Two decades ago, a young rapper who went by Jesse Jaymes saw his entertainment career hit a wall. But he quickly turned his talents into a gig for the New York Knicks and, later, other teams and the NBA itself.
Today, Jesse Itzler is the co-founder of Sheets energy strips, a dissolvable energy-supplement brand that has made a splash in recent months with its "I take a Sheet" ad campaign. Mr. Itzler counts LeBron James among his co-founders and vocal artists Drake and Pitbull among his partners. We recently talked to the 43-year-old entrepreneur about a marketing career arc unlike many others.
So you are the guy behind the Knicks' "Go, New York, Go" song of the 1990s. How did that happen?
I was a signed artist -- a rapper -- and I was 21, right out of college, and I moved to L.A. But the best thing that ever happened to me was that my record didn't do as well as I thought it would. So I came back to New York, and I'm a huge Knicks fan, and I noticed that there was a big shift in game presentation and operations. All of a sudden there were dancers, they were showing videos on the scoreboard. I had a done a jingle for a business owned by Nancy Grunfeld [wife of the Knicks' general manager at the time, Ernie Grunfeld], so I said to her, "Why don't we do something for the Knicks?' They let me take a shot at it. They liked it, started running it, and the rest is history. Then other teams started saying, "How do we get a song like that ?' I became the go-to guy in that niche of sports media. I later wrote and sang the NBA's "I Love This Game" song.
What did you learn about marketing from that experience?
It pushed my creativity as a marketer, because each city I worked in was so different. ... If I had done "Go, New York, Go" for the Spurs, it might not have worked. It really taught me a lot about demographics and tastes and styles. I never went to business school, so that whole experience was my crash course in marketing, contracts, negotiations and product launches.
You later co-founded private jet service Marquis Jet, which you sold last year. What was your level of involvement?
I was full-time for eight years. My main role was mostly in the sports and entertainment world—what you'd call influencer marketing. With the business on cruise control, I left the day-to-day two years ago and started Chapter Three for me, which is a company called the 100 Mile Group.
So what is the 100 Mile Group?
Our group does three things. We take equity interest in brands and then help out in sizzle marketing, bringing celebrities into emerging brands. So our first project was Zico coconut water. We got involved early as an investor and brought in a lot of celebrity investors like Kelly Ripa and Gisele. They were probably doing $5 million to $7 million in sales when we came in, and they should do $100 million next year. The second thing we do is start our own brands. We created a brand called Sheets with LeBron James, Maverick Carter (James' business manager) and Warren Struhl. We birthed that here. And the third thing we are is a creative agency, where we do work-for-hire stuff.
The advertising around Sheets has been edgy. Talk about the marketing strategy.
We rolled out this "I Take a Sheet" campaign where we show multiple people saying "I take a Sheet.' There's a pilot saying, "I take a Sheet in the cockpit," and so on. Our philosophy was that 90% or 95% of ads are forgotten. So we wanted to do something that was memorable and that people would talk about. It was a bit of shock and awe, and it worked. Now you have college kids saying, "I take a Sheet in class. Or I take four Sheets a day." You also have people saying it's so offensive or rude, but they talk about it and they remember it. We launched that in print, we did a national TV campaign, and we did a very, very smart partnership with NCM Media to show it in movie theaters.
So will we see more "I Take a Sheet" ads?
A lot of people on Facebook and Twitter tell us that it should be a Super Bowl ad. But a bunch of the networks won't run it. ... Phase Two of our campaign will be an education of the benefits of the product. "I take a Sheet' is more like a teaser campaign to build the awareness of the brand. But we'll continue to have a sense of humor.