For LeBron, The Court Will Have The Greatest Impact on The Court of Public Opinion

In his eminently readable book Which Lie Did I Tell?, legendary author, screenwriter and script doctor William Goldman discusses how the very things that made Michael Douglas a strong producer made him a liability in the dual role of producer/lead actor for “The Ghost and the Darkness.”  Douglas pushed Goldman to expand his character’s role, giving him a backstory to explain his motivations and character flaws…and it killed the movie.  No one cared, and it kinda made Douglas’ hunter character a wimp.  Clint Eastwood never explains the source of his pain or personal demons–he just works through them and lets you figure it out.  Otherwise, it sounds too much like whining…

This new ad from Nike for LeBron James immediately called to mind that anecdote.  As you’d expect, this spot is well-produced.  It’s charmingly acted.  It’s engaging with the pop culture Miami references.  Still…he just kind of bugs me now.

Oh I like it.  But I kind of hate myself for liking it.

I understand Nike needs to protect their investment.  They need to polish the James brand. But as clever as this is, it’s a band-aid on a chest wound.  Ultimately, LeBron can only fix his image on the court.  Quit whining, quit explaining, get over your own damn self and play.

Until then, he’s only gonna generate fan reactions like evanw3’s comment on another blog: “Lebron’s phone is always on vibrate….it too does not have a ring.”

Ouch.

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By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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PS:  Thanks to Prashant Nashi for sending this video my way.

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The Benefit of Great Expectations

Everyone talks about the challenge of high expectations; past successes can cast a long shadow over the future, where every new move will be measured against a superlative past.  And that can be paralyzing.  It’s the curse of the one hit wonder (“The Night Chicago Died” by Paperlace, anyone?), the sad tale of the talented young sports tyro who didn’t pan out (Freddy Adu?), the frustration of movie sequels that fail to measure up to the original (every Star Wars movie since 1977).

But the glass of great expectation can also be viewed as half-full.  Nothing succeeds like success, and past excellence can draw others to you, eager to take part in the cool happening, the interesting action, the next big thing.

That’s the only possible explanation for how this spot ever came to be.  “Write the Future” is a breathtaking piece of production from Nike, directed by Alejandro G. Iñarritu for the upcoming World Cup.  It is the densest three minutes of story-telling you will see this year, and possibly for years to come.  And it is the kind of audacious spot no other brand could make, simply because to gather the galaxy of international sports stars, licensed properties, and world wide locations would cripple the budget of any marketer who has to pay full retail.  Nike doesn’t.  Their long history of dependable executional excellence draws people to them eager for the exposure of another awesome project.  Artists and athletes want to participate, even though it is a commercial venture.

These expectations also draw crowds: this spot rewrote the book on virals, earning over seven million online views in less than a week.  That’s a benefit the Nike brand richly deserves.

And we viewers can happily enjoy.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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In An Imperfect World, Intelligent Iteration Is A Crucial Skill

Picture 2Eighteen years ago, photographer John Terence Turner created this instant classic for Nike.  The shot captures a lone runner mid-stride in one shaft of light amidst the shadowed canyons of Seattle and features the brilliantly understated caption, or perhaps even encapsulation: “There is no finish line.”

I flashed back to this visual after listening to Mark Earl’s August 11 video clip on “3 Minute Ad Age.” Mark is now an author but as the ex-Head of Planning for Ogilvy London and Europe, he has some very intelligent viewpoints on marketing in this social age.

Primarily, he questions the wisdom of advertisers’ perpetual quest for “The Big Idea.”  Mark believes that it’s unrealistic to expect a single creative concept will span the incredible diversity of viewpoints in a global marketplace.  Life isn’t just multiple choice, it’s multiple solution as well.  So why should we place one big bet?  Wouldn’t it be smarter to lay down a number of little bets?

Scientists refer to the latter as ‘the iterative method’ while those of us who were liberal arts majors might be more inclined to just call it ‘common sense.’  How valuable would it be if we could get over our industry-wide predilection for polishing and instead, crank up the production machine and generate a number of good ideas, with the caveat that once we produced and shared them, we’d analyze their in-market impact?  We could test for things like sales results, engagement and favorability.  More importantly, we could then try to assimilate those results into actionable guidelines for future work.  It’s the equivalent of firing a cannon, seeing where the shell hits, and then making incremental adjustments to bring each subsequent shot closer and closer to your target.

Learn and apply: it’s a simple notion really.  Unfortunately, it’s far less simple to be honest about what we learn and disciplined with subsequent applications.  But we can try.

Because as the ad says, there is no finish line.  If there were, the Nike brand would still be about exhorting yourself toward physical self-improvement instead of evolving to the culture-shaping dynamo they’ve become.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

B-G-B (Bonus Guest Blog): The Next Great Athlete Endorser…Stewart Cink?

ChaseGuest Blogger: Michael Chase

Michael Chase is an account director at Element 79 and a man with both a deep track record with sports brands and an enviable short game.  He came to Element 79 to work on Gatorade and help develop Element 79 Sports with projects for clients such as Discover, US Soccer, the Wade’s World Foundation, and Chicago 2016.  Before returning to Chicago, Michael spent six years in Portland: two working on Nike Golf (and his short game) and four at Weiden and Kennedy where he first began working on Nike (and his short game).  He began his career with sports projects for Coors and Midas at Foote Cone and Belding after graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder (where the mile-high altitude helped his drives).  Later this afternoon, Element 79 will be relying on Michael’s total game at the AAAA golf outing in Harborside.  Long and strong Michael, long and strong…

Throughout my career, I have had the distinct fortune and pleasure of working with a number of wonderful companies and brands with their sports-related advertising and marketing initiatives. While I have a great deal of passion and energy for the business of sports, I am also a fan.  Okay, not just a fan, but a fanatic

Growing up, if I wasn’t playing baseball, football, soccer, basketball tennis or golf, I was watching it.  Some of my favorites in no particular order were John Elway, John McEnroe, Jack Nicklaus, Pele, Nolan Ryan and of course, MJ.  And like the rest of my friends, I bought what these athletes used, wore, and endorsed. 

I loved watching athletes in advertising.  From Mean Joe Green and Coke to the cast of characters for Miller Lite’s Taste Great/Less Filling campaign, from Nike’s “Bo Knows”  to  Gatorade’s MJ taking on himself, the great ads came from brands with clearly-defined understanding of their roles.  The best brands tapped into insights that resonated with sports fans and took the time and energy to find exactly the right athlete to deliver their message.  I cannot stress that last point enough. 

It has become more and more challenging for brands to find the right athlete.  For years, Element 79 Sports helped brands do just that.  But with our seemingly unlimited media access to our sports hero’s lives, we know too much about today’s athletes and recognize they are not the bulletproof, do-no-wrong heroes they once were.  Worse, with so many sports vying for our attention and so many new media outlets splintering our focus, some of the old luster is gone.  Combine all this with a down economic climate where limited dollars exist to sign athlete endorsers and showcase them through marketing and it’s obvious the old rules have changed.  Those rules may even be gone completely and it is time brands recognize this.

Gone are the days of scouring the Q scores to find the best athlete for the job.  Today, brands need to consider a multitude of criteria to make this crucial decision.  Excelling at their sport and demonstrating an interesting personality is simply not as important as it once was.  One of the most important emerging criteria to consider is whether the athlete is doing a good job of marketing themselves.  Do they have their own website?  Is it any good?  Are they active in social networking?  And if so, as this recent SI article about Twitter and professional sports asks, are they being followed?

Some of the most popular athletes in the world of Twitter may not be among their league’s leaders in stats, but definitely make the most entertaining use of less than 140 characters.  This list of the Top 10 Twitter athletes tells an interesting story; while it contains some of the biggest names in sports (Shaq, Lance, and Serena), you might be surprised by some of the others (skateboarders Ryan Sheckler and Tony Hawk? Nick Swisher? Kareem?).  A new site called Athlete Tweets aggregates thousands upon thousands of tweets from hundreds of athletes from all different sports creating a sort of Twitter sports network.

522,894 Followers Is Waaay Above Par

522,894 Followers Is Waaay Above Par

PGA fans may know Stewart Cink but he is hardly a household name in sports.  Still, Stewart has nearly 523,000 followers.   He provides rich, personal details of his golf life through nearly 1,000 tweets and his Twitter bio, right down to which brand of shafts he uses in his clubs.  Fans comment on the courses he plays and his club selection–they definitely notice.

The brands who recognize this new playing field, the ones who embrace it and use it to create even deeper relationships with athletes through it will win. Social networking will radically restructure who is chosen to endorse brands, how they endorse brands and how those endorsement deals will be structured.  Brands can use sports to reach their consumers in more relevant and efficient ways than ever before.  And the ones that do will win.

Last year Buick made the tough decision to end their long relationship with Tiger Woods because they could no longer afford him.  Maybe they should call Stewart Cink.  Actually, they should tweet him.

by Michael Chase, Element 79

Committees, Cooperation, and Compromise

“Search all the parks in all your cities;
You’ll find no statues of committees.”
David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man

In any creative business, the deeply personal nature of aesthetics makes judging ideas highly subjective.  Worse, typical corporate structures layered with levels of administrators each empowered with a small share of specialized brand responsibility creates a highly-contentious approval process where narrow interests, task-specific wants, and individual egos sublimate well-intentioned cooperation into contentious compromise.  And along the way, ever fragile aesthetics collapse as these forces stretch ideas into tortured, accommodation-driven forms.

“Nibbled to death by ducks,”  “Pissing on the tree”: this process raises the cynical hackles of any designer who strives for the exceptional, which explains how last week, a user interface designer named Dustin Curtis generated a dust up among creative thinkers on Twitter and online message boards that far exceeded the usual grumbling.

Mr. Curtis published and promoted this site along with an open letter to American Airlines.  Essentially, he takes extraordinary offense at their website, despising the online experience so much that he vows “never to fly your airline again.”

Dustin Curtis' AA.com Redesign

Dustin Curtis' AA.com Redesign

However, unlike other irritated consumers, Mr. Curtis took the unusual but relatively easily-realized step of taking his beef public.  With high dudgeon, he openly questions how the otherwise respectable AA could tolerate such a ‘terrible’ customer experience, taking personal aim at CEO Gerard Arpey and their board of directors for tolerating such an assault on their brand and its image.  He went so far as to spend ‘six hours’ redesigning their landing page, and his design definitely features a clean, streamlined look compared to the Nascar-esque clutter of the existing AA page.

His indignant ranting vitriol at this perceived confederacy of dunces makes wonderful vicarious reading for creative professionals, but that was not particularly fascinating.

What was incredible was that an actual user experience architect from AA.com responded to his complaint, albeit somewhat anonymously.  Even Mr. Curtis seemed amazed, more so by the fact that this designer’s portfolio featured some great work.

In his response “Mr. X” sets the blame for their underwhelming site squarely on American’s corporate structure and culture: large, far-flunged and heavily, heavily siloed.  Many people touch the site, each with their own vested interests and many with autonomous authority, which results in the eventual dog’s breakfast that is aa.com.

The AA.com Website

The AA.com Website

In the end, I bet “Mr. X” vetted his letter with his bosses, providing a response to this challenge that simultaneously sought to explain, excuse and even pre-sell coming improvements.  It was a thoroughly contemporary version of corporate mea culpa: highly-targeted, highly-specific, tolerably supplicating and forward looking.

Mr. Curtis chalks this up to the permeation of bad taste in large organizations, but that’s a bit hysterical.  The real issue is empowerment.  With notably few exceptions, CMO’s lack any real authority in serious businesses.  They may be C-level, but they sit at the child’s table; easily replaced, ignored and overruled.

But its no coincidence that some of the consistently best run marketing organizations have adapted this structure to streamline the process and limit the amount of people with license to effect creative ideas.  The irony of the short-lived CMO tenure is how one individual with the remarkably rare balance of skills that makes them both strategic, sales-focused, and artistically discerning can radically influence a company’s image and their brands’ success.  For years at PepsiCo, that job fell to the legendary Alan Pottasch, who never touched an idea he didn’t improve.  Phil Knight’s role in the creative vision of Nike stands very well documented.  And ConAgra CEO Gary Rodkin’s recent emphasis on creative champions in marketing roles signals a powerful new resurgence for his collection of exceptional brands.

In a corporation, just as in society, an individual with vision can make a difference.  Corporations that choose and empower these kinds of exceptional individuals always win.  Those that don’t, inevitably spend too much on their advertising, forced to run more of it since it is of lower quality, and spending more to produce it due to overruns in editing, keylining, and approval.

In the end, not every creative idea or site can be as brilliant as this one, but they can all be better.  And the decision to be better has always been and always will be a personal choice.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79