TIAA CREF Pulls Off Coup: Buys TV Ads With Precision

Lady Antebellum-Tracked Spot Follows Band's Live Performance at CMAs

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NEW YORK ( -- Steve Goldstein came to work the day after ABC's Country Music Association awards to find co-workers surprised and delighted. A song his company, TIAA CREF, was using in one of its ads, "I Run to You" by country band Lady Antebellum, won "Single of the Year" -- and the ad ran immediately after the band performed the tune on national TV.

THIS IS NOT LADY ANTEBELLUM: The meercats in TIAA CREF's ad were accompanied by the country-music band.
THIS IS NOT LADY ANTEBELLUM: The meercats in TIAA CREF's ad were accompanied by the country-music band.
"Lots of people called and e-mailed asking if we knew that the commercial aired right after Lady Antebellum sang their song," said Mr. Goldstein, exec VP-chief communications officer at TIAA CREF. "We just responded, 'It was great, right?'"

It might seem simple, but the placement wasn't easy to pull off. Digital media allow marketers to narrow the placement of their ads, so they can go after, say, women interested in celebrity news or older men seeking information on heart health, rather than blasting it out to the populace at large. But precision has never been a hallmark of boob-tube advertising. For decades, TV networks sought deals that put an advertiser in as much of its schedule as possible. Spread out the buy, so the philosophy went, and bring in more ad bucks.

Besides, why should a network give up a single piece of prime ad inventory -- like the first ad in a commercial break, widely believed to the most memorable position -- to marketers that don't spend heavily across multiple shows?

Now, however, advertisers trying to wring the most return out of their investment want to align TV ads with specific programs, characters and storylines -- even particular moments in a single program -- under the theory that ads more closely linked to the shows they support are better recalled by viewers. And the networks, feeling competitive heat during a time of recessionary ad budgets, are becoming more cooperative. With competition from digital media, said Peggy Green, vice chairman at Publicis Groupe's Zenith Media, the "environment is a little bit different."

Rare feat
TIAA CREF's effort to be precise revealed some of the tension that still exists in trying to put strategy into practice. Until the very last minute, the company had no guarantee ABC would run the ad the way it did, despite multiple entreaties. After all, TIAA CREF, which specializes in financial services for people who work in the academic, research, medical and cultural fields, isn't the biggest advertiser in the medium. In 2009, the financial-services firm spent only $12.5 million on cable and broadcast TV advertising combined, according to Kantar Media -- and just $616,600 of that on ABC.

But on that November evening, accompanied by the musical strains of Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift and Sugarland, the company achieved what is still widely thought to be a TV-advertising rarity: It told ABC the exact position it wanted its ad to run, and the Walt Disney network accommodated the request. "The networks are more willing to work with you on this than they have been," said Mr. Goldstein.

Media outlets have become "much more responsive, and they'll do this if the reason is clear," said Ms. Green. If an advertiser is looking "just to pick off the best inventory, they're not going to let you do it, but if the reason to do it is compelling, they will work with you because they have to."

NBC, for example, allowed insurer Allstate to run a commercial in 2007 focused on teen driving alongside a special episode of "Friday Night Lights" devoted to the subject, and during the run-up to the Winter Olympics it let Honda run ads during "Chuck" that use characters from the spy drama (and also promote the Peacock). National Geographic Channel's sales pitch to advertisers these days spotlights different topical "pillars" that help marketers understand how they can align their commercials with certain kinds of audiences, said Rich Goldfarb, senior VP-ad sales, including "adrenalin" shows that attract young men. Marketers are looking for "particular environments, particular attributes," he said. "They want to "go even deeper" than TV has allowed in the past.

Even so, resistance lingers. From the first day TIAA CREF's media-buying firm approached ABC with the idea of placing the ad near or directly adjacent to Lady Antebellum's performance, the network's sales executives said they couldn't promise "the exact kind of positioning" the client wanted, said Gary Carr, senior VP-executive director national broadcast at independent TargetCast, recalling that the network said, "'We don't sell particular positions in a live show.' I can understand them wanting to say that right off, to ratchet down our expectations." ABC declined to make executives available for comment.

Skewing younger
Mr. Goldstein said he had told TargetCast to secure the exact position after Lady Antebellum's performance and even authorized more money if necessary. Lady Antebellum had generated buzz as TIAA CREF was trying to woo people in their 30s to place assets with the company. The average age of a TIAA CREF client is 48 or 49, Mr. Goldstein said.

Using the country band was something of an experiment for TIAA CREF, Mr. Goldstein said. But he heard their song "I Run to You" during a Lady Antebellum show in a downtown New York club and thought the lyrics would prove compelling in trying to attract consumers beset by a roiling economy: "This world keeps spinning faster/Into a new disaster/So I run to you."

"It sounds young," Mr. Goldstein said he was told by co-workers. TIAA CREF's ad agency, Modernista, created a commercial featuring meerkats, meant to symbolize indecisive consumers, and the campaign launched in September 2009. Within weeks, Lady Antebellum had begun to hit it big, with the song climbing the charts.

Mr. Goldstein felt running TIAA CREF's ads near the band's performance during the ABC show would help boost viewers' recall of the commercials. But ABC would not put a commitment to a specific placement in writing, said Steve Farella, TargetCast's CEO. "They will never tell you that this is going to happen, but working with the right people at ABC, you can get a good feel," said Mr. Farella. Mr. Carr kept at it, checking in with ABC several times after it struck a deal to have TIAA CREF advertise in the event. "As we got closer and closer, we just kept talking to them. 'Hey, don't forget us,'" Mr. Carr said.

In the end, "it just worked out," said Mr. Farella. The meerkat spot that aired in the November broadcast generated a 24% increase in hourly web sessions to TIAA CREF's public site, according to the company.

And TIAA CREF tried again. With Lady Antebellum appearing during CBS's February broadcast of the annual Grammy Awards, the marketer again sought to place an ad immediately after the segment in which the band was set to perform. TargetCast wasn't as optimistic, said Mr. Farella, though the spot did run in close proximity to the band's appearance.

"This was a one-off in a program where there are a handful of really major sponsors," he said. "We were hoping, but it didn't happen." The struggle continues.

TIAA CREF: Meerkats
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