Behind the work: Spike DDB unleashes kids on NBA

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Stretching back in a high director's chair, Shaquille O'Neal plays a game of match-the-mom-to-the-kids. He's spent all morning surrounded by a ring of small children there to taunt him with reworded nursery rhymes as part of a Spike DDB campaign promoting TNT's coverage of the upcoming NBA season. Mr. O'Neal tells the young actors' mothers that he has five children of his own, the youngest 10 months old.

He's a good sport, and is game for all 20 or so takes which feature a half-dozen kids who tease him about his professional performance. To the tune of "Farmer in the Dell" they sing, "Shaq rules the paint" but later add "but the Spurs won the West," and, "You better get back in shape." He glowers at them and they switch back to singing, "Shaq rules the paint," a reference to the area nearest the basketball net that Mr. O'Neal is known to dominate.

Other executions poke fun at other star NBA players. LeBron James, who joined the Cleveland Cavaliers fresh out of high school and is known as the baby of the league is featured in a baby carriage. The kids again sing lines such as, "You got to the NBA, you better earn your pay." Another features the New Jersey Nets' Jason Kidd being read Hickory Dickory Dock.

Director Spike Lee said that using the kids is a great way to say things that adults can't get away with. "Children are honest, most kids haven't learned to lie. [Through them] we give a voice to the fans to mock-ridicule these great athletes. The ads are funny and the spirit is in fun. The athletes wouldn't have done it if it were adults saying these things."

casual attraction

Agency and network executives are also hoping that the appearance of kids on a children's TV set type backdrop might also attract casual viewers as well as die-hard sports fans to the new season on the AOL Time Warner-owned network. The campaign breaks on Sept. 29 ahead of the first doubleheader Oct. 28.

"It was Desmond's inspiration," said Mr. Lee of the shop's creative director Desmond Hall. Mr. Lee and Mr. Hall tossed their ideas back and forth until they came up with the campaign, titled, "Let the Truth Be Told." The tagline refers not only to the honesty of children, but to the harsh reality of the court action, where there's no hiding.

It seems natural to conclude that Spike DDB, owned by Omnicom Group, would be a shoo-in for any campaign involving the NBA, given Mr. Lee's legendary love of the New York Knicks. But Mr. Lee didn't actually appear at the pitch back in June, since he was filming in Los Angeles at the time.

Turner Sports' senior VP-sports marketing and programming, Jeff Gregor, said the campaign marks the first time that TNT has gone outside of its own in-house promotions team to support a sports program and that it`s the biggest NBA marketing campaign in the network's history. Turner and the NBA have a relationship that has lasted 20 years.

The agency beat out five other shops including independent Wieden & Kennedy, viewed as "too ESPN," Omnicom sibling Element 79, Chicago, and other smaller shops: Blues Federation in New York, Blue Sky in Atlanta, and Boon Oakley, Charlotte, N.C.

To win, Mr. Gregor said, agency President Dana Wade and Mr. Hall literally acted out the nursery rhymes in the office. "Desmond played it out, he danced around," said Mr. Gregor. "We all wanted him to do the spot. Spike is a bonus, but it was Dana and Desmond that sold us on the creative product."

joint promotion

The network executives were in full force at the shoot, which took place last week at Broadway Studios in Brooklyn. Turner President-Entertainment Sales and Marketing David Levy said plans are in hand for a joint promotion with sibling America Online and that the spots will air across AOL Time Warner outlets including TBS, Cartoon Network and CNN. While print and radio is expected to accompany the TV buy, executions have yet to be decided on. Mr. Levy said the media spending was in excess of $2 million, but declined to cite a precise figure.

The TNT campaign is just one of Mr. Lee's current projects. He's also making a movie pilot for Viacom's Showtime called "Sucker Free City," about African-American and Chinese gangs set in San Francisco. When asked about his views on branded entertainment, Mr. Lee seemed a little nonplussed. "I don't make those kind of movies," he responds. "I'm first and foremost a filmmaker. I jump between documentaries, commercials, music videos and shooting films, but in all we like to take a cinematic approach."

Spike DDB is certainly growing beyond its beginnings. The agency is headlong into new assignments for Pepsi-Cola Co.'s Mountain Dew Code Red, which follow up the Beyonce takeoff on the opera "Carmen" for Pepsi. There's also an unspecified assignment for Microsoft and work in the can for insurer State Farm. When asked where the agency is headed, Mr. Lee responded that he doesn't want the agency labeled as a multicultural shop. "We don't want to put any handcuffs on ourselves. We can do anything. We would like to get a car, electronics and get into pharma and a beer."

So what does he think of the current crop of advertising on air? Mr. Lee responds with caution. "I see a lot of commercials when I'm watching games. I'm not going to say that all ads stink, there's a lot of funny stuff out there."

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