Although the series joins an existing trend of creative agencies branching out beyond traditional advertising, the scale and scope this time is unique. And while media agencies have occasionally been intricately involved in original programming, it's unusual for a creative shop to play such a hands-on role in partnering with a media outlet on such an extensive piece of content.
The series, "Head to Head," follows two Mississippi high school football coaches and their teams through an entire season. It debuts nationwide on FSN affiliates April 12.
'Completely beyond' normal scope
Y&R executives say their experience as brand stewards and storytellers makes the task a natural fit, but they acknowledge it's uncharted territory. "This is completely beyond the scope of what we normally do," said Y&R Global Chief Creative Officer Tony Granger. "It's a new approach."
The project wasn't originally intended to be groundbreaking, as its original brief involved simply redesigning a portion of Cellular South's website to incorporate more original content. The regional marketer was struggling to maintain brand-name recognition amid the ongoing advertising blitz from Verizon and AT&T, and it saw the effectiveness of its traditional TV spots and newspaper ads dwindling.
"We wanted to tell some great stories," said Kerry Keenan, Y&R's global director of creative content. "So we did some research, and it took us about two seconds to figure out that high-school football is the social fabric of these communities."
Ms. Keenan said the agency quickly zeroed in on high-school rivalries -- a subject explored extensively by Gatorade and other sports marketers in recent years -- and, as it began documenting those, it became captivated by the coaches, who tended to be charismatic and, in many rural communities, were regarded "almost like mayors."
Regional airings go national
The series began airing in some southern markets last fall, on the Monday following each Friday night's game. The undertaking was enormous -- the agency was shooting 70 hours of a film a week -- but its strong ratings demonstrated the appeal that wound up drawing in FSN for a national rollout.
"We love the show and are excited to bring it to our affiliates and their viewers across the country," said David Sussin, FSN's VP of Programming.
The broadcast deal calls for Cellular South to be named the presenting sponsor of the series and receive two 30-second spots in each episode. Revenue from ad sales is being shared between Y&R and FSN.
Mr. Granger said he believed projects such as this one could become an increasingly important part of the agency business in the future, but he recognized that such a shift posed logistical problems. "It's a new opportunity and a new challenge for us," he said. "The creative teams used to disappear for a week [for a shoot], and now they disappear for three months, and they need a month of vacation when they get back."