Will production houses replace Mad Ave.?

Expertise sought as shops seek to create ads that blur content line

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Creative director Kevin Roddy's team nailed a great idea: a TV show built around annoying characters who make keeping cool while trying to "score some tail" a challenge. The TV show would be the launching pad for an integrated campaign for Unilever's Axe Dry, an antiperspirant targeted to young men. Trouble was, his agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, knew nothing about making a TV show, nor how to get a network to air it. "This is a world we haven't operated in until now," said Mr. Roddy. "We don't have a lot of credibility."

That dilemma is now faced by many agency executives as the most progressive advertising now borders on entertainment, and is increasingly viewed as content-storytelling so compelling consumers will actually want to watch it. This new advertising has multiple forms: half-hour TV shows; Webisodes; video downloads; live events or word-of-mouth campaigns, along with the TV spot. Traditional agencies seeking help to navigate this new-content minefield are forging new partnerships, often with production companies that had once been considered simply vendors to agencies.

Bartle Bogle's situation with Axe Dry is a case-in-point: It sought aid from Radical Media, a diversified production company with decades of experience not only in producing TV commercials, but also in making TV series, documentaries, Web-based films and, most recently, a video-on-demand channel. Without Radical's expertise, the TV show, "The Gamekillers" and campaign around it, wouldn't have happened. "We held their hand," said Jon Kamen, Radical's CEO.

The power structure is changing as increasingly, production companies-particularly those with experience in popular media formats-take on new importance. "It is an interesting time when roles are moving around. It can either be fun or scary, sometimes both," said Tom Nelson, co-founder, Gardner Nelson Partners. His agency several years ago worked with Radical to develop and execute a long-form piece for client Cablevision.

In some cases, clients are working directly with production companies with no agency involvement at all, leading some to conclude that agencies may find themselves cut out of the loop as advertising evolves. Predicts Mr. Nelson: "I think agencies that view their advertising as interrupting other people's content may be [disintermediated]."

"The common anxiety we all share is that the industry is going through great change," said Radical's Mr. Kamen. "Suddenly people are watching their favorite TV commercial not on TV but on a device in their pocket. Agencies need more support because the model has become more complex." Adds Steve Wax, a partner in production company Chelsea Films who is also partner in a newly created agency called Campfire, "It is a bit like Vietnam, where they had to go in and rethink how they had to fight the war."

many pieces

Hank Wasiak, a former vice chairman of global network McCann Erickson Worldwide, now oversees The Concept Farm, a New York-based agency and production company whose clients include ESPN and Bank of New York, agreed. Campaigns today can include 25 different components, rather than simply TV, print and radio, which open up opportunities for shops like his. Recently for the sports cable network, the agency developed a campaign strategy; cast, directed and produced TV spots; and also shot photography that appeared in print ads. "With 25 pieces making up the whole now, as long as we can handle some of those pieces, we can find a place," said Gregg Wasiak, Mr. Wasiak's son and a partner in the business.

"The Art of the Heist," a unique, so-called immersive entertainment campaign created for client Audi by its agency McKinney & Silver and a host of unusual partners, illustrates the complexity of today's advertising. The campaign was a staged, days-long story that unfolded on Web sites, in short films, voicemails and chatrooms. It involved "a myriad of problems that traditional agencies don't have to deal with," said Mr. Wax, whose company Campfire partnered with McKinney to pull off the "Art of the Heist."

Still, others in the industry scoff at the notion that production companies' role will surpass that of traditional agencies. Said Jeff Kling, executive creative director, Euro RSCG New York: "The more creative outlets there are, the more media proliferate, the more people can take a stab at it."
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