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Ad agency turns plugs into programs

October 14, 2008 |  4:57 pm


It’s a tough time to be a TV advertiser. Young people are watching shows online, and people of all ages are fast-forwarding through commercials with digital video recorders. Very important messages aren't being seen and heard. What's an advertiser to do?

An increasing number are creating their own TV shows, hiring agencies to write scripts and hire talent, turning the traditional way that content is produced on its head. The new model actually hearkens back to the early days of TV when advertisers sponsored whole shows on their own, and vetted content.

One such show, "In the Motherhood," was recently picked up by ABC for prime-time episodes this spring, making the jump from online to TV. "In the Motherhood," created by Santa Monica agency Science + Fiction for clients Suave beauty products and phone company Sprint, starred some medium size talent, including Leah Remini, Chelsea Handler and Jenny McCarthy. Suave and Sprint were allowed to read over scripts and “make sure it didn’t conflict with the brand,” said Anita Newton, vice president of consumer marketing at Sprint.

Science + Fiction also produced the Web series “The Rookie,” a spinoff of Fox's “24,” for Degree deodorant. The goal for that show: take all the "brand attributes" of Degree and infuse them into the show's main character, says Kevin Townsend, founder of Science + Fiction. That doesn't mean that viewers will see Degree get a plug in the webisodes. Rather, the show's main character -- an intelligence operative -- embodies the brand's image of a guy who is "young, ambitious and always looking for action," explains Townsend (the only clue an advertiser is involved comes from a " Protection" icon in the upper right corner of the screen, which clicks to an ad for the deodorant). Fox linked to "The Rookie" on "24's" website. 

This Friday, the agency premieres a new Web series, “Fearless,” on MSN, sponsored by Hummer.Ctlogo The show is about five strangers navigating their way through remote locations around the world. A Hummer certainly would be handy for that. 

Branded entertainment –- the process of creating and producing shows for advertisers –- is becoming a more viable place for networks to look for content, Townsend said. Branded entertainment shows can turn into “backdoor pilots,” he said, just as “In the Motherhood” did.

“If you’re a network, would you rather take a shot at something new or develop an idea that already has talent with a built-in audience?” Townsend says. ABC was interested in “In the Motherhood” in part because the show had attracted 20 million viewers online, he adds.

Which begs the question – are writers going to see some tough competition from branded entertainment agencies trying to get their shows on the air? Townsend says the difference between traditional TV shows and the ones his company produces isn’t as large as you’d think. 

“We create entertainment for advertisers, not advertising that’s entertainment,” he says. “We just think up good ideas that could be entertaining to any audience segment.”

In other words, yes.

-- Alana Semuels

Photo: Jenny McCarthy in a scene from "In the Motherhood." Credit: Science + Fiction