Back in the 16th century, uncharted waters were marked with a simple but cautionary declaration on a map: Here Be Dragons. Venturing off established routes was a risk that only the most valiant explorer would take. Now, agency network TBWA has incorporated that spirit of exploration into its new content innovation arm, Let There Be Dragons.
Set up with the intention of mining the uptapped creativity of its employees within TBWA’s L.A. office, Let There Be Dragons is also a way for the agency to own its ideas and share the intellectual property rights with the creators, says Lee Clow, agency chairman and chairman of LTBD.
“This was born out creative ambition and of frustration,” says Clow. “When we work for fee with clients, we invent lots of interesting ideas, yet by virtue of the way that agencies work with clients, we end up not owning the IP. So we decided we would try and create a group that could, in fact, produce stuff by us.” Clow calls the concept venture capitalism for creative ideas. The content studio will be a “somewhat autonomous, entrepreneurial group of people dedicated to original content development in all media. It’s to allow creative people a new channel for their energies and a new way of getting compensated.”
Agency president and LTBD chairman Carisa Bianchi says the idea is to “provide our people a portal to bring their passion projects to fruition and to market in a way they couldn’t as individuals.”
“It was after a steady diet of hearing ‘I have an idea for…’ from our people, and not having a budget apportioned to these notions, that we thoughts, what if we created this playground where we can take ‘what if’ and turn it into ‘what is,’” adds TBWA chief creative officer and LTBD chairman Rob Schwartz.
Channeling such raw energy requires structure, and LTBD is built around two specific open submission periods. Those from within the L.A. group are able to submit pitches including content ideas that could be sold to clients with a specific compensation structure or those that could be developed and funded fully independently.
The first call for submissions was in December and over 60 ideas were whittled down to 10, all of which are currently being explored for development. Jennifer Golub, LTBD executive director of content, says the ideas exceeded expectations and came from people all across the agency, “confirming our hopes and aspirations for this.” Chosen ideas range from films, products, a game, and several apps.
While Golub might be coy about the specifics of those ideas in development, LTBD has already released two projects–a No Kill L.A. animal advocacy film released in April that Clow calls a passion project, and the upcoming book leeclowsbeard, based on the popular Twitter feed.
For a venture so rooted in finding unexpected content ideas, it should come as no surprise that the office space for LTBD is about as unconventional as they come: a refurbed tour bus from Nashville that was once used by both Mitt Romney and John Edwards, though neither of them likely sported decorations quite as fanciful as the giant red dragon logo of the studio. If it sounds completely awesome to call a tricked-out bus designed by architect Jeff Allsbrook and his firm Standard your office, Clow’s reasoning for the choice affirms that feeling.
“We wanted [LTBD] to have its own space and for it to be close by because they’re going to service the agency, so we thought how cool would it be to be in a motor home? They can move down to the beach if the day is nice, do a presentation in a client’s parking lot, visit a film set, and it’s an interesting roving billboard as they move about West L.A. area,” says Clow. “It seemed like an inventive way to have an autonomous group and still have them right outside if we needed them.”
TBWA has long been at the forefront of organizational innovation, having blazed trails with its Media and Creative Arts Labs, and more recently its product development spin-off Pilot.is. But what makes this initiative particularly interesting is that it at once addresses the need among agencies to find ways to retain ownership of creative capital, as well as providing an incentive–and a mechanism–for its people to innovate.
“Like VCs, we’re looking for a hit or two,” says Clow. “The possibilities are as high as our creative imagination will allow us to go.”
Or as Golub says, “We’ve helped a lot of people become famous, now we get to do that in partnership with our own people.”