It's a Wednesday afternoon in June and a corner of downtown Seattle is flooded with magenta. Dressed in the trademark color of T-Mobile, the fourth-largest U.S. wireless carrier, hundreds pour into the Paramount Theatre to see two stars. One, hometown hip-hop hero Macklemore, would come on later in the night.
The other takes the stage at 6:07 p.m. A microphone drops before a thickset man, who, playing the part of a boxing-ring announcer, gives a roaring introduction to John Legere as he sprints to the front in black leather jacket and pants, hot-pink shirt and socks while collecting hand slaps, cellphone clicks and riotous applause.
The Un-CEO is in the house.
Mr. Legere's rambunctious, straight-shooting style has become synonymous with T-Mobile's image as the alluring iconoclast of telecommunications. The company's defiance of industry rules -- eschewing contracts, paying early termination fees for consumers to switch carriers, unlimited data plans that extend to music streaming and other services -- has rejuvenated T-Mobile's business and jolted an entire industry.
Its audacious approach has struck a chord with consumers. T-Mobile added 1.5 million subscribers in its most recently completed quarter, marking the fifth consecutive quarter the carrier pulled in more than a million net new subscribers.
That surge has drawn the attention of several potential suitors.
While never publicly announcing an offer, Softbank, which owns a controlling interest in Sprint, the third-largest U.S. carrier, was understood to have made a $32 billion bid for T-Mobile. Last week, however, the Japanese company abruptly dropped its bid and replaced Sprint's CEO. In addition to regulatory hurdles, several analysts said T-Mobile's parent, Deutsche Telekom, thought Sprint's offer looked too low in light of T-Mobile's ascent.
Still, others continue to covet the company. In recent weeks, French telecom Iliad offered $15 billion for a majority stake citing T-Mobile's "disruptive position." And last week executives at Dish Network, the satellite-TV provider, also indicated interest in T-Mobile.
How those scenarios will play out is yet to be seen. But one thing is clear: the suitors are drawn by T-Mobile's mutinous marketing machine on display this June day as Mr. Legere storms the Seattle stage.
"Right now, there's a euphoria," said Scott Foreman, CEO of Publicis Seattle, which has worked with T-Mobile since the brand's inception in the U.S. in 2002. "It truly is a revolution," offered Jason Sullivan, the agency's managing director. Mr. Legere, he said, has "put a face on a faceless industry."
Thirty minutes into his appearance at the Paramount Theatre, Mr. Legere sits down, pulls out his phone and fires off one of his hallmark coarse tweets. ("You guys want a shit ton of DATA," he wrote to customers, "so we built our network to fit you!") Then he surrenders the stage to his chief marketing officer—the face behind the face.
Slender, with wire-rimmed glasses and closely cropped hair, Mike Sievert, 45, looks the part of a Seattle software old hand. Before coming to T-Mobile two months after Mr. Legere in November 2012, Mr. Sievert served in marketing roles at AT&T and E-Trade. He also managed business operations with IBM, Microsoft and Clearwire, a wireless broadband operator purchased by Sprint last year. A tech startup he co-founded, Switchbox Labs, was acquired by Lenovo in 2009.
Next to his CEO, Mr. Sievert is bookish and reserved. However, marketers who have worked with him say he doesn't shy away from aggressive tactics. Tyler Davidson, who reported to Mr. Sievert at AT&T Wireless, calls him "fiercely competitive" and "one of the brightest minds in marketing." He credits Mr. Sievert with pioneering unlimited voice minutes at AT&T, a move aimed squarely at rival Verizon. "Mike really likes to agitate," said Mr. Davidson, now chief revenue officer for mobile analytics firm PushSpring. "He's always looking for the next trick up his sleeve."
During an interview at T-Mobile's Bellevue headquarters, in a room blanketed in the company's trademark magenta, Mr. Sievert said the initial "Uncarrier" idea came from Mr. Legere. Yet agency partners credit Mr. Sievert with executing the nuts-and-bolts of T-Mobile's turnaround, which leans on its CEO's outsized public persona and a fatter marketing budget. Since 2010, T-Mobile has nearly doubled its advertising spending, reaching $1.07 billion last year, according to the Ad Age DataCenter.
"John wants to see what they make," said Mr. Foreman. "But Mike and Peter [DeLuca] are driving the marketing."
In many ways, Mr. DeLuca, senior VP-brand and advertising -- along with lieutenants such as Andrew Sherrard, a senior VP and 11-year company veteran -- serves the role typical of CMOs, coordinating the logistics with agency partners, celebrity endorsers and its retail outlets.
Mr. Sievert plays a much broader role in operations. He is a constant, vocal presence on T-Mobile's earnings calls. During the company's first-quarter call, Mr. Legere fielded an analyst's technical question, leveling a joke at Sprint's spokesman, Pharrell Williams ("If I hear that 'Happy' song one more time, I'm going to stab somebody"), before turning to Mr. Sievert. The CMO largely evaded the query -- on the impact of new promotional plans from the three larger carriers on the subscribers flocking to T-Mobile -- and defended T-Mobile's decision not to disclose that particular metric. He also took his own potshot at Sprint's newest subscriber plan. One PR veteran at T-Mobile said Mr. Legere occasionally refers to his CMO as an "evil genius."
"[Mr. Sievert] and I are having a terrific time disrupting this industry," Mr. Legere wrote in an email. "The turnaround of our T-Mobile brand is no accident. Mike's work is changing this industry and driving our business."
In addition to his involvement with Wall Street, Mr. Sievert is a guiding hand in every step of the creative process at T-Mobile and MetroPCS, the carrier T-Mobile acquired in May 2013. His "evil" moniker may stem from his reputation for turning to tactics that undercut the competition, and orchestrating them with cool precision.
Despite Mr. Legere's unscripted panache, the carrier is noted for its tight messaging control, akin to Amazon and Apple. Only a handful of T-Mobile employees were aware of its recent Super Bowl spot up to a few days before it went live. One ad sales executive who partnered with T-Mobile on a media buy was required to work on a project at the company's headquarters -- lest the executive run off with sensitive documents.
In conversation, Mr. Sievert moves swiftly from arcane telecom topics to social media. At T-Mobile's headquarters, Mr. DeLuca informs him that during the "Uncarrier" event, AT&T outbid them on a promoted Twitter hashtag. "Who cares?" Mr. Sievert responds. "That's fantastic." He mocks his old company for wasting its bigger budget, then boasts that T-Mobile has netted 100 million unpaid impressions since.
"He has really helped push the envelope," said Tracy Wong, exec creative director of WongDoody, which runs in-store marketing for the carrier. "Historically speaking, you wouldn't have a CMO as concerned with retail as he is."
Mr. Sievert's expansive role reflects an industry shift. National smartphone penetration is peaking, which means carriers must find new ways to milk revenue from subscribers. Or steal them. That has never been simple in an industry widely reviled by consumers. People love their smartphones; they hate their carriers. But turnover is low.
For years, telecom firms operated with an unspoken truce not to disparage the industry -- bash the competitor, but don't point out how despised the business is. T-Mobile tore that truce apart.
Over the past 17 months, the "Uncarrier" offerings have prompted similar discounts and maneuvers from all other carriers. In its second-quarter earnings, AT&T reported that half its smartphone sales came from subscribers to Next, its contract-free plan introduced last December.
"In an industry that's basically a commodity, it's all about what you can provide your customers and what you can bill. Part of it is [going] to be translated to marketing," said Mr. DeLuca. "What else is there, if you think about it?"
At lunch, a day after the Macklemore show, Mr. DeLuca is famished. Three weeks prior, T-Mobile shifted the event from Los Angeles to Seattle, after concluding the national press would be in town to see local peer Amazon unmask its smartphone. He had not sat down for a meal in two days; at the event, brimming with cocktails and catered appetizers, he managed to slip in a slice of salami. "I have no time," he said.
He was also swamped three years ago, when T-Mobile was prepping for a since-aborted purchase by AT&T, a rival it had spent years loathing. The department he then oversaw, corporate communications, was forced to add business sponsorships, then social media, to its mandate, as the board deemed hiring futile as the acquisition was looming. Mr. DeLuca was balancing deck chairs aboard a Titanic.
He wasn't alone. Across the company, staff were given pay bumps to prevent departures. "People were staying because of golden handcuffs," said one former T-Mobile marketer, "not because of any loyalty." Morale tanked. It extended to the company's ad partners. Asked about the time, Mr. Wong bows his head and shakes it.