A Turkish Airlines TV commercial features playful competition between Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and Argentine soccer player Lionel Messi to determine who could take the best “selfie.”

Executives at Santa Monica ad agency Crispin Porter and Bogusky that made the spot wanted it to go viral. So they reached out last year to three guys who had started working together in that arena: Cameron Manwaring, Nick Reed and Tim Staples. They put their marketing skills together and had the video translated into more than 20 languages and posted it on YouTube. They emailed the video, promoting it to media in more than 100 countries.

The “Kobe v. Messi” video became a viral hit with more than 136 million views on YouTube. More than 2,600 articles were written about the ad.

While the views were soaring, Manwaring, Reed and Staples saw they could start an ad agency to do more work like that, so they launched Contagious in Marina del Rey to create and market ad campaigns specifically for YouTube.

“The one thing we agreed on, as we came together to launch Contagious, is that we feel YouTube is the engagement platform of the future for brands,” said Staples.

The trick, they said, was to produce videos that are entertaining enough that people want to spread a brand’s message to their friends. They wouldn’t divulge trade secrets, but they revealed that they try to make videos with production quality that matches the message and then distribute them to a wide network of media outlets and bloggers.

What they do is unusual. Many ad agencies offer services across traditional and digital media, some just do digital. But Contagious’ focus is strictly on YouTube.

The strategy could prove challenging, said Eric Johnson, president of ad agency Ignited in El Segundo.

“You get a hit video that takes off for one client but doing that consistently is really difficult,” said Johnson.

The guys at Contagious said they’re moving ahead and have already signed clients such as DreamWorks Animation in Glendale and NBC Sports in Stamford, Conn.

Reed said many brands still approach YouTube as a traditional media outlet by reposting television commercials on it instead of tailoring the message to its target audience.

“Everybody understands that YouTube is a phenomenal machine but no one really understands how to connect to it,” said Reed.

Old and new

Contagious was co-founded in October but officially launched last month. The company has 20 employees housed in a one-story open office space. It has worked with about 10 brands, and also collaborated with ad agencies such as Initiative in Mid-Wilshire and, of course, Crispin Porter.