Baby Bob's is a typical showbiz tale: The precocious talking tyke was successful almost overnight—as spokesbaby for Freeinternet.com—and quickly got his own show, a prime-time program on CBS. But his fame was fleeting: Baby Bob was canceled after nine shows, leaving the air last June.
The first advertising character to spawn a TV show is left waiting for his next big break. (More accurately, his co-creator and owner of rights to the character, Siltanen & Partners' Rob Siltanen, is hoping to see Bob reborn.)
Siltanen, CEO and chief creative officer at the Marina del Rey, Calif., agency, was early to the lovefest between Hollywood and the ad industry. While no commercial concept has yet followed Baby Bob to television fame, it's likely many more will try as agencies hunt for ways to extend their clients' brands. "Everyone in advertising is waiting for their big chance to do a show," says industry veteran Jerry Della Femina. "There are guys sitting around a room now, trying to come up with a TV series."
Miller Brewing Co. is one marketer considering whether to turn a campaign into a full-fledged TV show. Miller agency Wieden + Kennedy, @radical.media CEO Jon Kamen and director Errol Morris are in the early stages of working out how the droll and down-to-earth men of "High Life" might transcend advertising. Kamen, who says he's worked on various projects with "360-degree potential," describes the dialogue among marketers, ad agencies, directors, producers and networks as heated. He predicts "many projects will sprout" from today's bigger-picture marketing strategies.
"I'm never surprised by the harvesting of talent from our business," says Kamen. "Creatives are quite innovative and up to facing a challenge like how to expand a germ of an idea."
Harvesting ideas themselves from ads makes a lot of sense, argue many industry execs. After all, commercials are essentially TV pilots—they give networks a good idea of how a concept can be developed and whether it might catch on. "If I would have just said, 'This is about a talking baby,' it would have been a tougher sell," says Siltanen, who created Baby Bob in 2000 with Craig Tanimoto. "This wasn't a gamble. The concepts were proven."
So excited was Siltanen to get the show produced that he gave up creative control of Baby Bob, the kid with an adult IQ and sense of humor. "If your work is good enough that someone wants to turn it into a TV show, you've got to retain authorship," he advises. "They tried to make him become cute instead of quirky, which is what was interesting about him."
Ty Montague, co-creative director at Wieden's New York office, likewise warns that marketers must stick closely to their own stories. "If we let Hollywood take control and run with an idea, it won't be any good," he warns. "Innovation needs to be driven by clients." One problem, he notes, is that many marketing executives are so caught up in moving products that they have no time or energy to focus on the long-form concepts presented to them; others, he adds, just don't listen.
Wieden, however, has a client, Nike, with a content division as well as a top executive, global media director Joe Pollard, dedicated to reaching consumers in new ways. "Marketers need to be creators of their own audience," Montague says of the philosophy behind such Wieden projects as its Nike-sponsored documentaries on Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones. Wieden and Nike were early to the game—back in 1996, their "Hare Jordan" spots inspired the Warner Bros. movie Space Jam.
"You have to balance creating compelling entertainment and serving the brand," says Bill Davenport, executive producer at Wieden + Kennedy Entertainment, which produced the Nike documentaries. "I think almost every client is thinking and talking a lot about it. The tricky part is actually getting the planets to line up and make sense."
What makes sense might not be a TV show or a film. American Express is extending spokesman Jerry Seinfeld into "Webisodes," three- to five-minute films on the client's Web site that co-star an animated Superman. Miramax Films last month hired the New York office of creative powerhouse Mother to find ways to move its brands beyond movies. "At the end of the day, it's all about the idea," says Lori Sale, evp of worldwide promotions for Miramax.
"Everyone is experimenting and trying to find a model that makes the most sense," says Andrew Deitchman, partner at London-based Mother. "We're trying to do the same thing." The agency is already in the content game: With an award-winning short called 72 Faced Liar under its belt, it is now developing prime-time programming for the BBC.
While the success of these experiments remains to be seen, Kamen says, "The condition for the perfect storm are in place."