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Ad Agencies Working Overtime On Shows, Not Spots

Ad-buying firm ZenithOptimedia predicted in September that TV’s share of global advertising would peak in 2013

Hollywood is filled with executives who honed their chops on Madison Avenue. Dick Wolf, builder of the famous “Law & Order” franchise, toiled away at an ad agency writing slogans for Crest toothpaste. Adam Stotsky, president of NBCUniversal’s Esquire, once worked for a big agency called Fallon. Sometimes, an ad man likes to dabble in a glitzier world: Phil Dusenberry, a creative executive at BBDO known for his work on Pepsi, adapted the script for 1984 baseball film “The Natural.”

Now those worlds are set to mix even further. Ad agencies have long worked to produce various pieces of video content, even full-blown TV programs, but the growth of video platforms has heightened demand for those services, which have been seen as a side business for agencies.

“The agency model is evolving,” said Jon Hamm (no, not the actor from ad-agency drama “Mad Men”), chief creative and innovation officer of Momentum Worldwide, an agency owned by Interpublic Group that typically specializes in generating promotional events and experiences. These days, Momentum has five or six programs in advanced stages of development, Hamm said. One series, “Full Circle,” created and written by playwright Neil LaBute, debuted on DirecTV last month.

Earlier this month, Viacom’s Spike TV opened the third season of “Nissan GT Academy,” which shows fans of vidgame “Gran Turismo 6” for Sony PlayStation competing to drive a race car on the Silverstone racetrack in the U.K., while highlighting some of Nissan’s sports cars. TBWA Worldwide, an Omnicom Group agency better known for its decades of commercials for Apple, has a strong hand in the show.

To be sure, none of this stuff would likely air on a broadcast network, but the programs are not aimed at TV’s biggest, broadest audiences — and that’s where the agencies come in. Ad firms specialize in identifying and crafting messages for specific groups of people, including racing fans and budding chefs. “This has to be absolutely laser-focused,” said Hamm.

Mining niches is what attracts sponsors. Hard-core fans take to social media and, hopefully, word spreads. “The level of enthusiasm and engagement that you have with this type of an asset goes wildly beyond what a 30-second or 60-second spot could do,” said John Brancheau, VP of marketing at Nissan North America.

The agencies can make their programming pitch as more space opens on the media landscape. “The rise of digital media as a signifi cant platform of engagement for brands and consumers is creating much more opportunity, and also creating a much greater need for content,” said Peter Tortorici, chief executive of GroupM Entertainment, a unit of ad giant WPP that is creating some of the new entertainment forms. GroupM has in recent weeks aligned with SpinMedia to produce an online video series featuring celebrity-stylist Johnny Wujek, and partnered with Alloy Digital to invest in two new Web series.

Others have joined the fray. To sell two new sauces branded as Kraft Recipe Makers, agency Zero Dot, part of French ad titan Publicis Groupe, created a companion game for Bravo’s “Top Chef” program that lets viewers compete online. Putting one of the new sauces in the show itself would distract, said Steve Bonner, a senior veep with the agency — why would a chef rely on a new product? But a “Top Chef Home Edition” aimed at fans of the Bravo program would reach the foodies Kraft hoped would use the sauces.

The move into production also comes as the ad world finds itself increasingly buffeted by technology. Ad agencies have long made most of their money by creating and placing TV ads. As more clients earmark cash for promotion in other venues, that revenue is under threat.

Ad-buying firm ZenithOptimedia predicted in September that TV’s share of global advertising would peak in 2013 at 40.1%, before falling to 39.5% in 2015, while mobile’s share would rise to 6% of all ad spending by 2015, up from 1.7% in 2012. If ad agencies are making a move to produce more video, it’s because the ads that traditionally support such content are no longer such a sure thing.

(Pictured: Spike TV’s “Nissan GT Academy” is produced by ad agency TBWA Worldwide for the automaker.)

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