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Kevin McSpadden and Darth Vader
Kevin McSpadden and Darth Vader Credit: Kieth Martin
EBay, the 12-year-old auction website-turned-cultural phenomenon, has left a legacy of festive campaigns since it first began advertising in 2002. From its initial runs with Goodby "doing it eBay" and demonstrating that "people are good," to showing viewers what "It" was all about, via current agency BBDO/N.Y., the brand's image over the years has been nothing, if not fun. But this year, the San Jose, California-based company demonstrated a renewed dedication to keeping its brand as lively as ever, evident in a new campaign out of BBDO as well as a series of experimental branded entertainment efforts in partnership with talent agency/brand thinktank CAA.

"This has been a process in the works for almost 18 months," says Kevin McSpadden, eBay's senior director of brand marketing. "Our CMO Gary Briggs and I decided that we needed to put an adrenaline drip into our brand, and make sure that as it gets older, that it doesn't lose its verve, vitality and youthfulness." Not like the brand had any serious problems. Founded in 1995 as an online marketplace experiment by developer and now company chairman Pierre Omidyar, the website now reaches 38 global markets and boasts nearly 250 million registered users. And although the parent company has made some missteps during its expansion—most notably, overpaying $1 billion for its acquisition of money-losing internet phone company Skype—during the second quarter 2007 it generated revenue of more than $1.2 billion from its marketplace core business, not including profits from its other well-performing companies like PayPal.

"One of the things that we've been cultivating in our brand and communications style is kind of taking the piss out of ourselves," McSpadden says. "We want to be as much a part of the entertainment as we are a part of the advertising communications. When we went out and talked to consumers about this in storyboard form, one of the litmus tests [for greenlighting something] was if anyone voluntarily, unprompted, talked about wanting to rewind and watch it again. We want it to be sticky and we want people to be entertained."

Another key insight McSpadden and team found was "that stories sell. That's what I think is the magic of eBay. It's not just about winning something you really want, it gives you a story to tell—you're at happy hour, people talk about the thing they won on eBay." Enter CAA. Last spring, eBay partnered with the talent agency's marketing division to launch the "Let Them Post" initiative, which set out to encourage eBay sellers to tell their own stories and create videos to pimp their wares. Also working with production company Smuggler, "we went out and found eBayers who happened to be directors, writers, actors, and we said, 'We want you to do a listing on eBay as an entertaining story on video,'" McSpadden explains. "We sponsored, with a small stipend, a hundred video listings, and we changed our policy to allow video listings for the first time." The videos, low budget but expertly executed, were placed on the site and seeded onto fan boards and "since then there have been thousands of people selling their items on video," he says.

The company also worked with CAA on the recent "Winnervators" tour, sending comedians Andy Richter and Paul F. Tompkins cross-country to interview champions of all shapes and sizes to uncover the traits of being a winner, episodes of which will be broadcast on eBay and the dedicated site www.shopvictoriously.ebay.com. For months the company has also been partnering with CAA to produce a series of high-end short films as part of a major initiative launching in the spring "to develop a rich video platform that will unlock the stories of Ebay," he says.

"Let Them Post" video sellers pimp a guitar
So is eBay aspiring to be the next YouTube? Not exactly, but "part of the original goal of working with CAA was figuring out how do we enable more than 'pay for' [messages]?" McSpadden says. "How do we enable storytellers to tell great stories that eBay's involved in, as opposed to our paying for the stories that we want to have told? The talents at BBDO are masters at telling stories in the advertising format and we go to them to help us craft our message, decide where to put it to get people to take notice and be entertained. We've been going to CAA to figure out how to enable other storytellers." All these efforts have helped move eBay closer to becoming the "social commerce" platform CEO Meg Whitman described at the company's "eBay Live!" conference last June in Boston.

McSpadden will be the last one to say that the traditional spot is losing its luster as a communications medium, but "the world's quickly changing," he believes. "There's been a technology revolution since the internet began, and broadband reaches well over 50 percent of viewers. The press used to be where eBay stories got told, but people aren't going to those outlets as much. People are consuming content in many different ways than they were even three years ago."

Given that climate, McSpadden is eager to let his advertising and marketing partners—and eBay auctioneers—get creative with their storytelling. Experimentation is what got the company off the ground in the first place, he says. Moreover, "it's the micromanaging of your brand that prevents it from flourishing," he adds. "Helping people see all the fun and interesting items and opportunities, the stories on eBay can only be positive. I see it as innovating, trying new things and engaging people in new ways. For me, it doesn't feel risky. It feels good."

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