Wieden & Kennedy for the X Games: ESPN gets rad with a bunch of street sports that'll all be in the Olympics in 2008, dude.
Looking back at it now, maybe the Philly experience wasn't so bad after all. Sure, they took their knocks big time with Subaru, but it was also during Wieden & Kennedy's brief stint in Gyrotown that ESPN walked quietly in the door. And since then, things in the somewhat insular world of TV promotion just haven't been the same.
Borrowing one page from MTV's playbook-and why not, considering that John Lack, a co-founder of Music:Television, brought the sports channel's account to W&K in the first place-and another from Nike's, ESPN has since managed to create for itself a hip, sophisticated and utterly cool brand identity. That they've done it in the fast-paced, voracious-appetite, retail-oriented context of on-air promotion, with its endless demands for tune-in information, is an impressive achievement, kind of like a wild card team making it to the Super Bowl. That they've done it while using a growing number of creative resources, from in-house teams to freelance writer/producers to broadcast designers like Lee Hunt and Jeff Sargeant to agencies like Wieden (now joined by Ground Zero and Goldsmith/Jeffrey) and production houses like Radical Media, and they've still managed to keep a consistent tone and attitude to the work, well, that's like the wild card team winning.
So what kind of clients must these Tank McNamaras be? Says Gary Goldsmith, "Oh, about once every 10 years one like this comes along."
You talk to people who work on ESPN and you hear a lot of unsolicited superlatives. Now sure, no one's going to be badmouthing clients to a journalist, but the level of personal and professional admiration that creative people express for ESPN's marketing crew is almost scary. "We work with them like they're part of the creative team; it's like a little utopia," says Ground Zero's Kirk Souder, whose agency is soon to break a new image campaign for ESPN2. "This is like it should be all the time, but it's rare," he says of the relationship. "We pinch ourselves every day."
(r)¯While Judy Fearing, the network's senior VP-marketing, gets a lot of the credit for fostering this agency/client lovefest, the creative rank and file heaps bigtime praise on director of advertising and program marketing Allan Broce, the 32-year-old former JWT account executive who came to ESPN from Pepsi, where he was ad manager on Mountain Dew and Diet Pepsi. Described as an ad Ý28
espn ó27 junkie with a strong ability to evaluate work, Broce has been called an extra creative director by some of the writers who've worked on the campaign. Rounding out the ESPN brain trust and reporting to Broce are ad director Neal Tiles, creative services director Ron Finkelstein and manager of advertising and program marketing Tom Clendenin.
Given the success they've had in getting good work out of their outside creative people, just what exactly do the ESPNers look for in their partners? "We look for people who are sports fans," says Fearing, "who push our thinking, who understand the consumer, who will help us take risks in an educated, smart way, and who can help us distinguish ourselves as leaders. We also need a sense of rapport; there has to be the right chemistry."
That the chemical reactions between agency and client haven't changed while some of the chemists have is another interesting sidebar to the ESPN story. Fearing, for example, is the third marketing VP that Wieden has reported to; she took over after the departure of Harriet Seitler, who is currently head of marketing and creative services at Harpo Studios, producers of "Oprah." Seitler, a former MTV marketing executive, was in turn hired by Lack, who is credited with giving Wieden & Kennedy the charge of making ESPN terminally hip in the first place. Recalls W&K's Larry Frey, who was working in the agency's Philadelphia office when the account arrived in 1993, "John walked in and said, 'I want to be the fucking Nike of cable television.' He said he wanted people to fall in love with ESPN the brand, and not just the programs. He wanted to develop an emotional response with viewers."
It's safe to say that before W&K came on the scene-and for the most part, the ESPN story is a Wieden story as well-ESPN's promotion reflected that of a pretty conservative, straightforward cable programmer. But soon things began to change. One of the early Wieden spots was an animated hockey promo that looked as though someone had poured "Liquid Television" all over ABC's "Wide World of Sports." That was followed by a zany NCAA basketball campaign starring "SNL" fat boy Chris Farley, and has continued through an increasingly funny series of spots that have all the earmarks of the MTV/Nike conceptual axis. Take offbeat celebs, for example (remember Tony Bennett's MTV promos?). Bug-eyed actor Steve Buscemi has done ESPN spots (he played a baseball-crazed owner of a sports memorabilia store), as has Michael McKean in his "Spinal Tap" alter ego, monologue artist Eric Bogosian (in a comic baseball campaign written and directed by Radical Media directors Bryan Buckley and Frank Todaro, who were working directly for ESPN), Robert Klein, Nick Turturro, Tim Robbins and Robert Goulet, whose NCAA big band recording session campaign is an absolute hoot. Most recently, W&K tapped comeback kid Burt Reynolds to play God in a campaign for the Senior PGA Tour.
On the flip side, ESPN can challenge MTV when it wants to for pure visual energy: the promo campaign for its summer broadcast of an extreme sports competition dubbed the X Games, created by W&K and directed by Sam Bayer, would look more at home in the Top 20 Video Countdown.
Behind this juggernaut of image and attitude is an ESPN brand strategy that got its start in the early days of the network's relationship with W&K, although it has since been exported to just about every creative resource the client has worked with. The philosophy is summed up in the first few lines of a booklet the agency prepared for Fearing (who, like Broce, came from Pepsi, although the two did not work together there) when she assumed ESPN's top marketing spot last year: "ESPN isn't a large network. It's a huge sports fan."
Wieden has been very involved in developing a personality for ESPN so that you don't just look at us and think highlights, you see an identity and an attitude," says Fearing. What the agency helped them do is "craft a way of looking at ourselves," she adds, a task that is no small feat, although it's worth noting that everyone who has worked on the account is surprised by just how clear a vision the network has of itself, its audience and its product. "A big challenge for agencies is to get a client to see themselves, to get a sense of their own essence," says Souder. "With these guys, half of our job was done when they walked in the door."
With an irreverent, self-referential, pop culture-tinged self-image firmly in place, the efforts to create an identity to reflect it started in earnest. "The way we looked at it, every spot should add to the brand identity, even if it was a simple tune-in spot," says Frey of the early work. In fact, almost all of the work that the agency has contributed, from the over the top stuff like the "SportsCenter" campaign to little things like a series of silly 15-second baseball spots featuring one of those little bouncing-head dolls found in the back windows of cars throughout the Bronx, does just this.
Of course, the ongoing debate still pits image vs. tune-in. After three years of progressively more image-oriented work, Broce says they still agonize over striking the right balance. "There are times when the coolness of the concepts can overpower the key game info," says Broce of campaigns like the Goulet NCAA stuff. The key is to make sure that the agency has the right information about a particular game or event-the straight poop that will ring true with sports fans. While watching Goulet croon in his Vegas-patter style was hysterically funny, Broce points out, "he was singing about the right teams."
This balance wasn't an issue with "SportsCenter"; here was a campaign solely aimed at creating an image for ESPN's flagship show. To listen to anyone at ESPN (or at Wieden, for that matter) tell it, the much heralded (and liberally awarded, too) "SportsCenter" work represents the zenith of Western thinking as we approach the millennium. Actually, says W&K's Jerry Cronin, "It's kind of a pretty cool show. They [the anchors] allude to weird movies and rock stars all the time. It's got a curious frame of reference."
That "SportsCenter" is the only campaign that ESPN has spent money to run on other TV channels says a lot about how important it is to promoting the brand identity. Since most of the ESPN work only runs on ESPN (or ESPN2), there's a sense of preaching to the converted about a lot of this stuff. Fearing agrees, but points out, "In some cases our converts don't come to church often enough." The overall media strategy is to not only increase use of regular viewers but to attract the occasional stray fan as well.
Now that ESPN has three agencies working for it with more or less specific assignments, the lines of responsibility will probably become clearer. While W&K has been their main source of work to date, there has been an almost a la carte feel to how assignments have been handed out. Many of these decisions have been based on workload; for example, the agency was simply too swamped to handle last year's "Sunday Night Baseball" campaign, so Broce went directly to Buckley and Todaro for both creative and production. In other cases, it's a matter of expertise; Wieden suggested that it really didn't have much of a pulse on the stock car world, so ESPN took its NASCAR campaign to an outside creative team. (This campaign, in which racing stars talk about the cartoon character Speed Racer's introduction to the circuit, is perhaps the one ESPN campaign that falls flat.) As a rule, however, what Fearing calls the "more significant branding properties" in the various sports they cover go to Wieden-hence the NHL campaign with Tim Robbins, the NFL campaign with Art Donovan, the baseball campaign with the Abe Lincoln lookalike, etc.
Cleary, ESPN faces challenges ahead, and it will be interesting to see how it responds via the creative quality of its advertising and promotion. It's in the throes of brand expansion: Beyond the creation of ESPN2 there's a magazine in the works, sites at Disney theme parks and the launch of its new sports news channel, ESPNews (an image campaign from Goldsmith/Jeffrey breaks later this month). There's also the ESPNET Sports Zone Web site, the radio broadcasts and an ongoing effort to forge international licensing agreements a la MTV.
And then there's the competition at home, particularly from Fox, which is positioning itself as an alternative sports source. "They're very aggressive, and they know how to do promos that don't look like promos," says Frey. Even Broce gives them a grudging nod.
Indeed, claims Frey, who has just moved off the account and will be replaced by Vince Engel, ESPN has taught lots of television programmers how to look at their promotion in a different light; a number, in fact, have called the agency and asked them to do just the same thing for them, requests that have been politely and consistently declined. They'd rather focus on what he sees as their ongoing goal for ESPN: "To stay hip, to stay cool, to stay relevant." l
Editor's Note: This is the first of an occasional series profiling clients who