Super Bowl

Why CarMax Bought Two Spots in the Super Bowl

Top Marketer Laura Donahue on Fuzzy Animals and the Big Game's Brand-Building Value

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- Used-car retailer CarMax has flirted with regional buys in past Super Bowl broadcasts, but come February, the Richmond, Va.-based marketer will make its first national splash in the big game with two 30-second spots, one in the second quarter and one in the third.

Laura Donohue
Laura Donohue
The buy was handled by CarMax's in-house media team, while the creative will come from its new agency, Amalgamated, New York, which was hired after a review this summer. At the time of the pitch, the shop didn't know CarMax would be buying national time in the Super Bowl, said Laura Donahue, VP-creative marketing and advertising and an 18-year veteran of the company.

In the past, CarMax ads have starred animals such as monkeys and prairie dogs, and while Ms. Donahue was coy about the creative the spots will showcase on Feb. 6, she did say furry creatures won't have quite the starring role they had in the past. She did guarantee the work would be funny, but in a "sophisticated" way.

The lead creative working on the ads -- being produced as we speak -- is Eric Silver, a well-known creative whose career has taken him through Cliff Freeman & Partners, BBDO and DDB before he became chief creative officer and majority owner of Amalgamated in September.

Ms. Donahue took a few moments to chat with Ad Age today from the set to explain how CarMax was lucky to nab some of the last inventory Fox had available in the Super Bowl and why the company's confident that the media buy -- while expensive -- will be advantageous to the brand.

Ad Age: When I think of going from a regional Super Bowl presence to having two national in-game spots, it sounds like a big difference in terms of cost. Why is this investment worth it for CarMax, and what's the overall business goal you're hoping to achieve via the Super Bowl this year?

Ms. Donahue: The Super Bowl is obviously a great platform for showcasing a brand. We're interested in providing a broader reach for us to be able to explain our customer-service story, and as we continue to grow into more markets and grow our online presence to make it easier and easier for people to access our products. It's primarily a brand-building effort.

It definitely didn't come without good thought about the creative that Amalgamated presented, but once we saw that, we knew the work was worthy of the platform. So it was a combination, a marriage of the creative and the opportunity. The main thing we're hoping to convey via these two spots is that we're a great company, we have a consumer offer, and it's a differentiated offer. What makes it really timely right now is that it's a really different story about customer service than what's playing out today in all industries -- whether it's airlines, banks, you name it. Customer service has been suffering as companies have tried in the recession to try and get a foothold on profitability and, unfortunately, that has included charging for services that used to be free.

Ad Age: The inventory for the 2011 Super Bowl sold out the fastest in recent memory, and according to Fox, it was all gone by October. Did you buy your time during the upfronts or later? And spots are said to be going for as much as $3 million. Is that how much you paid?

Ms. Donahue: We bought the time well past October. I think we got some of the last inventory, because I know [Fox was] more than 90% sold out when we got our two spots. Even if we didn't, we had lots of good opportunities lined up that we could have taken advantage of. I don't want to address specifically how much we paid as a company, but when we evaluated the two spots, the ancillary benefit -- the fact that you're so talked about, all the buzz you get both online and on TV -- that a national presence provides us as an advertiser seems to benefit us versus last year's standpoint. It's expensive obviously, but we really liked the value.

Ad Age: Are you concerned that the presence of so many automakers and auto-related companies in the game this time around will make it more difficult for your brand to stand out?

Ms. Donahue: I don't think so. We love it when automakers can do a good job advertising their product, because it's great for CarMax; their products are our used products. In terms of the of the world, we're a great business partner with them. It's a place for consumers to find information about cars, but they're not a seller. We're providing all these products to consumers; we're a retailer.

Ad Age: What can we expect from the creative? Will the spots have animals in them?

Ms. Donahue: No, animals won't be the centerpiece or theme of the spots. If you're familiar with the work Eric [Silver] has done on and off the Super Bowl in the past, then you'll know that they will be humorous and not disappoint. Both of them have a very sophisticated humor, though, not a gag-type humor, if you know what I mean. They're definitely not cookie cutters of one another; the two spots are two very different approaches to the same theme of our customer service and customer experience, and providing our customers what they want -- great quality, great pricing and an overall low pressure environment.

Ad Age: Besides your own, what Super Bowl ad or ads are you most excited to see on Feb. 7?

Ms. Donahue: I don't know. We've been so busy making ours that I haven't had the time to see what everyone else is doing. I love watching the game for the ads, though. And I'm really looking forward to seeing what will happen this year.

Most Popular