CPU: A Unit of Measurement for Both Creatives and Marketers

Case in Point: Goodby's 'TCOBO' Spots for the NBA Playoffs

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What's the measure of creative greatness? Awards are OK. But more and more, real success can be measured in CPUs: cultural-penetration units. ROI-obsessed marketers buy into all kinds of made-up metrics; this one is at least a less arbitrary indicator of business success, and it's one that both shrewd advertisers and creative types can get behind. CPUs are an amalgam of a range of brand-creativity feedback mechanisms: internet views and parodies, talk-show/ national-news/entertainment-show mentions, likelihood of awareness from siblings/aunts/parents (you know, like when everyone watched spots), and other indicators.

How does a campaign pile up the CPUs? A recent push from Goodby Silverstein & Partners touting the NBA playoffs provides us opportunity to study a high-CPU brand initiative.

"There can only be one" launched in April and immediately garnered acclaim inside ad circles. The spots feature a simple split screen filled with half the faces of two basketball stars -- forming, effectively, one superfamous, somewhat distorted visage. The pairings cover a who's who of the sport -- LeBron James and Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash, Kobe and Shaq. They speak, in unison, of solemn sports things -- above all, victory. The spots close with a super that reads, "There can only be one." They proved simple, fresh and memorable in a tough category.

But Goodby's ads were only the beginning. "TCOBO" went on to the kind of cultural notoriety marketers literally can't pay for.

The campaign's CPU rating spiked when Time magazine reinterpreted its conceit on a recent Clinton/Obama cover. Other imitators followed -- "SportsCenter," Adam Sandler (to promote his upcoming film) and, of course, YouTube enthusiasts. The best tribute to date is a recent "Saturday Night Live" skit that also offered an Obama/Clinton pairing but with character-revealing out-of-sync dialog added.

So how and why does it happen? Why do the media and the public make a campaign their own? One of the effort's architects, Goodby Executive Creative Director Jamie Barrett helps us break it down.

First, a bit of luck on the campaign itself. The original tag idea was "Who wants it more?" Turns out the agency couldn't use it. Whew. From a list of other options, "TCOBO" leapt out. (Oh, and the odd grammatical construction? Barrett says that was "just the way it came out of our heads. 'There can be only one' felt a little less colloquial or a little too melodramatic. 'There can only be one' just felt better." If you're a fan of the '80s cult movie "The Highlander," you may disagree.)

A great directing team (Dayton Faris) made the spots sing, as did a good client in the NBA ("They embrace good ideas, they help make them better and they help make them real," Barrett says).

Barrett says he "can't pretend that we thought we had anything other than a good ad campaign" but identifies some of the reasons for the monster cultural penetration. "For one thing, it's dead simple, so YouTubers and 'SportsCenter' and 'SNL' and others can easily take it and parody it and play with it," he says. "For another thing, it features a lot of cool people. It's not that often you get Kobe or Shaq or LeBron inches away from the camera, staring you down and speaking from the heart for 30 seconds. It's oddly intimate."

That simplicity seems to be at the heart of many campaigns that hit big culturally, but there are many other, often intangible factors. For the best agencies, aiming for cultural uptake is nothing new. But what's key here is that creatives are beginning to care more about CPUs than awards, and that can only be good news for marketers.

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Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity magazine and Creativity-Online.com.
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