Agency-Sponsored TV

Agencies once produced TV shows. Could it happen again?

Sixty years before an island of half-starved reality-show contestants gobbled Doritos on national TV, essentially ushering in the modern branded integration era, advertising agencies worked with clients not only to place products, but to develop complete programs designed to make those products household names.

From agency paid-and-produced shows such as N.W. Ayer's "Texaco Star Theater" to Bozell + Jacobs' "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom," the airwaves were full of not-so-subtly sponsored shows. And if media history repeats itself, it's about to happen again.

"That's the way the advertising market is moving," agrees Liz Morrow, director of media services at MDC's Margeotes/Ferititta & Partners, New York. But, she notes, it remains to be seen if the approach will be as successful with today's more jaded viewers.

Holding companies and networks seem to think it will: Media companies including Carat Americas, Initiative, Magna Global USA, and MindShare have branded-entertainment units that are involved not only with product placement but also with the development and funding of more in-depth sponsorship opportunities. Similarly, networks such as NBC and ABC have launched in-house brand-integration departments dedicated to working with advertisers and producers on the actual creation of show concepts and content.

That's key, says Cole Hartman, vice president at Horizon Media, Los Angeles. For fully sponsored programs to be effective, the sponsorships must be relevant to audiences on the deepest levels, he says.

"I don't think consumers care who brought them the program unless the product is getting into their brains in a real psychological way," Hartman explains. Procter & Gamble "did it right," he says, with its 1950s sponsorship of soap operas "The Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns," actually naming products with the intention of leveraging them via the daytime dramas. (Both soaps are still owned and produced by P&G, which now works with Publicis' Starcom MediaVest Group.)

Another brand which has seen success in designing programming for a specific demographic is Kansas City, Mo.-based Hallmark. Its "Hall of Fame" series, produced by family-owned Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions and CBS, is now in its 55th broadcast season.

According to a representative, Hallmark airs fully sponsored movies at "four peak card-giving times throughout the year." Featuring original storylines and recognizable stars, these films reach Hallmark's core card-buying audience and generate an intimate, family-friendly brand image.

Myles Romero, global brand entertainment manager for the Ford Motor Company, says Ford sponsored the 2005 season premiere of Fox's "24" as part of its F150 pickup launch because the show's lead character -- agent Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland -- "embodied the essence of the truck." The effort, crafted by Fox, Ford, and advertising partners WPP Group's Mindshare and JWT, included a branded mini-movie, as well as content integration and traditional 30-second spots.

The Cimarron Group, a Hollywood, Calif.-based independent, found a similarly targeted way to put its Lotus Cars USA client in front of an audience of classic-auto enthusiasts, says Mike Tankel, the agency's director of marketing innovations. Earlier this year, Cimarron worked with its Lawrenceville, Ga.-based client to develop a Lotus-focused episode of the Speed Channel's "Victory by Design" car-heritage show.

But "media is only part of the equation," Margeotes' Morrow notes. With a nod toward advertising's early days, longtime creative shops are bringing media planners "back into the fold," she says, to craft campaigns that are creatively innovative as well as media-savvy.

"We're almost back to where we started from," she observes.

If "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" is any indication, that's true. After more than a decade, it has returned to TV, this time produced by the insurance company with the Animal Planet network and lead agency Campbell Mithun, Chicago. According to the company's Web site, a new generation of viewers can now learn the "correlation between protecting the world's natural resources and our business of protecting a family's resources."

The list goes on: As part of its 2005 "Remember Rainier" campaign, Cole & Weber United, Seattle, worked with Pabst Brewing Co. and various production partners to develop "RainierVision," an 11-episode late-night TV show which explored every aspect of Rainier Beer's colorful heritage with a casual, Pacific Northwest attitude.

In 2004, Pepsi-Cola North America teamed with NBC and Omnicom's BBDO to highlight the low-calorie, low-carb Pepsi Edge product in an episode of "The Apprentice."

And ABC, owned by the Walt Disney Co., has worked with WPP Group's media-buying arm MindShare North America in the creation of scripted series since early 2004, most notably on "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," sponsored by Sears.

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