Wading Into Content, One Exec At A Time

As the lines continue to blur between advertising and entertainment, agencies are increasingly trying to act the role of content producers. But many shops and branded entertainment firms are finding that it takes more than honed pitch skills to get a show on the air or even your foot in the door of a Hollywood studio. It requires someone who knows that world better than your average industry-bred executive.

Last week, Moroch hired ex-Warner Bros. marketer Brad Ball to give the Dallas-based agency “a cleaner, faster perspective on the conversation” about branded entertainment, and “a beachhead in Hollywood,” said founder Tom Moroch. “He’s not only physically in the environment where that takes place, but he has a knowledge of the people involved. Brad has a tremendous Rolodex of people we’re looking to work with.”

Ball’s move to Moroch is just the latest example of agencies in search of hires or partners who can help them navigate the murky waters of content production. Publicis-backed Droga 5 this month hired former Viacom exec Kim Howitt, and BBC America’s Bill Hilary arrived at IPG’s Magna Global Entertainment in June, the same month that IPG Media brought 20-year entertainment industry exec Terri Santisi aboard as CFO and WPP’s Ogilvy & Mather hired talent agency veteran Doug Scott. And while there’s nothing new about agencies hiring Hollywood smarts, the difference now is what they’re being tapped for.

“Everyone is competing for the same eyeballs,” said David Droga, founder of Droga 5. “The best defense is to take an offensive approach and have [entertainment people] on our side of the fence.”

The need for such allies was highlighted last week by BBH executive creative director Kevin Roddy, who spoke at Adweek’s Creative Seminar in Miami about his agency’s eye-opening experience with branded entertainment, Gamekillers. The show, produced for Unilever’s Axe Dry and sold to MTV, featured various characters standing in the way of young men trying to pick up women. But to hear Roddy tell it, it was the agency that nearly lost out.

“When we did Gamekillers, we went in there in the most idiotic way we could have done it,” he said. “We developed a treatment and took it to Hollywood. We went into it like a typical agency, with the idea we are going to write it and produce it… [the studio executive] almost kicked me out of his office.”

“He said, ‘I believe you can make a 30-second commercial. I don’t believe you can make a one-hour television program,'” recalled Roddy. So BBH recruited writers from The Daily Show and sought the help of @radical.media to get the show on the air.

BBH is focusing for now on partnering with those from the content world rather than hiring them full time. “As things change, we may decide that we need dedicated content specialists,” said Steve Harty, North American chairman of BBH, which is 49 percent owned by Publicis. “But really, we’re all learning together on the fly.”

In contrast to BBH’s experience, MindShare, which caused a stir in 2003 by hiring former CBS Entertainment president Peter Tortorici as director of programming, and a year later added Emmy Award-winning Broadway Video producer David Lang, is seeing a payoff. According to Marc Goldstein, MindShare president and CEO, having the two entertainment vets on board has led to enterprises such as the Dove Nights Webisodes, starring Felicity Huffman and directed by Penny Marshall, The Days (a prime-time series partnering Touchstone/ABC and MindShare, and incorporating brands such as Sears and Unilever), and October Road, a “less brand-specific” series premiering next March on which MindShare is a co-production partner.

“Peter and the L.A. connections have opened doors in production, talent and idea generation that allow us to explore the many ways to meet client objectives,” said Goldstein.

But some warn against falling too in love with L.A. access. Michael Yudin, managing director at Carat Entertainment, said he sees some firms simply hiring talent without regard for marketing smarts. “If agencies are hiring people out of [the production] community without an understanding of marketing and media and strategic client needs, then they’re doing a disservice to their clients,” he said.

“It’s great to hire a big name,” he said, “but it’s greater to hire someone who has an understanding of client needs.”

—with Laura Blum and Andrew McMains