Making brands famous at a time when marketing messages are easily drowned out requires great creative. It also requires not just a willingness but a commitment to looking beyond commercial forms. BBH seems to be one of the agencies that's knuckled down and started putting its creative heft behind these emerging opportunities, with major initiatives in music and content that propel the brands in its care further into consumer hearts and minds, and in the process change the way agencies are staffed and traditional agency revenue models. "The paid-for ad break exists in a world where it's much easier to avoid it," says executive CD John O'Keefe. "So the onus is on brands and therefore on agencies to find ways to not allow that to happen." This, of course, keeps pressure on the agency to raise the bar in terms of creativity. "You can't be second best in this market and hope to get away with it anymore. You've got to do stuff that people want to see." But beyond advertising lies content creation in various forms, which seems to be on everyone's lips, but perhaps not in their hearts. "We have to exist in the space around the ads. That gets us involved in programming and in publishing." The agency has made strides in both areas, leveraging its idea-driven ethic and its heritage as a TV and music force.
In addition to breakthrough creative - most recently for Levi's, Barclay's Bank, Lynx and Audi - BBH has undertaken an expansion of traditional agency parameters, bringing two new execs from the music and TV production industries into the agency fold and spearheading music, content and magazine publishing initiatives. The shop has launched Leap, a music publishing arm, and is spearheading a number of programming initiatives in partnerships with broadcasters. The agency's recent work for Lynx has yielded a chart-topping pop song and untold cultural penetration through media coverage, while its Mint Source arm, originally conceived as a new-directors scouting resource has also evolved into a music video creation and production source, furthering clients' marketing messages into the music realm while giving agency creatives a chance to stretch into longer-format ideas.
Such things are all part of the agency's "Zag" ethic, says chairman and worldwide creative director John Hegarty. "We've tried to manifest that is in as many ways as we can by thinking outside of the box and creating opportunities, realizing that brands don't just exist and live in a world called advertising," says Hegarty. "They live in a much broader and wider world, and brands have to be guided through that world and given a single voice - if it's in programming or it's in product sponsorship or music - whatever it might be. That voice has to be determined, we believe, by advertising agencies, because they are the ones who are the best custodians of brand values." The Zag credo will be applied to a new magazine the agency is creating. The new magazine, called Zag, will fall under the editorial direction of ex-Esquire editor Peter Howarth and will be produced out of a newly created custom publishing venture.
The learning curve in all of this is steep, says O'Keefe, but the efforts are already paying off for the agency and its clients. The recent ad for male odor-enhancer Lynx Pulse is a case in point The commercial itself continues the Lynx spot tradition, positioning the not necessarily conventionally attractive Lynx man as babe magnet. In it, a nerdy fellow starts busting a move in the middle of a bar, and is soon joined by two female admirers, the trio engaging in a catchy choreographed dance. Matt Kemsley, who heads BBH's design department, is also the writer and art director on the ad, which was directed by film collective Blue Source. The dance itself was dreamed up with the help of choreographer Richmond Talevega, who has worked with Michael Jackson and Christina Aguilera.
In the meantime, the spot has created a cultural phenomenon in Britain: it's been spun off into a song called "Make Luv," which sold 26,000 copies its first day and hit No. 1 in the U.K. charts just days after its CD release. There's a music video, and the dance appears on several popular U.K. shows, including the top game show Boys and Girls, where it's been incorporated as a round of competition. (O'Keefe says the agency even gets requests for the spot so people can rehearse the dance to do at weddings.)
With a product named Pulse, dance was the natural creative direction for the spot, and of course, selecting the song for the spot was clutch. "It had to be a track we could own, rather than a huge song from Madonna or some such," says BBH account director Bill Scott. The song was borrowed from an obscure DJ, Room 5, but it sampled a well-known '80s track, "Get Down Saturday Night," by Oliver Cheatham, and had been played in clubs to a limited extent but had never been released. Scott says the agency worked closely with the record company involved to integrate the launch of the track and the ad. The agency also designed the CD packaging to incorporate Lynx brand visual cues.
The cause of finding such undiscovered new artists will be furthered with the launch of Leap. The new arm represents a major extension of the agency's longstanding devotion to the power of music, and a profound leap for a U.K. agency, as well as an additional means of cultural penetration for its clients and a new revenue model for itself. "Publishing rights are the angle we're interested in," says O'Keefe. "We have a fantastic heritage, principally through Levi's, but in lots of other areas, of finding rare bits of music and sending them to No. 1 in the charts. So it's a natural progression for us." All of which is a win-win for musical talent, for the client and the agency. "When we put music on a commercial, the music makes the product famous and the commercial makes the music famous," O'Keefe continues. "Then we can release the music, do a video for it, ideally get it to the top of the charts, and we get a revenue stream from that and the clients get more opportunity to engage with consumers because their brand is behind it."
The agency has recruited Richard Kirstein, formerly of Zomba Records in London, as managing director of the new arm, a joint venture between Kirstein and BBH London (the Leap name is trademarked only in the U.K.). Kirstein, a musician and former commercials composer had been head of film, television and media at Zomba, responsible for promoting and licensing the label's music. "With the balance of power between the music industry and the ad world shifting in favor of the latter, and the growing importance of ads in marketing music, the time was right to bring music publishing into the agency," says Kirstein. Through Leap, Kirstein will source unsigned talent - those without an exclusive deal with a publisher (though they may have an existing record deal), and will handle all talent and rights negotiation issues, as well as acting as a de facto A&R person, uncovering new artists ripe for commercial plucking. "This is driven by the desire to find the best music that's going to create the best advertising; not solely as a revenue generator," Kirstein notes. "But it's also true that publishers and record companies do not have a monopoly on talent; there is a lot of great unsigned talent out there."
In finding songs, Leap will build relationships with the managers and lawyers of writers and artists who haven't been signed, and who may be leery of the uncertainty permeating the record industry now. "Given the current state of the business, you might sign to a label, and the person you signed with might not be there the following week," Kirstein explains. "We will talk to managers and lawyers and guarantee a song be used in a commercial in return for us acquiring the copyrights to that song - just that song, it's not an exclusive deal. And where the agency is able to acquire the sound recording as well, they will do that." In addition to acquiring unpublished songs, Leap will also act to commission original compositions, and again, retain the rights - a dramatic shift in London, where music production companies have typically retained copyrights (in the U.S., the client will often own the rights to original music).
At the same time, BBH is bringing the music video process in-house to a greater degree, allowing the agency to extend the tentacles of the brand and the imaginations of agency creatives. This effort grew as a natural extension out of Mint Source, says BBH head of production Frances Royle, who was the original architect of that project. The unit began as a new-directors resource, a way to prompt agency producers and creatives to think outside the framework of A-list London directors. "Because of our background in music and the importance of music in our commercials, we sort of ventured more and more into the record company side and into music generally, and we then talked about pop promos as an extension of that," says Royle. And while many new directors are drawn to clips, the quality of the genre was inconsistent at best, she believes. So having BBH creatives write the video ideas and having Mint Source'd directors execute them, facilitated through the BBH production department, made sense all around. The video for The Dysfunctionals' Nellee Hooper mix of "Payback Time" is a significant recent example (though not the first. BBH creatives have dabbled in promos before, going back a few years to ex-creatives Fred & Farid, who wrote ideas for Robbie Williams and French artist Doc Gyneco. Creatives from other forward-thinking agencies like Mother have also branched out into this area). BBH client Levi's has an existing music deal with Sony, but BBH convinced the client that it should handle the promo for the song, used in the latest BBH-created ad for Levi's Type One jeans. The "Swap" ad, directed by Michel Gondry through Partizan, features a group of mouse-headed yet still sexy and well-attired humanoid beings and their cat-kidnapping caper. The video for the track picks up the brand cues from the spot - it features a cat and mouse theme, with a stark graphic treatment of a cityscape, and includes cuts of a mouse-headed band playing the tune - without being a too obvious Levi's plug, a no-no in the promo world. This is yet another argument for the agency, ostensibly the experts at this sort of thing, to do the video. The video was created by Ali Augur, a creative in BBH's design department, working with BBH producer Andy Gulliman and animation shop Passion Pictures.
Similarly, BBH's Lynx video handily leverages the conceit of the spot, the now famous dance. The clip sends up the reality TV/pop idol search genre, as an assortment of aspiring young stars get down to the "Make Luv" track and jockey to please a panel of smarmy judges. The video was directed by Vito Rocco out of Partizan, which Royle says has been a regular collaborator. Again, though there were two record companies involved in the Lynx track, and one promo idea had already been tabled, Royle positioned Mint Source as the best promo partner. "We were looking for the track for the ad way in advance, and we always wanted to do the promo," she says. "The good thing about it is we were able to create some synergy between the commercial and the promo."
Music also forms the backbone of inaugural work for new BBH client KFC. Starting with the idea of the fast-food staple as soul food and communal experience, the plan to leverage the twin concepts of soul food and soul music, and the eventual release of a soul compilation CD, was built into BBH's pitch from the start. "Often, these things have to build," says O'Keefe. "You say at the pitch stage, 'You should be owning soul music,' and in time people will recognize you for being the home of soul music as well." After only a few ad executions, O'Keefe says KFC parent Yum received e-mail requests for information about the rare soul tracks and the availability of a compilation, vindicating the agency's approach. "A lot of stuff you say at pitches, clients might take with a pinch of salt, but we're very serious about these things. With something like putting out a great CD, it means people love the brand more, it means the KFC brand is in their car as well as in their stomachs. It's a holistic approach to keep those brands top of mind and famous in the media beyond the paid ad break."
The expansion of the brand's reach also means expanding the capabilities of the agency and its talent base. "It's a huge pressure on me to understand who I should be hiring; I need to start hiring people above and beyond my normal remit," says O'Keefe. It means reworking structure and the chain of command as well - a new hire, an experienced programming person who will spearhead content initiatives, will report to managing director Gwynn Jones, deputy chairman Jim Carroll and O'Keefe, as he is incorporated into agency culture. Truly exploiting content opportunities also means introducing new disciplines into the existing ad creation process from the outset. "We're trying to get programming-idea briefings into the creative department, so when they're coming up with advertising solutions they'll be thinking about how brands can be involved with mainstream TV, as opposed to solely mainstream advertising," says O'Keefe. And creative ideas with legs mean more creative people at the agency. "People with great ideas area scarce commodities, and the more we persuade them that this is going to be an interesting place to work and that their ideas are going to go into all sorts of interesting areas, the more and varied and better people we're going to get. The whole thing works on a lot of levels."