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Hollywood Goes Madison Avenue

A word to those creative directors who have left Madison Avenue for the Hollywood hills: You can come home now.

Several hot boutiques known for their savvy TV commercials are now challenging the big global agencies that have invested in entertainment marketing in recent years, in an attempt to move beyond traditional advertising.

Wieden & Kennedy New York has made a boxing documentary. Small New York ad shop Tucker Hampel Stefanides & Partners teamed up with the producers of a car show that appears on a cable network to ensure that their client will be featured prominently.

A year of worry about TiVo-like devices, ad clutter, and declining national audiences for some prime-time network shows has taken its toll. "Every client is asking: Is this 30-second commercial enough?" says Buz Sawyer, managing director of Wieden NY.

On Friday, for example, Walt Disney's ESPN2 presented a documentary at 8 p.m. EST about boxing champion Roy Jones Jr. The hourlong show was created by Wieden NY on behalf of its premier client, apparel and athletic shoemaker Nike. The program examined how Mr. Jones, the light heavyweight champion, acquired the boxing skills that have made him one of his sport's top performers.

Since Mr. Jones is also a pitchman for Nike, he wore the company's Jordan apparel, including knit caps featuring the Jumpman logo of former basketball player Michael Jordan. Mr. Jordan's line of athletic shoes and clothing is a top seller for Nike.

For its part, Nike says it purposely went easy on the product plugs. "We did not want to develop a 60-minute Jordan ad -- we felt like that would harm us," says Roman Vega, senior advertising manager for Nike's Jordan brand. "Teenagers are finicky -- they don't like to be marketed to."

The film cost $650,000 to produce, about twice as much as it costs to make a high-profile commercial. The project became viable when ESPN2 indicated it was willing to run the show during a prime-time slot -- free of charge. Wieden says that as the number of cable channels continues to multiply, many media outlets are willing to cut deals in exchange for content.

The boxing documentary underscores the growing pressure on agencies to think more creatively about how they market their clients' products. It also reflects how the line between advertising and programming continues to blur. "Consumers are so overly bombarded they tune out ads," says Mr. Sawyer. "We have to find new ways of getting the message out."

After struggling to shore up its business since its arrival in 1996, Wieden NY has immersed itself into the entertainment space in an effort to jump-start its revenues. The shop says profits are up 10% this year, thanks in part to the firm's movement beyond traditional advertising. Wieden NY is now eyeing the big screen and is putting the finishing touches on a picture-length feature for Nike that explores the underground culture surrounding sneaker collecting.

Wieden NY and other small creative boutiques are competing with the leading ad-holding companies for this business. WPP Group's media-buying shop MindShare, for example, recently teamed up with Walt Disney's ABC to create upcoming programming expected to feature WPP clients in prominent positions. And Interpublic Group's media arm Magna Global co-produced "The Restaurant," a reality show that aired on General Electric's NBC and featured such IPG clients as Adolph Coors and Mitsubishi Motors.

Posted on aef.com: December 19, 2003


Suzanne Vranica, The Wall Street Journal. December 15, 2003

Copyright © 2003 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.