MBPT Spotlight: Creative Ad Campaigns Through the BBDO Looking Glass

When the M&M known as Ms. Brown tries to buy insurance from the Geico Gecko, or Mike Tyson returns a piece of the ear he bit off of Evander Holyfield to the former boxer, or Godzilla goes waterskiing and hangs out on the beach with other dudes, it may sound like the work of mad men or Lewis Carroll, but it’s really part of the modus operandi at ad agency BBDO New York.

As the White Queen so aptly put it in Through the Looking Glass, “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Companies that have aligned with the global agency are looking for, if not the impossible, certainly extraordinary solutions to their uncommon marketing, advertising and sales needs. Among those on the roster: AT&T, American Red Cross, Campbell’s, Diageo, ExxonMobil, FedEx, Foot Locker, GE, HP, Hyatt, J&J, Lowe’s, Mars (M&M’s, Snickers, Twix), P&G, PepsiCo, Starbucks and Visa.

Among those new to the crew: Wells Fargo, CVS and Major League Baseball, which will work with BBDO, a division of Omnicom Inc., on managing all brand and jewel events (Opening Day, All-Star Game, postseason) advertising and marketing.

Just as impressive may be BBDO’s PSA work. Among the organizations that have tapped BBDO’s creativity in that arena: Autism Speaks, Save the Children, the Police Athletic League, Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, Special Olympics and LeanIn.org.

With the help of BBDO’s internal Women’s Council, LeanIn.org and Girl Scouts of the USA in March launched “Ban Bossy,” a multiplatform effort to “encourage leadership and achievement in girls.” The campaign comes with educational materials, a dedicated website, two PSAs and endorsements from celebrities such as Beyoncé, Condoleezza Rice, Jimmie Johnson, Jennifer Garner and Jane Lynch. The PSA from BBDO New York, “Change the Story,” shows young girls talking about the power of the word “bossy” and the plans they have to overcome its negative impact, and comes with a call-to-action for “all of us to ban bossy.”

With new baseball creative scheduled to hit momentarily, BBDO New York president and CEO John Osborn—now celebrating his 10th anniversary in the position—talks about ambush marketing, the challenges of selling via storytelling, using sports as a platform, candy shell-covered chocolates that can speak and, per the mantra at BBDO, “The Work. The Work. The Work.”

The spot that BBDO did for Foot Locker, ‘All is Right,’ with Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Brett Favre and Dennis Rodman received a lot of attention for being one of the most creative storytelling ads of last year. How did it come about and how does it reflect the attitude of Foot Locker and BBDO’s relationship with them?
They are a fantastic client. I met their management team a couple of years ago after Ken Hicks had arrived as CEO. One of the things we observed and spent a lot of time talking about was that Foot Locker was a house of brands rather than a branded house. We worked with the Foot Locker gang to create the frame of the campaign, and I call it a frame because executions such as ‘All Is Right’ sit inside of the frame. But the whole frame is around this notion of Approved.

Why ‘Approved’ and not more of a sports term?
They don’t sell just anything at Foot Locker. They sell the best product, the best gear. So if you’re a kid who fits within their target audience, you are aware of that stuff. It says something about you. It has a badge quality, a status associated with it. It says that you are approved, the product is approved, Foot Locker approves it before they put it in their stores. So that’s the frame in which all the work sits.

Foot Locker has had memorable ads with James Harden and Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Shaquille O’Neal and others. What drives that?
The work itself is at its best when it celebrates the quality of the product they sell in a way that says to these kids, ‘We’re not taking ourselves too seriously’ and, ‘We respect the game.’ That is a spirit of purpose that permeates through a lot of the work we do here, whether it’s for Foot Locker, whether it’s for Lowe’s and understanding what the opportunities and barriers are for home improvement; for FedEx, which is a B-to-B brand but where a lot of the stuff that we do, whether it’s for the FedEx Cup, NASCAR or whatever, really says, ‘Hey, we understand the pressures of the modern-day workplace, we understand the pitfalls and we are here to make you more successful.’

What is the challenge of telling a good story that people remember and actually getting people to remember which brand is telling the story?
The challenge and the opportunity is to avoid falling into the trap of telling and really strive to engage through storytelling. There is a big difference between telling and storytelling. When we are at our best on behalf of our clients is when we are telling a story that really engages an audience, and ultimately creates an effect where the audiences that we are reaching want to pass along the story of our client. In the earned space, in the owned space, we release a lot of our work among the influencer community long before it hits the airwaves. We work closely with our most loyal audiences to make sure that we share those stories in advance. In doing so, we try to earn their respect. More importantly, we try to motivate them to pass along the story even before we tell it. That idea of appealing to and respecting our most loyal audiences is a very important facet. Ultimately, we want to tell stories that people will remember and also get our brand registration in there. And create a buzz.

As creative as any campaign might be, the bottom line is sales. What is the challenge of motivating people who know and like your stories and also remember the brand to then actually buy or use the product?
The key is to make sure that the stories do not overshadow the merchandise. You want to have a fair balance. In the case of Foot Locker, we make sure that we have ample time to show the gear. We don’t hide it. The gear is front and center. Our target audience appreciates that. So if you tell a great story and the focal point is on the brand and the merchandise, we have found that people are incredibly motivated to go into the store and buy the product. We just don’t do work for the sake of doing work. At the end of the day, we want to make certain that it’s driving business.

A new spot for M&M’s finds Ms. Brown wanting to purchase insurance but can’t because, as the Geico Gecko explains, they only insure humans. Was combining those two particular clients where you wanted to go from the beginning or were there other options?
One of the fundamental elements of great storytelling is having great characters. M&M’s is a campaign that has terrific characters that have back stories, personalities and are representative of the brand. In this case, they actually embody the brand. When you have strong characters, it gives you the opportunity to have those characters interact with other people, other actors, other celebrities and other characters.

This sort of mash-up of characters has been tried before, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Why do you feel as if it worked here?
It was sort of serendipity. In this case, the story line was born out of a scenario where Ms. Brown, because of her candy shell and the liabilities, rules and regulations of getting an insurance policy provided fodder for what we thought would be a great story, and one that would relate back to the brand and reinforce the brand’s proposition. To us it was a great story. And to do something with Geico and the Gecko—and also having the camel make a cameo—was a win-win-win situation.

BBDO is now handling the MLB creative account. What can people expect to see when the season opens and then farther down the road?
You’ll see work coming out tied to Opening Day, an extended campaign that puts a spotlight on the uniqueness of the game. Baseball is a very special game, a great game. We have a lot of baseball fans here at the agency. It’s a game that has a credible strategy inherently built into it, but at the same time it has incredible moments of extreme athleticism. It has drama. It has stories that are built into it. It has backstories built into it. For us, baseball provided a canvas we can use to tell the stories in a powerful way.

When you are working with clients who have official partnership designations—such as AT&T and Lowe’s with the NCAA; GE, P&G and Visa with the IOC; FedEx with the PGA—and you are putting together a campaign, how much input do you get from, and how influential are, the governing bodies?
We always try to do what’s right for our clients. If we are doing work for FedEx, for example, we always make certain that FedEx’s interests are front and center. In the case of Major League Baseball, they are one of our clients, so we will be working directly with them to accentuate the uniqueness of and what is special about the game. We do a lot of NFL work with clients. We do a lot of work related to the Olympics. In certain sports, there are restrictions and there will be some sort of review.

Any specific examples?
We do a lot of Olympics work for AT&T, GE and Visa. For Guinness, which is not an official Olympics sponsor, we did a spot featuring the Barnes sisters, Tracy and Lanny, who are twins and biathletes who trained for the Olympics. Tracy qualified but Lanny was too ill to compete. Tracy surrendered her spot so that her sister could go. The theme was ‘The choices we make reveal the true nature of our character.’ Which we tied in to the Guinness tag line, ‘Made of more.’ 

How did that come about?
We were able to proactively go to the Diageo client with what we felt was a very compelling story about the Barnes sisters and why it reinforced our brand proposition, which is built around character. Unfortunately—or fortunately—because of an IOC regulation [Rule 40] that spot was able to air literally for only three days because their images could not be used in advertising once the Sochi Games began. As a result of that, a lot of the media buzz and social buzz was about watching a commercial that would be pulled in three days. So in that case, we followed the rules and regulations, but it probably helped to accentuate the story and drive viewership because people had to absorb the content within a limited time frame. The U.S. Olympic Committee appreciated it because we followed the rules, didn’t step on their toes and took it down when they needed us to.

Maybe not in this particular case, but in many situations agencies work with clients who are not official partners of a particular league or event to build an ambush marketing campaign. What is the challenge from your perspective?
We want to be as creative as we can. But we will respect the rules of the governing body of the sport or the game.

Can you talk about the “Ban Bossy” campaign that recently came out?
We have a Women’s Council at BBDO, which is an offshoot of an initiative we started about seven years ago built around diversity. The women’s council is comprised of about ten women from various departments within our agency. As part of that, Kirsten Flanik, our managing director, and our Women’s Council team started to put some objectives and creative together. It started with a commercial that BBDO did for Pantene that ran in the Philippines last year, “Labels Against Women.”

What is the story there?
It shows a man and a woman working for the same company but with contrasting images of how others view them. The man heading up a meeting gets a label that reads “Boss,” but when the woman heads up a meeting her label reads “Bossy.” When speaking to a large group of people, the man’s label reads “Persuasive” but hers reads “Pushy.” When they are both working late, he is “Dedicated” but she is “Selfish.” It ends with the text, “Don’t let labels hold you back. Be strong and shine.” It shows the different apertures through which people sometimes view men vs. women.

How did that theme make it to the U.S. and morph into Ban Bossy?
Sheryl Sandberg [Facebook COO and founder of Leanin.Org] tweeted that out and we got a huge buzz. That really reinforced her main point, which was the next evolution for her platform, coming on the heels of LeanIn.org. So she and Anna Maria Chávez [CEO for the Girl Scouts of the USA] put their heads together and they developed a platform around banning the word bossy. Our team here, led by Kirsten, went off and we did a pro bono campaign around that effort. We did a video in which girls talk about how they can be stymied at a young age from becoming assertive and becoming leaders because they have been referred to as being bossy. And we show them talking about how they plan to overcome that barrier. We celebrated International Women’s Day [March 8] and then came out with the campaign. It was a real labor of love.

How would you describe the importance of the campaign for Ban Bossy?
It reflects the broader fabric of what we’re doing here, which I refer to as “soul branding.” One of the things that gives me the greatest source of pride—and one of the things I most appreciate about BBDO today—is the undercurrent of soulfulness and purpose-based work going on at the agency. Not just for paying clients. I could talk to you for hours about how Lowe’s is not just about home improvement, it’s about [life] improvement. FedEx is about understanding business. GE is about having an impact on people and making the world better. But for our pro bono clients, as well.

In this case, it is about Sheryl’s “Ban Bossy” initiative. But it is also about our work for autism, Save the Children, the Police Athletic League, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and the Special Olympics. The Guinness work is incredibly soulful. Without going on a soapbox, this is one of the things that I’m most pumped about, most excited about here at BBDO.

Are you having fun yet?
I’m having fun every day. This is a challenging business; it’s not easy. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be a need for advertising agencies or marketing companies. But I do love what I do. I love getting up in the morning and tackling each and every day.

This interview was reprinted with permission of NYSportsJournalism.com.