NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Five years ago, DC Shoes founder Ken Block decided he needed another challenge beyond being his footwear and apparel company's chief brand officer. So at age 37, he embarked upon another career: rally racing. But it wasn't just a lark. Mr. Block, who oversees product design and development as well as marketing, was actually good, winning Rookie of the Year honors on the Rally America circuit, and getting a sponsor in the process.
But the rally-racing marketing executive also recently gained fame with another, perhaps dubious, honor, as having made and appearing in one of the top 10 viral ads of all time. The DC Shoes "Gymkhana 2" video features Mr. Block's own rally racing and drifting talents, smoking the tires of his Subaru, pushing the car sideways in a specialized form of street racing popularized in Japan known as "gymkhana."
Creating a "halo effect" that has boosted sales, Mr. Block said, the viral video has become a marketing coup for DC Shoes, which has traditionally leaned on a mix of online advertising and event sponsorships like Street League on ESPN2 and today launches its third video. Ad Age talked with Mr. Block, who started the company in 1994 and now reports to corporate owner Quiksilver CEO Robert McKnight, on his dual career and what makes a video go viral.
Ad Age: How did you get into rally racing? It's not the easiest sport to break into.
Mr. Block: DC has an athlete we sponsor on the circuit, Travis Pastrana, and I just decided to go out and race with him for a season. I ended up getting sponsors and turning that into a career. [Monster Energy sponsors Mr. Block.]
Ad Age: How did you get the idea for the gymkhana videos?
Mr. Block: Motorsports is very expensive. So the gymkhana stuff is to get cheaper seat time to practice. Running a rally car gets really expensive because of how much damage is done to the undercarriage from riding on gravel. Gymkhana is a much cheaper autosport, since you're running on asphalt. So I also started doing the gymkhana racing -- the basis is really car control. We do slaloms, a 360 around a cone, or a 540 rotation around the cone.
Ad Age: Is that what the videos are about?
Mr. Block: The stuff I do on video is gymkhana on steroids -- not quite the same, but I still call it gymkhana.
Ad Age: Was the video initially a branding initiative?
Mr. Block: The original video we did, it was just myself out playing with one of my cars. And we put the video together just for fun. But we didn't expect to get the response we got. Within the first couple months it got 11 million views on my site alone. It was costing me a fortune, so I took it down and put it on YouTube.
Ad Age: So this wasn't a branding exercise, or to promote a particular product?
Mr. Block: Not quite. It isn't always promoting a specific product. But it has become a brand-building thing for us now, which is why we did the second video and now the third video.
Ad Age: It's not a commercial and it's not just a funny stunt video. Is it marketing content?
Mr. Block: We call it "branded entertainment," and I call it eye candy, and people love to watch eye candy. And for us, when we do this kind of thing, it has to be authentic. We're not a larger corporation that's buying into a sport for just one spot.
Ad Age: But these days, every major brand is out there trying to get a viral-video hit, even big ones like Toyota and Nike.
Mr. Block: Everyone in the world is basically trying to figure out how to market and get to their consumers. We are a small company, when you put it in the perspective of companies like Toyota or Nike. But to be in your guys' top 10 list and beat a lot of other big brands out there, it's very cool for us.
Ad Age: Which agency did you go with to create these videos?
Mr. Block: Almost all these other ads on your top 10 were created by an agency. Ours was done completely in house. We partnered with a film-production company called Mad Media; DC Shoes had creative control.
Ad Age: Have the videos been effective?
Mr. Block: There's been a halo-type branding effect from the videos -- it's been very successful. It's definitely improved retail sales.
Ad Age: What's the formula for what makes a great viral video?
Mr. Block: If there was a formula for that, and everyone knew it, it would make marketing a lot easier. I study and watch new-media marketing all the time and it's very intriguing to me. I think as things get more and more saturated, original and new content that's entertaining is what's always going to work. That's a key success of the gymkhana series. We did something in a unique and different way.
Ad Age: Is it hard being a professional rally racer and chief brand officer of a company?
Mr. Block: I get paid to go out and race my cars and put up those videos. I'm a lucky bastard.