And How the Shop Is Proving Itself

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SAN FRANCISCO -- In early 2004, Wieden & Kennedy Entertainment CEO and founder Bill Davenport gave the division two years to prove itself before putting a chalk outline around branded entertainment.
The release of “Ginga” caps a rollout of successful projects, and a bevy of new ones in production, to make Wieden & Kennedy Entertainment one of the most active branded entertainment divisions at an advertising agency.

With that deadline fast approaching, branded entertainment appears alive and well at Wieden & Kennedy. In fact, the company's pioneering unit has never been busier.

Biggest project

On Dec. 18, Wieden & Kennedy Entertainment bows one of its biggest projects to date, an hour-long documentary about soccer in Brazil called “Ginga,” which refers to the African word that describes the magical physical movement of Brazil’s soccer players.

The project will air in the U.S. on the Fox Soccer channel and on Fox Sports en Espanol, then will be turned into two- to five-minute versions that will appear online. Extended versions of the film will be submitted to festivals and theaters around the world.

The release of “Ginga” caps a roll out of successful projects, and a bevy of new ones in production, to make Wieden & Kennedy Entertainment one of the most active branded entertainment divisions at an advertising agency. Other shops have considered getting more active in the space; TBWA/Chiat/Day, for instance, will soon launch a branded entertainment division under the reins of North American Creative Director Chuck McBride.

Outside of “Ginga,” Wieden & Kennedy Entertainment recently completed its third season of “Battlegrounds,” Nike's salute to street basketball. Last year's effort centered on an international search for the "king of the court," the best one-on-one basketball player in the world. This year, NBA star LeBron James, who is under contract with Nike, supervised a tournament that pitted summer basketball teams from New York and Chicago in a contest on Mr. James’ personal court in Akron, Ohio.

TV spot that became a show

At the same time, the unit has helped parlay a spot for ESPN’s “Without Sports” ad campaign into a TV show for the Sundance Channel. Director Brett Morgan, who helmed the documentary “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” worked with Wieden’s New York office to produce a “Without Sports” spot involving the Nimrods, a high-school basketball team from Watersmeet, Mich. After the ad broke, the ensuing publicity, including a “Tonight Show” segment, led to sales of almost a half million dollars in Nimrod merchandise.
The release of “Ginga” caps a rollout of successful projects, and a bevy of new ones in production, to make Wieden & Kennedy Entertainment one of the most active branded entertainment divisions at an advertising agency.

Other evidence that the Hollywood dream may finally be taking hold in today's marketing world is the quick turnaround of a half-hour special called “The Sims Life,” which was produced for video-game publisher Electronic Arts in about two months. It aired during MTV’s gamers-week programming. The strategy behind “The Sims Life” was to expose facets of the role-playing game, such as the ability to make an in-game movie and to expand the game’s appeal to a broader target audience.

Other projects in the works at Wieden & Kennedy Entertainment include one recently greenlighted for ESPN’s “SportsCenter” from Wieden's New York office. Another is in development for Coca-Cola Co.’s Powerade sports drink. Mr. Davenport said he has a number of concepts in mind for Coke, Wieden's new global client.

Every marketer a network

Mr. Davenport believes the business is about to see a branded content explosion as the expansion of consumer access to broadband potentially makes every marketer with a Web site a network. However, there are some entertainment genres that may not be possible to tap. Mr. Davenport has been trying for a number of years to produce a Broadway play based on a Nike TV spot that featured rhythmic ball-bouncing and athletic moves. The play, called “Ball,” has been re-written two or three times, Mr. Davenport said, describing the journey as “development hell.”

Wieden started its entertainment unit 10 years ago with Mr. Davenport working as its head while tackling other agency duties. He took over full time three years ago and his recent success has led to his looking to expand the three-employee unit with two new hires.

“This space is really changing,” morphing through three distinct phases over the last two years, Mr. Davenport said. At first, TV and film studios and others in the business were disinclined to even take meetings.

New level of Hollywood enthusiasm

That phase was followed by one in which meetings were easier to arrange, but production sources simply wanted a check from marketers. But over the last two years, Mr. Davenport said, studios and other entertainment players are asking, “‘What can we do together?’ They realize we're all in the same boat and are trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

Some Hollywood executives are even are taking the initiative to develop concepts directly for marketers.

“Everyone wants to talk with us and our clients,” Mr. Davenport said.

Also helping things along is a move by marketers to establish internal divisions focused on branded content. At least two of Wieden's clients -- Electronic Arts and Nike -- have such in-house evangelists. Starbucks also has a content division but Wieden’s entertainment unit does not work with them.

Still, some hurdles remain. Measuring the effectiveness of branded entertainment is one.

Blogs, fan sites and buzz

Mr. Davenport said he tends to check a program’s ratings, but he also reads blogs, checks fan sites and takes other informal steps to see what buzz the program generated to judge whether a project was successful or not. He also is careful to monitor internal reactions. Often the programming is targeted to enthusiast groups or others in a subculture often represented at the client company or at the agency, he said.

And a number of issues still are problematic for Mr. Davenport when it comes to branded entertainment.

For starters, branded entertainment is still an afterthought in the marketing process, he said. And if it does get produced, there are timing issues. Marketers are used to control in the traditional advertising process. They set a budget, create a spot, and even control how much of it is seen.

“If advertising is a sprint, this stuff is a marathon,” Mr. Davenport said.

Branded entertainment, on the other hand, he said, is a discipline foreign to traditional advertising organizations, which have processed ads for decades through account directors and creatives. "No one is sure of their role in the process," he said. Actual production also involves negotiations, people changing schedules, changing their minds. There's also the reality that many of these projects take 16 months or longer to produce. With the rapid turnaround in today's executive suites, projects started under one exec might fall in the lap of his successor.

“No one is sure of their role in the process,” he said.

Actual production can involve negotiations, people changing schedules or their minds.

“It’s hard to get the planets in line and keep them in line,” Mr. Davenport said. “There is no proven tried and true process.”

Compensation is another issue with no industry standard, Mr. Davenport said, calling Madison & Vine deal making the “wild, wild West.”

In a business where many players are used to participating in the box office or through the back-end on projects, so far all of the content produced by the Wieden unit follows the advertising model and is owned by the marketer. Marketers involved in the projects generally don't pay the networks to air the shows, he said, with many deals done on barter arrangements.

“We need to figure out a way how not to penalize ourselves for being the client's agency,” Mr. Davenport said.
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