Bart Jansen loves cats and airplanes. When the 33-year-old Dutch artist's tabby, Orville—named after Orville Wright—was killed by a car in September of 2011, Jansen confronted his grief head-on: He had Orville stuffed and preserved in a flying position, and then converted into a remote-controlled helicopter, replete with small, downward-facing rotors on each paw. You may have heard about it.
Within days of being posted on June 4, the YouTube video of a hovering Orville, titled "Orvillecopter," went viral. The media wrote stories. The public debated ethics. And Damian Collier, a 36-year-old English lawyer, heard a cash register sound. He promptly signed Jansen to Viral Spiral, the agency Collier created in 2011. His goal with Orvillecopter was the same as it is with Viral Spiral's 1,000-plus other clients: to help an accidental viral star capitalize on his burst of fame.
YouTube has proved itself to be a viable launching pad for professional performers who produce popular videos. But other than joining YouTube's revenue-sharing partner program, there have been few ways for a random parent or pet owner to cash in on a hit. The opportunity is there, free and clear: YouTube doesn't elbow in on the rights of videos posted to the site. Only this summer did it announce its Video Creation Marketplace, which will help uploaders reach potential licensers.
Collier recognized that market much earlier. He was producing a musical version of H.G. Wells's sci-fi classic War of the Worlds. Having been tasked with boosting ticket sales, Collier called Howard Davies-Carr, the Brit whose sons starred in "Charlie Bit My Finger," the YouTube powerhouse that has tallied more than 460 million hits since 2007.
"I inquired about putting a display ad in the video on YouTube," Collier recalls. "At the end of the call, I asked if he got similar requests often." The answer was yes. Charlie needed a manager.
In signing Davies-Carr as his first client, Collier created a new industry: viral-video licensing. Viral Spiral, a 10-person shop out of London (with associates in Los Angeles and Japan), is the first agency to deal exclusively in managing user-generated YouTube content. Now Collier's research team monitors blogs, news feeds, and social networks for video content that seems on the verge of a viral takeoff. When a prospect is identified, Collier reaches out "within the hour" and offers the creator a place on the Viral Spiral roster. "There's no great creative decision for us," Collier says. "Either a video is embedded in popular culture or it's not."
Typically, once a client is signed, Collier will dip into his licensee database and contact TV producers, ad agencies, and potential advertisers who seem thematically or demographically aligned with the video. When a vid gets licensed—say, for a TV commercial—the firm takes a 10% to 30% commission. In the past 18 months, Viral Spiral has inked more than 5,000 deals, some worth as much as $150,000.
Advertisers use some or all of the YouTube clip in their TV spots, surrounding it with their own messaging targeted to the audience that helped turn the video into a hit. Viral videos from YouTube are appealing for several reasons: They come with an established following; licensing one can cost a lot less than producing a full ad; and, thanks to data from Google Analytics, they are delivered with all the demographic info of who liked that silly baby video or awful wedding mishap.
That appeal is why YouTube finally dipped a toe into deal making with its Marketplace. (Program specifics hadn't been announced as of press time.) It also explains the rosy outlook Collier has about his new competition. "It demonstrates there's a market for viral content in ads," he says. "We welcome it—and can offer our services to YouTube Marketplace users who need guidance on appropriate terms." Because if you turn your cat into an aircraft, you better get fair value for the footage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.