaign and directed by acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris, and a documentary following Nike athlete Marion Jones from childbirth to the Olympic trials.

Despite the accumulated frustrations, Davenport optimistically envisions the unit as becoming fully integrated in an "organic" way to the agency's creative process, and even acting as a beacon for drawing new clients to the agency's roster. But then sometimes he thinks "time has come for us to make this thing go or give it up," he admits. His remaining threshold for entertainment growing pains appears to be another five years at the most, and maybe as low as two.

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