Traditionally, media outlets have created content and advertising agencies have created the commercials -- or "communications" -- that support it. But with barriers breaking down between promotions and programs, more advertising agencies are getting involved in content creation.
Typically content experimentation has been the domain of some of the biggest advertising players in the industry such as BBDO Worldwide, Leo Burnett USA and Grey Worldwide, which over the years have been involved in creating programming directly with clients such as PepsiCola Co., Hallmark Cards and Kraft Foods, respectively. Most recently, McCann-Erickson Worldwide announced the formation of a TV production unit that will develop family-friendly shows and events with advertisers.
But innovations are bubbling up from smaller agencies and boutiques as well. Crispin Porter+Bogusky, Miami has been heavily involved in creating basketball documentaries. Persaud Bros., a small marketing company based in New York, has signed a deal with production company Palomar Pictures to create films for it. And KesselsKramer, a hot shop based in Amsterdam, has expanded to become a book publisher.
These shops are at the forefront of a movement that blurs the lines between traditional advertising and content.
The new content experimenters believe this is the future for advertising, especially since the introduction of TiVo and Replay, which will allow users to zap out ads, and other technologies that provide users with the ability to pick from an endless array of content options. The new content creators believe advertisers will have to embed their messages in programs in order to have them heard.
"We want to be there," said Michael Persaud, president-CEO of Persaud Bros. "We don't want to be the outsider advertising agency trying to get inside Hollywood; we want to be part of that relationship organically."
IN SUNNY FLORIDA
Thousands of miles away from Hollywood are the offices of Crispin, in Coconut Grove, Fla., overlooking sleek powerboats docked in Grove Key Marina. In the distance, on Biscayne Bay, is picturesque Stiltsville, a village of homes standing on poles above the water. It's a fun, sunny place, the perfect locale for an upbeat hot shop known for its anti-tobacco "Truth" campaigns for the U.S. government. The creative department, on the ninth floor, is cluttered with bicycles, inline skates and basketball hoops. Alex Bogusky, partner and creative director, presides over the playpen.
He's just launched a new department at the agency. It's called Plus, after the plus sign in the company's name, and it is devoted to creating things that are not necessarily advertising.
"Clients need things that are more like inventions than the usual media," Mr. Bogusky said, "so you create your own media to carry your message. And those tend to be more long format, not :30s not :15s. We are doing projects outside of advertising -- short films and books, things like that."
Crispin Porter started the division after putting together a series of videos for client And1, which manufactures basketball apparel. The agency -- working on a print campaign for And1, based on the theme of "Playground legends," or streetballers -- began collecting videotapes of players for image ideas. One tape was of a playground hoops legend named Rafer Alston, aka "Skip to my Lou," who also plays for the Milwaukee Bucks.
"They didn't have any organized footage," said Alex Burnard, art director at Crispin Porter. "All they had was this rough stuff shot by somebody's cousin up at Rucker Park in Manhattan. Our agency was captivated by the footage. So we thought we would make these bootleg tapes. The rest of the world needed to see these things. We presented the idea to the client."
The first tape was a compilation of footage from different sources. It featured various streetball games with "Skip to My Lou" and other "legends" performing gravity-defying moves you don't see in NBA games.
The second tape was shot largely by Mr. Burnard and Rupert Samuel, Crispin's in-house producer. Both utilize hip-hop sound tracks.
The agency dubbed them Mix Tapes and they caught on. The tapes were distributed "very underground," Mr. Burnard said, handed out at city basketball courts by street teams themselves and by the agency.
"Wherever we went, people asked us, `Got any Mix Tapes?' " Mr. Samuel said. "You can get them now illegally on Ebay, they're selling them for 20 bucks apiece."
The players who appeared on the tapes became celebrities, Mr. Burnard said. As a result, And1 plans to embark on a Mix Tape Tour with the Mix Tape streetballers, who will play locals on their home courts around the country.
The agency will record the tour using digital cameras to create `'Mix Tape Volume Three." "We're shooting the games and behind the scenes as well," Mr. Samuels said. "You get a lot of the lifestyle."
And1 pays for the tapes, stamps the company's logo on packaging and lays down a ghosted logo on the tape itself, but otherwise, the company does not pitch any product. "They don't make any money off the tapes," Mr. Burnard said. "They get respect by the community for acknowledging that this kind of basketball is important."
Based in Paoli, Pa., just outside Philadelphia, And1 has been called a "rebel sneaker company" for signing New York Knicks' forward Latrell Sprewell as a spokesman. The company's sneakers are popular on the hip-hop scene.
"The whole beauty of the Mix Tapes is that we are communicating to consumers at a different level," said Dave Lewis, And1's director of advertising.
"Kids today are inundated with messages and advertising on conventional media, and everyone is trying to tell them something. We are saying, `This is And1's style of ball,' and we do it by communicating with these kids in a way that is true to their lifestyle. That is true alternative marketing," Mr. Lewis said.
The agency similarly makes no money off And1 Mix Tapes, although it gets a fee from the marketer. "Our ability to explore and own content is limited in this case," Mr. Bogusky said. "And that is one of the reasons why we want to do some of our own projects."
Mr. Bogusky said Plus was set up to be like a mini Hollywood studio, a spinoff of the agency that will produce projects created by agency creatives, allowing it to profit from them.
"Because ultimately, if you come up with something like the Taco Bell dog, and they sell a zillion T-shirts, you want a piece of that. . . . A lot of people in the business are thinking about that, and they are realizing that advertising creates a lot of elements in pop culture and those things have a certain value."
Mr. Bogusky said he believes adding content creation to the agency's list of services ultimately will challenge the traditional, fee-based structure between the agency and clients. "Fees will only be appropriate some of the time," Mr. Bogusky said. "Other times you might want to take a fee plus, say, 10 points of whatever it is we create. If Leo Burnett USA had owned the rights to Kellogg's Tony the Tiger outside of the advertising, it would have been a good thing for both of them."
The agency, through Plus, has written short film scripts for client AtomFilms, an online movie site. "The shorts will provide advertising [in the form of trailers for AtomFilms' movies], but they'll also provide content to the site," Mr. Bogusky said. "AtomFilms' feeling is that we are better at short-form entertainment; coming out of advertising, we understand shorthand better than some filmmakers might. So it makes sense for them. We can create product and advertising at the same time."
Another agency creating both content and advertising is Kessels-Kramer in Amsterdam. "We always wanted to be more than just an advertising agency," said Johann Kramer, partner and creative director at KesselsKramer. "If you look at advertising, it is pretty limited. We prefer to talk about communication."
The shop is well known for its imaginative advertising for clients such as Dutch mobile network operator Ben; Bol.com (Bertelsmann Online); Heineken; Het Parool, a national newspaper in Holland; and ONVZ, a health insurance provider. It also has shot music videos for Tom Waits and produced documentary films. One, a documentary titled "Green Forest," chronicles the death of a forest cleared by developers in Holland. The film was directed by an agency art director and aired last week on Dutch TV.
KesselsKramer is also in the publishing business and has put out 10 books under the Do Publishing imprint. Its most recent releases were "Face of the Century," a book of 100 portraits of people born in the 20th century -- one face for each year -- and "Do-TV," a book that chronicles a worldwide, 24-hour Internet forum involving thousands of participants who discussed the interactive future. Neither the film or the book was created for a client.
"The book thing is a great way to express ourselves," Mr. Kramer said. "It gives the creatives here the chance to do experiments, which they also can do on the clients, but it is nice to be free to work on a good idea. So many agencies are just waiting for their clients to hand them an assignment. We like to be much more proactive, taking initiatives with clients and on our own."
KesselsKramer, however, is not simply a vanity publisher. It has used its publishing ingenuity to help clients. The shop developed several books from articles that appeared in Het Parool. For Ben, the agency published a mobile phone book. "Phone books are usually filled with gray numbers and names," Mr. Kramer said. "We wanted to make ours much more interesting. So instead of just pages of names and numbers, we made it the same size and same paper as regular phone books, but we put photographs in them instead and stories about mobile communications."
Persaud, a youth marketing and advertising agency based in New York with offices in Atlanta and Los Angeles, has recently jumped on the content bandwagon by launching [email protected], a partnership between the agency and Palomar Pictures, Los Angeles. The new venture is slated to create commercials, music videos, films and interactive media. The agency also has signed an agreement to manage the careers of Anheuser-Busch's "Whassup?!" guys, actors Paul Williams, Fred Thomas and Scott Brooks.
"Entertainment is the future of advertising," Mr. Persaud said. "Traditional means of advertising are ineffective in the youth market. We want to communicate with Gen X and Gen Y on a personal level, while subtly building in branding messages."
FOUNDED BY BROTHERS
Persaud was founded in 1994 after Michael and his brothers Mark and Irwin, all graduates of Harvard Business School, enjoyed a successful run in Manhattan as party promoters at nightclubs.
"That led us into helping record companies promote their artists," Michael Persaud said.
The brothers eventually built their promotion business into a full-service marketing company focusing on teens and young adults with a client list that today includes Coca-Cola Co.'s Sprite, Home Box Office, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton's Moet & Chandon champagne, Procter & Gamble Co. and Schieffelin & Somerset Co.'s Tanqueray gin. The agency is known for creating an association between the music industry and the brand by promoting Tanqueray parties in clubs.
With [email protected], the brothers hope to capture consumers with non-traditional advertising that is essentially content, and they hope to do it by using Palomar directors and writers.
"Although they don't understand how to shepherd a brand and do marketing, they are very much in tune with young people," Mr. Persaud said. "They know how to create something that is funky, hot and different. What we are trying to do is meld the two together to create a strong communicating vehicle."
`NOT NECESSARILY AN AD'
The agency recently created a streaming video Internet spot for Tanqueray "that is not necessarily an ad," Mr. Persaud said. "It is more like a 30-second entertaining piece that you can send out to your friends. It's more about entertaining the audience, but also mixing in a marketing message in a way that would almost slip underneath the radar. We don't want to be blatant about this kind of ad. We want people to discover something that is simply funny but at the same time leaves them with an understanding that Tanqueray was associated with this thing."
However, some believe this blurring of the line between entertainment and marketing messages, although a legitimate marketing strategy, can go overboard.
"There have been some pretty sad examples of advertising that has been thrown into shows and it was useless and tasteless and not organic," said Bob Igiel, president of broadcast at Young & Rubicam's the Media Edge, New York. "That is not what the future will bring." Mr. Igiel said that in order for a mix to work, it must be organic: "The secret of successful product placement or involvement in story lines is that it has to be organic. And when I say organic, it has to be very carefully done."
"To come up with ways to tell stories that the advertiser can attach to without overt product placement, that is the big challenge," Mr. Bogusky said. "The reality is, if there is no way to attach advertising to content, then who is going to pay for the content?" he said. "People make the content because they are either going to sell the content or attach advertising to it. That is why a lot of people are trying to get good at this content thing. It's not that big a deal yet, so this is practice time."