Radical departure

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For Jon Kamen, the world rocked on its axis when he attended that meeting about "The Life." Into his excruciatingly cool West Village, New York, office last fall marched the team from Wieden & Kennedy, which was doing promotional work for the new ESPN half-hour series. The series had been pitched to the network, sold and produced by Mr. Kamen's rapidly diversifying production company, @radical.media.

Known simply as Radical in the creative and production communities, the company and Wieden had worked together countless times on spots for both Nike and ESPN. But this time things were different. "We weren't the production company. We were the product," he said.

They're riding high at Radical these days, higher than when the firm unexpectedly won the Palme d'Or in Cannes in 1998, the honor given to the highest-scoring commercial production house at the International Advertising Festival. After years of being a forwardly named shop that spent most of its time making these archaic things called TV commercials, the company is finally starting to live up to its billing.

Investing in branded-content projects that reflect the convergence of entertainment and marketing are where Mr. Kamen, Radical's CEO, and his longtime partner and company President Frank Scherma see clients headed. To this end, they've staked their future on being major players in an increasingly crowded and uncertain arena. Ventures such as "The Life" represent Radical's efforts to move into a variety of media projects that are primarily designed to build consumer links with specific brands.

Radical was hired by ESPN Original Programming to produce 32-half hour episodes of "The Life" because the network believed Radical intuitively understood the attitude of the ESPN brand (they ought to, they've shot hundreds of promos for the Walt Disney Co. unit), and could effectively incorporate that in the pace and tone of the show. "This is the paradigm for what we want to produce here," Mr. Kamen asserted. "It's an integration of what we used to do, and what we're about to do." Len Deluca, ESPN senior VP-programming, said that with the network moving into branded content, "knowing what Radical has done for us on the marketing end, it was only natural."

Another example is "Ball," a basketball-themed musical being produced by Willing Partners, which is aiming for a fall theatrical opening. Willing Partners is a joint venture between Wieden & Kennedy and Radical formed to produce not only this play but other media projects as well.

At the moment there are no plans for product placements in "Ball," nor any official sponsors. Nonetheless, the appeal for marketers such as Nike of being associated with such projects is obvious, although Mr. Kamen points out that selling a sponsorship was not the reason the agency and Radical teamed up to produce the play.

"First and foremost the goal is to stretch creatively," he said, "but both we and Wieden & Kennedy believe it's important to expand and develop our entertainment capabilities."

Indeed, the very existence of Willing Partners speaks volumes about what Messrs. Kamen and Scherma have achieved. It's more or less unprecedented for a commercial production house to work on an equal footing with its agency clients. "To go from a vendor relationship to being truly looked on as a partner, that's how we measure success," Mr. Kamen said.

The company's current roster of projects is so busy, it should rename itself Radical Omnimedia. It recently produced the Web site for George Harrison's re-release of "All Things Must Pass" (a project that sent Radical designers to move in with the ex-Beatle for weeks at a time). It produced a documentary for cable's Court TV on the currently en vogue subject of crime scene investigations. And its " Road to Paris" documentary on Lance Armstrong, produced with Wieden for the Outdoor Life Network and set to air this month on CBS, is billed in a Nike press release as a "revolutionary interactive documentary" that will give advertisers "an opportunity to learn more about consumer behavior as it relates to the TV and Internet experience."

One of its more ambitious ventures is "In the Times," a multimedia effort based on content found in The New York Times. Radical is developing this in partnership with the New York Times Co. and Dan Cohen & Sons, a production company headed by a former Times Co. advertising executive, to sell to a broadcast or cable network as quality, entertainment-based programming. "In the Times" would combine a TV program with print and Web components, not unlike what ESPN is doing with "The Life," based on a popular feature from the pages of ESPN The Magazine.

"Our goal here is to create programming of interest that reflects a natural integration of certain brands," Mr. Kamen said.

Radical's forays into projects like this may not seem like big news, except for the fact that few TV commercial production houses have managed to leverage their advertising expertise into as wide a range of other media forms. Radical is a current exception to the rule. The company set out years ago on a deliberate path that is only now starting to pay off.

The key to making their projects work, Mr. Kamen believes, is the quality of the content. Sure, it needs to be entertaining, and who knows better how to entertain these days than ad folks. "Programming that is important to a consumer is what will attract their attention and keep them coming back," Mr. Kamen said.

Mr. Kamen, not surprisingly, believes that if ever there were a company that understood the value of branding it's Radical. With 140 employees worldwide, it has offices in London, New York, Paris, Santa Monica and Sydney. By commercial production standards the company is huge, and while Mr. Kamen won't divulge gross revenue figures ("The margins are for shit."), he said that Radical has a higher gross income than do the smaller agencies it shoots TV spots for.

The privately held company's TV commercial work is billed on a traditional model of production cost mark-ups. Its entertainment projects, however, represent a combination of fees and ownership of original content. Radical still derives 90% of its revenue from making spots, but the entertainment portion is growing at a faster and more promising pace, Mr. Kamen claimed.

Everything about what Radical does, from the packaging for its sample reel to its office decor to the way it conducts business, projects an integrated message. Its New York and Santa Monica offices are near carbon copies, both designed by award-winning architect David Rockwell. The company logo, an ultra conservative rendering in centuries-old Bauer Bodoni, was designed by New York design and identity firm Frankfurt Balkind. Collectively, Radical exudes a high level of taste and sophistication, with the exception being the occasionally rumpled wardrobes of the partners themselves, both extremely bright mid-40s guys who bear the street-smart streak of native New Yorkers.

Radical is in a prime position to bridge the gap between the common misconceptions the advertising and entertainment industries have for each other, said Peter Drakoulias, former partner at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch, and now president of dRush, its urban marketing arm. "Hollywood believes that agencies have client money in their pockets and can green-light projects at their discretion, and we know that's not true." What matters most, Mr. Drakoulias suggested, is that when agencies and advertisers decide to move into the branded content milieu, they'll most likely want to work with familiar faces. "We'll do something that's within our client's comfort zone," Mr. Drakoulias said. "With Frank and Jon, we speak a common language. "

Will TV commercials be de-emphasized in the Radical future? "No, they're the engine of the company," Mr. Kamen said. Rather, the entertainment work "enhances what we do in commercials. We don't look at them as separate activities."

So what about selling out? Mr. Kamen likes to laugh off the suggestion, but this may be his shrewd side showing. Said one agency executive familiar with Radical, "Most agencies buy revenue; they don't buy competency. But Radical is the kind of company we should be thinking of buying. They're building a very substantial organization, and they can experiment with lots of creative platforms."

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