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Offbeat Suissa Ad Agency to Stretch Its Creative Boundaries to Include TV Shows

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ad agencies usually produce 30-second commercials--not 30-minute TV shows.

But don’t tell that to David Suissa. The Santa Monica adman has plans to turn his advertising know-how into television show-how.

The offbeat ad firm he founded six years ago, Suissa & Associates, has formed a subsidiary that will use the talents of the same employees who now create ads for such gambling resorts as the Tropicana in Las Vegas and Harvey’s in Lake Tahoe to develop ideas for TV shows and feature films. These aren’t half-hour “info-mercials” either, but honest-to-gosh TV shows. “Creativity has no boundaries,” said the 34-year-old Suissa, whose agency has 21 employees and posts annual billings of about $20 million. “If we can be creative in 30 seconds, who says we can’t be creative in 30 minutes?”

Back in the 1950s, it was common for agencies to package television shows for advertisers--such as teaming Bob Hope’s show with Texaco. Over the years, advertisers, such as Hallmark and Procter & Gamble, have also developed their own shows. And many ad executives have independently crafted ideas for TV shows and movies, such as Philip B. Dusenberry, chairman of the New York office of BBDO Worldwide, who co-wrote the screenplay for “The Natural.”

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But it is highly unusual for an ad agency to establish a division whose sole purpose is to develop original concepts for television and cinema. With the ad industry deep in a recession, agencies are seeking new ways to grow.

The question is: What do ad agencies know about the art of developing shows?

Probably as much as anyone, says one production company chief. “Television is an execution-driven medium,” said Peter Roth, president of Stephen J. Cannell Productions, which produces “Wiseguy” and “21 Jump Street.” “It doesn’t really matter who the company is that’s behind a show. What matters are the writers, actors and producers who execute it.”

Advertising executives have mixed opinions about agencies tackling these areas. “A good agency can probably sell a TV show just like it sells a TV commercial,” said Mel Newhoff, senior vice president at the Los Angeles office of the agency Bozell. “Also, an agency may have a leg up because it at least understands how to develop ideas that sell.”

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But another top ad executive says the idea isn’t new--and will probably go nowhere. “Just like every waiter in Hollywood has a script, so does every advertising copywriter,” said Gene Cameron, president of the Los Angeles office of BBDO Worldwide. “Their clients might wonder: Why aren’t they creating ads instead of TV shows?”

Suissa notes that creating ads for clients will always come first. Suissa--and several other employees--work on their program concepts during evening hours and on weekends. “Besides,” said Suissa, “anything that stretches our creativity will help our clients.”

It’s a sort of formalized hobby, said Mike Indgin, 26, the agency copy chief who is also an executive producer in the agency’s new division, Suissa Productions. “We have this for a hobby kind of like Bo Jackson has football for a hobby.”

“Every time we watch TV, it’s research for us,” added Jonathan Fong, 29, an agency copywriter who helped launch the new division. Besides pitching ideas for shows, the group also creates print ads for the shows, which they then display to interested network executives.

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The crew has developed a new TV game show concept about eating called “Food, Fun & Fortune.” The questions all focus on food. “It’s a game show that can help people lose weight,” said Suissa, who has teamed up with Smith-Hemion Productions on the project. They have already pitched the show to one major network--and another also has shown some interest.

The agency also is pitching a concept for a 60-minute TV drama, “Venice Beach,” about a one-legged Vietnam veteran who opens a detective agency on the boardwalk in Venice Beach.

“We’re still nobody until we get a show on the air,” said Suissa. “Our goal, God willing, is to have a show on the air by next fall.”


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