Strange as it sounds, Gunn's desription may capture the spirit of his company far more truthfully than any trite mission statement. Founded in 2003, Gunn's New York-based company is a "spaceman" in its own right—a trailblazer of sorts that doesn't fit into the characteristic garb of "advertising agency," "production company" or "interactive studio," but wears elements of all. The company crafts entertaining stories, often in the form of web-based film shorts that spread like wildfire, with a refreshing lack of intrusive brand messaging. "The unifying idea that brought the partners together was the agreement that none of us liked marketing, or being marketed to," says Gunn. "None of us believed that the correct way to start a relationship with someone was to interrupt their leisure with marketing messages. If your messaging is built on a platform of interruption, the foundation of that relationship is fragile, and the consumer is transient. But if you start a relationship by conveying a brand's values through something the audience loves, then that relationship can not only be maintained, but hopefully grown."
Meanwhile, Gunn needed to grow the perception that incorporating brands into engaging stories was the key to winning over the most cynical of consumers. "At the beginning, we were operating on a hunch that this idea of reciprocity would work," says Gunn. "The brave clients were the ones at the beginning who said, 'Wow, that sounds crazy. Let's do it.' After we did 'Meet The Lucky Ones' for Mercury, it suddenly had some science behind it, and since then, it's been easy to convince clients that this is a good idea because of the results we get." Indeed, the amazing viral success of that 2004 online campaign, in which the stories of 10 quirky characters gradually unfolded over five weeks in a series of irreverent 30-second films at MeetTheLuckyOnes.com, helped put Kirt Gunn & Associates on the map and paved the way for later efforts like 2005's "Hurra Torpedo," the part-reality, part-fictional "rockumentary" online film series for Ford that followed the kitchen appliance-smashing adventures of a real-life Norwegian band on their first U.S. tour. Both of those signature KGA projects boasted the company's trademark blend of intricate storylines, offbeat humor and high-quality cinematic production values, as well as an uncanny knack for resonating with the internet community.
But despite their web-friendly track record, Gunn doesn't believe that the digital landscape is the only playground for him and his band of storytellers. "I guess we've gotten the most attention for these web-based narratives, but it's not all we do," says Gunn. "Originally, we believed that there had to be a digital element involved so that we weren't threatening to the traditional agencies—but we eventually discovered that any good idea was fair game once we had the trust of the agency and the client. So we've evolved into a company that makes feature films, television shows and video games in addition to viral videos and episodic content—and we've even started to develop products like toys . But at the end of the day, at the core, there is always an underlying story." That willingness to explore any media and all platforms has resulted in projects like the Volvo Drive For Life video game, a fully-realized racing title for the Xbox that rivals any next-gen console game. Then there's the feature-length film Gunn wrote and directed as part of a 2006 effort for Lincoln and Mercury, in which a series of short clips from the full movie were unveiled through a pair of parallel web destinations dubbed "The Neverything" and "Lovely By Surprise." Building off the positive feedback the clips have received, Gunn has begun to submit film to the festival circuit with the goal of landing a distribution deal (several festivals have already accepted the film, and discussions to sell the film are taking place). Plans are also underway to edit the more than 200 hours of "Hurra Torpedo" footage into a full-length movie. "From the start, we've pitched ideas for our advertising projects that could have a second life as content somewhere else—on TV, in the theater, online," says KGA partner Ed Herbstman. "The advertiser can co-own that content, or help us develop it as a sponsored show. Either way, it adds to the value of their investment. Lately, we're also being called upon by networks and studios to develop content from scratch. We have a project that we're selling as a one-off special to a cable network, and we're working on developing show ideas with some networks as well. Our writers and creatives all come from a long-form background, so it's a natural fit."
The creative roster at Kirt Gunn & Associates comes from Hollywood and other corners of the entertainment world, including Herbstman (longtime contributor to Da Ali G Show and The Daily Show), and a founding partner of improv comedy house The Magnet Theater , digital creative director Karen Ingram (a prolific designer and illustrator who runs the experimental animation website Krening.com) and a stable of writers that includes screenwriters, comedy performers who've appeared on The Office and Late Night With Conan O'Brien, a contributing writer for The Onion and a former editor for Maxim and Playboy. On the production side, KGA is launching a film and video production division to complement the technology group headed by Greg Lofaro, and rounding out the team are new hires Sean McCarthy (formerly managing director at Euro RSCG 4D/New York) and Karen Monahan (previously a web producer at R/GA and digital head of production at Big Spaceship). "We are known for having a pretty unconventional group," laughs Gunn. "It's an interesting mix of wonderful loons from the content world, and some responsible adults who keep the trains on time."
With so much creative firepower in one place, how does the creative process work? "You heard the list of folks we work with," says Gunn. "You can't structure that environment too much. We're small enough that we try to include everyone in the creative process. We sit around a table and discuss ideas, argue and experiment with things we haven't done before. At some point, we realize it's late and we'd better take off the monkey costumes and clean up the feces. At that point, we stop, write down all of the good ideas and go home." Despite the range of expertise within KGA's creative collective, collaboration remains the way of the interactive advertising world—and Gunn is aware that partnerships and specialization will always be an integral part of doing business. "We're very comfortable collaborating with agencies," he says. "We know that they do something well that we don't do at all, and they know the same of us. We don't seek out AOR relationships, and we don't offer high level strategy or account management as a service. We focus on a specific type of storytelling that isn't usually in the agency bag of tricks—so we don't feel competitive. And they probably aren't going to start sustaining stables of screenwriters or Xbox game designers. So it's easy to split the chores." Adds McCarthy,
"We don't have time for politics, and we attract agencies that have the same ethic. The company tends to work with the same agencies and clients for a long time." That loyalty is evident in the longevity of KGA's relationships with agencies like Wunderman/Detroit and Y&R/N.Y. (the agencies that recruited KGA for "Meet The Lucky Ones"), JWT/Detroit (which brought KGA onboard for "Hurra Torpedo"), Mother (Paul Malmstrom first teamed with KGA on "Meet The Lucky Ones," and Linus Karlsson later collaborated with the company on an online effort for 10 Cane Rum), Publicis/N.Y. (creative director Bertrand Garbassi first met KGA while working at Y&R during—you guessed it—"Meet The Lucky Ones," and recently tapped the company to produce the "Men With Cramps" campaign for ThermaCare Menstrual Patches, in which fictional doctor Gerhardt Fardel exposes the epidemic of male menstrual cramps in a series of viral videos, and Euro RSCG 4D (KGA's agency partner for the Volvo Xbox game). Recalls Garbassi of his first collaboration with Gunn, "We were both eager to experiment with new media at a time when new media was in its infancy." And commenting on the working relationship formed with KGA during the year in which the company shared office space with Mother, partner and strategist Andrew Deitchman notes, "We have one big table at Mother with lots of different people and perspectives—they simply became an extension of our table. That's the best compliment we can give anyone we work with."
As for production companies, while KGA has often collaborated with @radical.media in the past (including on "Meet The Lucky Ones" and "Hurra Torpedo"), recent projects like "Men With Cramps" were produced by KGA under the supervision of former @radical executive producer Greg Schultz, reflecting a concerted effort to bring production duties in-house. Says Lofaro, "Production is obviously changing into something wholly different than it was ten years ago—creating and managing assets is a different game in the digital age. Because we have this goal of making more content (a whole show or a feature film, for example) for the same amount of money usually spent making a TV spot, we've found it hard to teach our process to a production company. So we're making our own."
The latest foray of Kirt Gunn & Associates into the advertising realm tapped into the prevailing trend of social media, as the launch of Lincoln's MyDream.tv, an online social network centered on 25 documentary short films that inspire visitors to achieve their dreams, took full advantage of the company's new HD proficiency. At the same time, Gunn plans to make the creative voices at KGA heard in other arenas—perhaps even the political one. "We were recruited to work on a presidential campaign in 2004, but the candidate went from being the frontrunner to being an afterthought with one long scream," laughs Gunn. "So we never went into action. We have been talking to some of the candidates this time around, and we may do something in the upcoming race. We'll see."
Before that happens, the company will undergo a re-branding of sorts, with a major expansion of its New York office, a potential merger and a name change that may or may not demystify their identity in the eyes of the uninitiated. And while all of this upheaval is going on, don't worry if you can't find Gunn and the rest of his storytelling gang—just look to the stars. They are spacemen, after all.