Ad Agency J. Walter Thompson Backs
Courtesy of J. Walter Thompson

When BBC World News launches a new four-part documentary this weekend, an unusual entity will be monitoring its progress. J. Walter Thompson, the large ad agency owned by WPP, is a co-producer.

“Her Story: The Female Revolution,” airing on BBC World News on February 20, will examine contemporary gender issues through interviews with  inspirational women, ranging from well-known executives to local activists. Interviewees include Margot Wallstrom, the foreign minister of Sweden (pictured, above); Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund; Dalia Grybauskaite, the president of Lithuania; Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile; actress Geena Davis; Laleh Seddigh, an Iranian race car driver; and 19-year-old Balkissa Chaibou, who is fighting against child marriage in Niger.

Many advertising agencies have dipped a toe in the waters of content production. The efforts can be useful for clients, who might like to align commercial pitches with the programming, In this case, however, J. Walter Thompson won’t be bringing clients such as Shell, Nestle or Macy’s into the ad breaks. Instead, the series may serve as something of a commercial for J. Walter Thompson itself.

“We are kind of at a cultural tipping point at the moment. Increasingly, women are major breadwinners and major decision makers,” said Rachel Pashley, a group planning director who pitched the series to the BBC. “Increasingly, our clients are women. To be the agency that best understands women both as a consumer and as a wealth creator puts us in a better position to be able to engage clients.”

The agency will also try to monetize the documentary. It will own the rights to the series after it clears a window of exclusivity with the BBC, and the ad agency is already seeking ways to sell the content to streaming-video players like Netflix or Amazon, said Jaspar Shelbourne, head of entertainment at J. Walter Thompson.

“Her Story: the Female Revolution” will consist of four 60-minute episodes. The BBC is a co-producer.

The ad agency’s initiative points to a burgeoning trend among marketers of all stripes. Many of them are testing their abilities to create pieces of long-form content that can often convey a message more strongly than a typical 30-second commercial. “Over the next couple of years, we will see much more of it,” said Shelbourne.

The agency pitched and sold an animated half-hour prime-time Christmas special, “Yes, Virginia,” to CBS. The story took place in the New York of the late 1800s, and focused on a little girl seeking the truth about Santa Claus. The program was aimed to burnish Macy’s, which invests a lot of its advertising around the holiday season. The special debuted in 2009.

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