Ad Agencies Like Ogilvy Produce Documentary Films, Seeking Prestige And Payoff

A New Crop Of Filmmakers On Madison Avenue

Imagine if the ad men from the "Mad Men" era were to put down their drinks and make documentaries. That probably wouldn't have happened back in the day, but one longstanding ad giant is giving it a go.

Ogilvy & Mather's entertainment divisions are creating feature-length movies that don't advertise anything. At least not in the traditional Madison Avenue sense.

Their civil rights documentary, "Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story," premiered earlier this year and continues to gain recognition. An "NBC Dateline" segment called "Finding Booker's Place" airing Sunday will revisit the project.

Ogilvy Entertainment's Aisle C Productions co-produced the indie doc "Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released in October by Roadside Attractions.

The expanding definition of content has moved Ogilvy and other ad houses into longer-form works that don't push product, creatives say.

"I think that there's a lot of value in the fact that we're producing quality content, period," said David Zellerford, an executive producer for Ogilvy's Eyepatch Productions, which produced "Booker's Place."

Of course agencies can reap returns beyond connecting consumers to goods and services. The films might generate profit through viewing platforms like iTunes and Hulu, Zellerford explained. Winning awards and entering film festivals enhance an agency's brand. And if clients can see that the agency is capable of capturing viewers' attention for 90 minutes, they can imagine what the agency could do in 30 to 90 seconds, he added.

Original content "shows us as a creative company pushing what can be," said Rob Baird, the creative director at ad agency Mother New York. "It also lets clients who are coming to work with us know and expect that we will not just bring typical solutions."

Baird's agency recently teamed with Animal New York to produce "Boxing Lessons," a widely-viewed profile of a boxing trainer who belittles his white-collar clients. The agency plans to continue making vignettes about New York. Baird said passion projects help feed the aspirations of Mother creatives beyond advertising.

Goodby Silverstein, a San Francisco-based ad agency, screened its autism documentary "I Want To Say" at the Cannes Lions advertising convention last month. The film, which began as a collaboration with Hewlett Packard, originally featured autistic students using HP TouchSmart tablets to help them communicate But the agency and HP parted ways, so Goodby finished the project without HP financing, spokeswoman Meagan Phillips said. In the end, one of the main characters begins using an Apple iPad. The agency is exploring some kind of release, she said.

Ogilvy is working on a far grander scale in independent filmmaking. Zellerford, an NYU film school graduate, came aboard as a freelance producer for Ogilvy's Eyepatch in 2002 and became the go-to guy for longer-form works. His first high-profile unbranded project for Ogilvy was "East of Main Street," a series of 7 to 10-minute profiles of Asian-Americans for HBO last year. Jonathan Yi, who worked with Eyepatch and Ogilvy on client work, directed.

The agency stepped up its commitment with "Booker's Place." In April 2011, Zellerford grew mesmerized by 1965 footage on YouTube of a black waiter named Booker Wright speaking bluntly about his subservience to white people in Greenwood, Miss. The interview was posted by Raymond De Felitta, whose father originally shot the film for a larger NBC news story.

Zellerford and executive producer Lynn Roer made a deal to produce a full-length documentary about the impact of Wright's comments. With De Felitta directing, Eyepatch used its stable of freelancers, including photographer Joe Victorine and first-time feature editor George Gross. From production to licensing to distribution, the project cost under $400,000, Zellerford estimated.

When the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, Eyepatch didn't advertise its association with Ogilvy. Festival sponsor American Express is one of the agency's clients and it wanted to head off any notion of favoritism, Zellerford said. Tribeca Film bought the movie and released it on the same day as its festival premiere. Strong reviews by the Los Angeles Times and Variety gave the film critical momentum. A June 28 Indiewire survey of more than 200 critics named "Booker's Place" the top indie movie in any category so far this year.

Primetime exposure on NBC will likely provide an additional boost, after "Booker's Place" enjoyed a brief art-house run to qualify for Oscar consideration. It grossed just $5,549 in Los Angeles and New York theaters, according to Box Office Mojo.

As for future original projects, the agency is working on a collaboration with Oscar winner Forest Whitaker about conflict resolution, and is pitching an agriculture documentary to a client that could finance it. Both will be far more to Michael Moore's taste than Don Draper's.

"It just so happens that the business is going that way," Zellerford said. "I think people would rather not have their long-form storyline interrupted. Brands have the opportunity to sponsor this type of content."

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