JWT agency flexes creative muscle

First ad group to serve as prod'n company for Comedy Central series

In a rare occurrence for an advertising agency, J Walter Thompson has signed a development deal with Comedy Central for its "Flex 'n' Zephyr" animated shorts that emerged from a 15-month-old division created to experiment with ways to build audiences so that JWT can help its brand clients reach their target demographics.

Unlike most media and ad agencies, which are producing content with brands already attached from the start, JWT's division, the Nursery, creates mostly animated shorts aimed at a young male demo with no brand involvement. It does, however, use the information it gathers about audience-building to better service its clients, and there always is the possibility of attaching brands at a later date to content that does get picked up.

"We're experimenting with audience creation through different forms of storytelling that are designed to gather the greatest number of people either as viewers or as participants," said Ty Montague, JWT New York co-president and chief creative officer.

"We really believe it is core to our business in the future to demonstrate an ability to not just create branded content but to create audiences. We believe audience creation is one of the core competencies of a modern marketing organization, so we believe it's something we need to get very good at here."

Comedy Central said that while the irreverent comedy of "Flex 'n' Zephyr" was a key factor in its decision to partner 50/50 with JWT in developing webisodes for ComedyCentral.com, the fact that a series about "metrosexual 'Miami Vice' cops" is rife for integration certainly helped clinch the development deal.

"While these guys (Flex and Zephyr) are out there trying to bust drug rings and murderers, at the same time they're kind of just as concerned about the way they look and what they're wearing," said Lou Wallach, senior vp original programming and development at Comedy Central. "The deal wasn't predicated on product integration, which I like because it lets you focus on the creative (aspect) of the project. But it certainly was a lure of the project and something that is helping it along. We only have money to produce a certain number of projects this year, and the opportunity for client integration certainly goes a long way."

JWT and Comedy Central clients could be integrated into the webisodes if they make it onto ComedyCentral.com. If successful, they also would most likely be distributed on cell phones, iTunes and on Comedy Central's late-night series "Web Shows," a compilation of digital shorts. There would be a minimum commitment to produce six webisodes if the project goes ahead.

Wallach said JWT is the first advertising agency to serve as a production company at Comedy Central. "The one thing that's not typical about this is I'm not buying the show from an experienced TV veteran or animation company," he said. "It is unique to see an advertising agency spend the resources and make the commitment to develop content as a studio."

In May 2005, Fox Television Studios entered into a strategic first-look deal with creative agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, but no programming resulted. In December 2005, Fox Television Studios struck what it called a first-of-its-kind development deal with branding and product development guru Peter Arnell but not with his Omnicom-owned Arnell Group. Fox Television Studios has one project in development with Arnell that it plans to announce soon, a Fox spokeswoman said.

Montague noted that when television was born, soap operas were produced and written by ad agencies. "That expertise left the ad agencies for a period of time," he said. "Now some of that is moving back inside at least at the bigger agencies."
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