Brian Dunbar – A Super Bowl Ad Heavy Hitter

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Brian Dunbar – A Super Bowl Ad Heavy Hitter

Oct 10, 2018

Brian Dunbar

Our interview of Brian Dunbar for “The Creative Influencer” podcast is available today for download on iTunes. Brian shared the following takeaway about Super Bowl ads:  

Jon: And, I looked it up and the last Super Bowl had over 110 million viewers. It’s the most watched television show. What kind of pressure does that put you under when you’re producing commercials?

Brian: A lot. First of all, because your clients are investing a huge amount of money—a 30-second Super Bowl ad costs 5 million dollars.

Jon: Now, that’s just the air time—

Brian: That’s just the air time and the clients that I’ve worked on for the past couple of years have been doing 60s, so that’s 10 million dollars for just the air time.

Jon: And that’s for one commercial?

Brian: One commercial.


A transcript of the full interview follows:

Jon: I am joined today by Brian Dunbar, welcome to the podcast.

Brian: Thanks Jon, glad to be here.

Jon: You are what they refer to as an ad man. Now the question is does anybody in advertising ever call themselves an ad man?

Brian: I don’t know if people really call themselves an ad man or an ad woman, I do occasionally now to refer to myself as a mad man.

Jon: Because of Mad Men the TV show.

Brian: The TV show, absolutely.

Jon: What has it done for the advertising agencies?

Brian: I think it’s added a bit of glamour to the advertising business again. It’s given people a look at what some people call the golden eras of advertising in its early stages of how modern advertising is made—

Jon: Did mad men ever exist?

Brian: Oh absolutely. A friend of mine’s father was president of an ad agency when I was getting out of college and I was talking to him about going into advertising and he was like, “Brian I don’t know why the hell you would want to be in advertising now, it’s all about quarterly profits and squeezed margins, and it’s just no fun anymore.” I went ahead and got in advertising anyway and found it to be a lot more fun than my friends that were working at law firms, or IBM, or other more straight-laced kind of jobs, so I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then Mad Men came out, and that’s when he would’ve been like Don Draper, and now I knew what he was talking about, and he kind of reminded me of Don Draper. His name was actually Don Carlos, and he was about 6 foot 2, and had sandy blonde hair, always tan, scotch and whisky kind of voice, and always had a great story and a smile—

Jon: So he was—

Brian: --he was kind of Don Draper, and now I know what he was talking about. It certainly looked pretty darn fun back then.

Jon: How has it changed from when you first started until now, for you?

Brian: Probably all of those things that Don Carlos was talking about. It’s become more corporate. Most of the ad agencies are owned by big publicly held companies and called holding companies and from that standpoint I think it’s changed. What hasn’t changed is it’s still a business about creativity and finding interesting ways to promote products and brands. I only know of what it was like 60s and the 70s watching Mad Men or Bewitched, I don’t know if you’ve ever watched that—

Jon: --yes, I did.

Brian: Darrin Stephens—

Jon: I want to get into your background a little bit and then talk about advertising. You graduated from college where?

Brian: University of Nebraska

Jon: And what was your degree?

Brian: In business

Jon: And then you got a masters—

Brian: Well I took a theatre class when I was a freshman and sort of fell in love with it and acting and pretty soon I was taking all my elective classes in acting, and

Brian Dunbar

by the time I was a senior I was pretty decent at it and ended up auditioning for some fairly well-known graduate theatre programs. I got a graduate fellowship to the University of Michigan, but after doing it for a year and my analytical side kicking in and looking at the statistics about how many actors actually make a living being an actor, I decided maybe I should think about doing something else. Some friends of mine and my parents actually suggested business and theatre, have you ever thought of advertising? And I ended up taking a leave of absence from graduate school and got a job at an ad agency and have been doing that ever since.

Jon: And has your acting background helped?

Brian: Absolutely, absolutely.

Jon: How so?

Brian: Well, it’s funny. I think of advertising as being sort of the theatre of business. It is almost like putting on a presentation or a show or engaging people about a brand or product and it’s very theatrical in nature. I mean, look at commercials -- advertising by its very nature is theatrical.

Jon: I’m going to shift gears.

Brian: Okay.

Jon: Okay, you’ve been involved in how many Super Bowl commercials?

Brian: Ten.

Jon: I looked it up and the last Super Bowl had over 110 million viewers. It’s the most watched television show. What kind of pressure does that put you under when you’re producing commercials?

Brian: A lot. First of all, because your clients are investing a huge amount of money—a 30-second Super Bowl ad costs 5 million dollars.

Jon: Now, that’s just the air time—

Brian: That’s just the air time and the clients that I’ve worked on for the past couple of years have been doing 60s, so that’s 10 million dollars for just the air time.

Jon: And that’s for one commercial?

Brian: One commercial.

Jon: For 60 seconds.

Brian: 60 seconds.

Jon: Okay so a one, 60-second commercial for 10 million dollars to air it—

Brian: To air it.

Jon: --about how much does it cost to develop and shoot it?

Brian: Well, let’s just talk first about the production cost and depending on, a lot of Super Bowl commercials feature celebrities, or big special effects, you know millions of dollars to produce a Super Bowl commercial. Depending on the celebrity it could be many millions of dollars. And then you have of course the ad agency’s fees to help develop the commercial and I would say all in, that costs several million dollars too so it’s an expensive proposition to be in the Super Bowl.

Jon: And we’ll come back to the benefits of this, but I want to talk to you about the last three Super Bowl commercials you worked on. It was 2015 with Pierce Brosnan, 2016 with Christopher Walken, and 2017 with Melissa McCarthy.

Brian: Right.

Jon: So because I’m a lawyer I’m going to go in chronological order. Let’s start with the 2015 Pierce Brosnan.

Brian: Sure.

Jon: What was the concept for that commercial?

Pierce Brosnan

Brian: Well, the last three commercials I worked on in the Super Bowl were all for Kia. Pierce Brosnan was selected to be in a commercial for the redesigned Sorento, which is their mid-sized SUV, and the new design was very sophisticated but also quite capable as well. So, the analogy was it’s fit for an action adventure hero, and so we looked at different ones and  if you’re trying to have the blend of sort of suave-sophistication as well as capable as sort of an action-adventure, Pierce Brosnan really fits the bill.

Jon: Kind of James Bond, art thief

Brian: Yup, art-thief Remington Steele and he’s got good comic sense as well. So, anyway the premise of the commercial was that his agent calls him in for a meeting, he’s got a project to talk to him about and of course Pierce Brosnan thinks it’s an action-adventure movie. And the agent is gently trying to explain it’s a commercial for Kia but every time he starts to describe it, Pierce Brosnan puts it in the context of an action-adventure movie—things blowing up, snipers, things going 200 miles an hour—

Jon: --missile launchers

Brian: --missile launchers, yeah.

Jon: At the very end of the commercial, it’s my favorite line, he’s being pitched by his agent and he says, “can I keep the car?”

Jon: Did he get to keep the car?

Brian: He did get to keep the car. He actually did, he had a Kia Sorento as it was part of the deal, and I think that’s cool that it’s authentic in the sense that he

Pierce Brosnan

wanted the car as well and hopefully is driving it around Malibu once in a while.

Jon: Start from concept to the end, how long did this commercial take to develop?

Brian: Probably around six months, give or take.

Jon: And how long is the brainstorming session where you finally get the concept down?

Brian: Usually from the agreeing on what product is going to be featured, on what we want to focus on in terms of the product, the strategy behind the ad, and then concepting different ideas, running those through the client, and eventually agreeing on one, per Super Bowl, at least three months of that process, about half the—

Jon: About half the time.

Brian: Yeah, I mean some of these go into seven or eight months from kick-off to actual airing of the Super Bowl ad.

Christopher Walken

Jon: Right. And then, the second one, the one that was Christopher Walken, which, of the three, was my favorite, it involves socks. What was the concept for this commercial?

Brian: Well, they were coming out with a new redesigned Optima, which was for a mid-sized sedan, which is sort of the mass market car, and it can be a bit plain, some of them are a bit plain, and this one was super stylish, and so it was talking about how a person who would drive a mid-sized sedan could up their game, could look a little bit more stylish and sophisticated if they were driving in an Optima. So, the concept was that a guy is looking for his beige socks. What could be more boring than beige socks, and his wife says, “have you checked the Walken closet?” So, it’s a play on words and you go—he goes in his walk-in closet and there’s Christopher Walken—

Jon: --and everything’s beige in the closet.

Brian: Everything’s beige except Christopher Walken’s got a pair of beige socks balled up, and he’s wearing this cool colorful sock on his other hand making a sock puppet and he talks about whether he wants to go through life being a boring beige person who is eventually going to get devoured by the more interesting sock that he’s got on his hand. He asks Richard, “is that what you want, Richard?” and he says, “no,” and the back of the closet opens up and low and behold there’s a Kia Optima, which he proceeds to give him a tour of.

Jon: Great line there too, “a Kia Optima is like the world’s most exciting pair of socks.”

Brian: Right.

Jon: How long did you have to spit-ball that one, cause that’s a great line.

Brian: Well, you know a lot of the copy for this commercial was custom-tailored for Christopher Walken and by the way, this was an all-in kind of idea. Pierce Bronson was our first choice but there were other action-adventure heroes that could’ve done that commercial and made it work, and nobody else could’ve made the walk-in closet concept work, and it was written around his personality so the copy was fine-tuned and we worked with him actually.

Jon: What was your level of confidence when you first pitched the idea to his agent? That you could get him?

Brian: Well, I actually had the initial contact with his agent, and we knew he doesn’t do a lot of commercials. In fact, we could only find one, and it was for a

Christopher Walken

Swedish clothing brand and he actually didn’t speak in it either. So yeah, it was a bit of a long-shot and his agent told me, “Brian, I like this concept, I think it’s really interesting, and I think it would be interesting for Christopher to do a Super Bowl commercial. I’ll run it by him, but we get dozens and dozens of commercial offers for him every single year, and he’s only said yes one other time.”

Jon: For this other Swedish—

Brian: Yeah for this online— it’s a very below-the-radar but it’s a very cool commercial, and I said, “Okay,” and I relayed that back to everybody. We had a back-up concept, but everybody was super excited about this and then she gets back to me and says, “Well, he’s looking at it. That’s a good sign. Usually I tell him what it’s about, but he doesn’t even look at the script. He’s looking at it.” I say, “Great,” and this is on a Thursday and then Friday she calls me back and she says, “Well, he thinks it’s pretty interesting. He’d like to think about it over the weekend.” She goes, “I gotta tell you, that’s a really good sign.” And so on Monday she tells me, and we’re on pins and needles waiting to find out, and she says, “You know, I think he wants to do it,” and then Tuesday was he wants to do it, and then of course we have to make a deal, which actually they made fairly quickly and fairly painlessly, and it was a very good deal for all sides and so we were off to the races. Then we wanted to work with him about how he would look, and he was involved in casting the other actor that played Richard. In his lines and his wardrobe he was very hands-on, very involved, making sure it would live up to his expectations.

Jon: Now, he didn’t drive in the commercial. Is there a story behind that?

Brian: He doesn’t drive. So if you were going to ask me “did he get a car too?” we of course offered that, but he doesn’t drive so it really wasn’t necessary. He’s a very interesting man.

Christopher Walken

Jon: You did break the mold with him because the next year he did a Super Bowl commercial with Justin Timberlake.

Brian: That’s right, that’s right. I think he got warmed up. Hopefully we warmed him up to the idea of how fun that could be.

Jon: The sock was a Stance sock, the name of the company. What kind of deal, what was the negotiation with the sock company?

Brian: Right, so in the concept of the commercial of course he’s going to be wearing a sock that’s super cool and super interesting and colorful, and at the time we were doing that commercial, Stance socks were really popular. Celebrities were wearing them and posting them on Instagram, and so we actually reached out to them to see if they would be interested in having us feature their sock in the Super Bowl commercial. We were not asking for a paid endorsement on their part, some people have asked me, “Oh did they pay be in that?” No, we thought it was a good deal for both of us. They were super excited—

Jon: Oh I can imagine.

Brian: ­–to have their sock featured in a Super Bowl commercial, and part of the deal was they had to promote it through their fairly formidable social media channels.

Jon: Well I checked last night, and they have 1.1 million followers on Instagram, and this is a sock company.

Brian: Right, right. And a lot of it had to do with the celebrities that wear their socks, so that’s part of what we’re tapping into, and that’s a big part of doing a Super Bowl campaign. We would never approach these as being just a Super Bowl ad. It’s a whole Super Bowl campaign and increasingly social media is becoming a huge part.

Jon: Well, let’s actually touch on that and then go into the third one you did. When you first started doing Super Bowl commercials, how much was social media apart of that mix?

Brian: Very little. Very little.

Jon: What is it now?

Brian: A huge part of it—

Jon: How so?

Brian: Well you’re making, as we’ve talked about, a massive investment in a Super Bowl commercial and you are reaching 110 million people, which is based on the latest research I’ve seen for the last couple years, the people are actually more interested in watching the ads than they are the football game. So, you have 110 million people who are actually really interested in watching your commercial. So you want to make the most of it, and you’re paying a huge premium. Huge, huge premium over, say, what it would cost to reach that audience if you aggregated them on different television shows. You’re paying a very large premium to get them all at once and the cultural spectacle of it. So, there’s ways you can activate it. You can release the commercial early online to build-up some interest and talk value on it—

Jon: --and I’ve seen a lot of companies do that now.

Brian: Right, it’s almost the norm now.

Jon: How far in advanced do you release it?

Brian: Usually a few days. In Kia’s case, usually we would do it perhaps the Thursday before the Super Bowl. So, you want to create some buzz about it – some companies will release them as far as two weeks in advanced. Now, in the case of, actually all three of these commercials, another thing that we did to sort of create some buzz about the commercial that was coming in the Super Bowl, we recorded some more traditional car commercials with mostly car footage in them, with a voice over of the celebrity, and we did no PR announcement about that. So, when all of a sudden Kia has what we call a “running footage” commercial come out with Pierce Bronson as the voice over, people start to talk or Christopher Walken in particular, people really talked about that one.

Jon: And are those put on the YouTube channels?

Brian: Those are actually run on TV, as well as on YouTube channels.

Melissa McCarthy

Jon: Now we turn to the third one, which was with Melissa McCarthy. Won an award.

Brian: Yeah, well—

Jon: –won several awards.

Brian: Yes, it did.

Jon: Which I’m going to let you tell about that.

Brian: The one that’s most gratifying as being in the industry, is the USA Today Ad Meter poll—pretty much the industry standard wins the Super Bowl, which was the most popular.

Jon: What was a hit, what was not.

Brian: Right, exactly. And so they rank them from 1 until, God forbid, you’re the last. It’s really hard to explain to your client how you ended up in the last spot on the USA Today poll— fortunately I have never ended up there.

Jon: Have you ever done a study of the companies that are the last— do they continue to keep that account or is that the routinely—

Brian: Certainly a lot of tap dancing has to be done to explain it. Also, I find the ones that tend to be at the bottom are the ones that forget that the people are watching Super Bowl commercials to be entertained and if you try to be highly informational or try to sell too hard in a Super Bowl commercial, it’s going to fall pretty flat and maybe companies are okay with that. They say, “Well, we got our message across, it may have not been popular, but we got our message across to 110 million people,” and there’s some value in that regardless of where you rank in the poll.

Jon: That’s an advertising man’s spin on—

Brian: Yeah exactly, that’s what I would say if I was in those shoes. Fortunately I’ve never had to do that, so it was the number one commercial and I got up at 5:30 in the morning on Monday morning to see the results – it’s a pretty big deal when you find out when you wake up.

Jon: So tell me about the concept.

Brian: Sure, so Kia was introducing this new hybrid car called the Niro, and that was going to be the purpose of the commercial, but now that we have all electric cars, the hybrid car isn’t completely eco-friendly, it isn’t completely emission-free. It’s very low emission, but it also doesn’t have the advantage of a hybrid, it doesn’t have the trade-offs of an electric car, it doesn’t have the range issues that electric cars have. So, the interesting thing we found out in our research about people who want to drive hybrids is often times they’re doing it for some altruistic reason. They want to do their part to make the environment a little better, but to an extent they don’t want to have too many trade-offs so—

Jon: You want to get from here to there comfortably.

Brian: Exactly, comfort and not with a lot of trade-offs or sacrifices, and still drive a nice-looking car. Some hybrids, depending on what kind, aren’t always the most

Melissa McCarthy

attractive cars either. So, the Niro was a very good-looking car, so the idea we had was here’s a way for you to do your part for the world without having to make too many trade-offs and the way it translated was, “you don’t have to be an eco-warrior to drive like one, the Niro makes that really easy.” So, like all really good advertising, how are you going to take that idea and exaggerate it or dramatize that idea? So we said well you know, what if we have an eco-warrior showing what an eco-warrior has to go through and risk their life to be an eco-warrior versus how easy it is to drive the Niro, and so it became this comedic idea and we thought we would have a comedic actor or actress and we definitely thought of Melissa McCarthy from the get-go, again there were probably other people that could’ve done the role, but nobody does beat-you-up physical comedy better than Melissa McCarthy. She had this great quote that she did in a press release, she goes, “This was the perfect project for me, I’ve been looking for something where I could get every bone in my body broken while still doing something good for the world.” It was a great quote and we approached her and she was interested because she liked the concept, and she liked the car as well. She wanted to drive the car first and know about the car and feel like something she was comfortable—she got two.

Jon: She got Christopher Walken’s car.

Brian: Yeah exactly, she got the one Christopher Walken didn’t get.

Jon: So tell me about the commercial. There’s whales, there’s trees, there’s an ice cap, there’s rhinos—

Brian: Yeah, so the idea is Melissa McCarthy is out trying to be an eco-warrior and things in Melissa McCarthy movies and skits don’t go very well, things go wrong, she gets thrown around, beat up, but of course always survives, and she’s driving her Kia Niro throughout the commercial in between all of her little— her assistant is calling her saying, “the trees need saving, the ice caps need saving,” and finally he’s telling her that the rhinos need saving and she’s imagining how that’s going to go in her mind based on how the rest of her escapades have gone and she says, “eh, no thanks,” and drives on in her Kia Niro.

Jon: This particular Super Bowl was on Sunday, February 5th. Melissa McCarthy made a surprise appearance the night before on—

Brian: Saturday Night Live, unannounced, playing Sean Spicer, which I think has become one of the most iconic skits on Saturday Night Live—

Jon: I re-watched it last night.

Brian: –in recent history. Incredibly funny, but we didn’t know this. And so, I happened to be home with my wife watching Saturday Night Live on Saturday night and I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s Melissa McCarthy playing Sean Spicer and you know, the current administration doesn’t take well to being poked fun at,” and I’m like, “Oh my God.” I thought it was hilariously funny, and a spot-on impression by Melissa McCarthy, but now I’m starting to think as an ad-man, what’s this going to do my commercial? What’s my client going to think? I didn’t get any late-night calls, but I did see a text from my client at 6:00 the next morning on Super Bowl Sunday, “heard Melissa McCarthy was doing an impression of Sean Spicer and what do you think?” and I said, “Well, let’s talk. I think generally it’s okay,” and I said, “let’s see if there are any tweets that come out of the White House,” and you know didn’t see any tweets out of the White House so that was sort of a relief and then I thought look, the reviews coming out of it were “gosh it was funny,” “it was spot-on,” “it was an amazing surprise appearance,” – it seemed to be incredibly well received and certainly she was the forefront of the American public consciousness, either from the PR they saw from Sunday online, or on any news program they would watch, or if they had actually watched Saturday Night Live the night before—I’m sure people were pulling it up online to see the skit. So, I think in the end it actually really helped us.

Jon: So how much did you have to pay to get her on Saturday Night Live?

Brian: We didn’t, we had nothing to do with it, and we had no advance notice either, so it was a bit of a surprise. In the end, a pleasant surprise.

Jon: So it won the award, the USA Today award.

Brian: Yeah, and that’s more than an award, it’s actually a rating, it’s like people rate the ads. So it was the highest rated ad.

Jon: Why do you think it was so popular?

USA Today Ad Meter

Brian: Well, that’s a good question. I’ve worked on now 10 Super Bowl commercials over a long period of time and definitely there are certain kinds that— humor tends to win. Not always, there have been serious commercials that have been number one in the USA Today poll, but humor generally wins. And when you’re talking about a cross section of the American public, it needs to be very accessible humor. Simple and physical humor in particular tends to work. More sophisticated humor appeals to some but not as much to others, so it had all the right ingredients. It had a very simple message: you don’t have to be an eco-warrior to drive like one. We had probably the best physically comedic actress in the world, who now is at the forefront of everybody’s imagination because of her Saturday Night Live appearance, who gave a fantastic performance. We had a great song that you remember, I Need a Hero by Melissa Ethridge, and it helped carry the spot as well. So, it moved quickly, it had great humor, it had Melissa McCarthy, it had a song that people probably identified with and remembered fondly, and it had a simple message, so I think it had all the right ingredients to be the winning Super Bowl commercial, and I think we were hopeful going in knowing it had all those ingredients.

Jon: I want to stay on Super Bowl commercials, but I want to shift gears a little bit. So when a company comes to say to you, “Hey, we want to do a Super Bowl spot,” how many of them say that and then realize the process and re-think, or are they sophisticated enough at that point that they know what they’re getting into?

Brian: So the ones that I have worked on were all companies that knew they wanted to do it and were doing it for the right reasons, and I also believe if you’re going to be in the Super Bowl, you need to play to win. A huge part of Kia’s strategy, and they were very astute and good at it, was the amount of PR impressions we would generate. We would generate a billion PR impressions from our Super Bowl campaign that had nothing to do with the paid media part, so that’s part of maximizing the value as well. I’ve had a couple of people over the years, clients over the years, toy with the idea and want to explore the idea, and then I think when they understood all the costs associated with it, all the risks and how you would actually measure success, they ultimately decided not to. I think you need to go into it fully understanding what the value of it is and how you’re going to maximize the value. I think if you don’t activate your Super Bowl campaign, you’re not going to get the maximum from it.

Jon: Now you were a former president at David & Goliath, and I saw an interview with a David & Goliath representative where he said that the Super Bowl creative process is a marathon not a sprint. Can you walk me through—what is the process? A company comes in and says we do want to do a commercial this year, what’s the next thing you do?

Brian: In the case of Kia, it was usually to promote a new model like the Niro, an all-new model, or the Optima and Sorento which were completely re-designed models, so they were doing it for the right reasons. They wanted to get mass awareness about this new product that they had in the market, and they were also astute enough to know that we’re going to do creative that is going to generate PR, get talked about, generate millions of views online, hopefully billions of PR impressions, so they were very smart about approaching the Super Bowl.

So, that’s first – deciding. Then you have to buy the ad. By the way, usually the up-front market is moving in May of the year prior to the Super Bowl, and that’s when the commitment has to be made, and it’s very complicated; advertisers who have been in before have first right of refusal—

Jon: And then how do you decide your time spot?

Brian: That is decided based on how long you’ve had that time slot. Generally, the longer you’ve been buying the Super Bowl, the better slot you can see, or you get to choose it.

Jon: And obviously right after opening kick-off has to be a prime spot.

Brian: That’s a prime spot.

Jon: Cause everybody’s—the game is still a game.

Brian: That’s still considered—the spots right after kick-off are considered the best. The most expensive, the hardest to come by. Look at the advertisers who are in those slots. They are advertisers who do multiple Super Bowl commercials every single year.

Jon: And then what about the 4th quarter advertisement. I mean in recent years, 4th quarter has been great, but for 10 years in a row the 4th quarter was just— let’s go get another beverage.

Brian: Sure, sure. So, if, you can get in the 1st quarter I think obviously that would be the best place to be, but it’s very difficult if you have not been advertising in the Super Bowl for a long time to get a slot in the 1st quarter. 2nd quarter, games are still usually anybody’s game and in the 2nd quarter there’s hope, even if they’re way behind, the losing team always has hope.

Jon: Well we saw the Falcons and the Patriots, there’s hope.

Falcons Patriots Super Bowl

Brian: And then the 3rd quarter, if it starts to run away I think people lose interest, but there’s an upside for advertisers. They may lose interest in the game but they don’t lose interest in the commercials, but I think in the best scenarios if you’re in the 4th quarter you’re hoping it’s a tight game, so people are still equally engaged in the game and the commercials.

Jon: So it’s May, you bought your time slot.

Brian: Yup.

Jon: What’s the next step?

Brian: So you figure out what product it’s going to be. In the case of Kia, they knew what product it was going to be. Then you have to figure out what’s the communication strategy? What’s the one thing that we’re going to communicate to people?

Jon: Do you actually sit in a conference room with a white board and just kind of spitball ideas?

Brian: Yeah, there’s some of that. We do some research, there’s a big team of people that works on it, and you try to craft a strategy. Ultimately, you craft it down into a one-page brief that says here’s what the product we’re trying to promote is, here’s what we’re trying to say, here’s the people that it’s most important that we communicate with, and here’s what they should take away from that ad. And once that’s approved, you start the concepting process, and we’ll generally come in and there will be a first round and you show a number of ideas, and there might be a second or a third. Some years we got to the Melissa McCarthy idea quick. Everybody knew that was a winner from the get-go. Other years it was a longer process to get there.

Jon: And then once that idea is approved, which may take a few months, then you work with a production company, a director to bring it to life, and then you’re also working on all the other activation elements, the social media, the online components, other content you’re creating around the campaign. How long does that part take? When do you start planning the social media, what you’re going to do?

Brian: Yeah, you generally have an outline. When you’re doing the concept, you have an outline of what the social media and the online and other content strategy is going to be, you have a rough idea. And then once the Super Bowl idea is approved, then you refine and further flush that out.

Jon: Now I’m going to go from the Super Bowl to the NFL because I now have somebody I can ask and get an answer to this stuff. Bud Light is the official beer of the NFL. Pizza Hut is the official pizza of the NFL. There was a study done for Adweek, or survey, that— and this is like, you needed a survey for this?— 37% of all Americans who watch football like beer and pizza. It’s like oh okay, I get that. I get it, but Castrol is the official motor oil of the NFL, Bridgestone the official tire, Quaker Oats the official hot cereal, what’s the strategy behind those kinds of sponsorships?

Brian: Sure. Well, they come along with buying some Super Bowl ads as well. They get that recognition, they might get that recognition in the stadium, in other promotion of the Super Bowl event, they can use it. So all of a sudden I can link my brand to—

Jon: The NFL

Brian: Yeah. You have to have permission to say, “I am the official sponsor, I have a connection to the NFL,” and if the NFL fans are your target for your product, then it can make sense and you can get these little things called bumpers in the Super Bowl that say, “brought to you by,” the official—

Jon: --Courtyard Marriot.

Brian: Exactly, the official hotel or hospitality partner of the NFL, and so the hope is some of the cache and status of the NFL and the appeal to the NFL fan will go oh, that’s a brand that is associated with the NFL, supports the NFL, makes me more interested in that brand. And there can be other components to the sponsorship as well. Often times there’s hospitality rights so companies that want to entertain their big clients or maybe even their employees—

Jon: --so in the Super Bowl you see the different corporate tents. That’s part of that?

Brian: Yes, exactly. You know they might have the corporate tents outside and they have boxes on the inside or blocks of seats, so there’s many different sort of components to those sponsorships.

Jon: Is there a way to track return on investment for these?

Brian: Is there a standardized way? No but yes – I saw interestingly an article about that recently that said about only about 2/3 of companies say they do a really good job of tracking the ROI of their investments in sports sponsorships, and I thought that was interesting that of those, not all of them thought they were doing a good job.

Jon: How would you track it? How would you even go about that?

Brian: Well first of all you can translate all the media components, you can say well, what would it cost if we bought that on television? There’s a certain thing of media exposure and PR exposure. That can be measured. So you have the media component. The hospitality component – the sales people can say I closed a deal, we closed a big deal, so maybe there’s a way to quantify that as well. Then there are other things – is it helping me sell more product? A very simple kind of research that brands do to help figure that out is what’s the purchase intent among people of, say, the NFL or the Super Bowl versus ones that aren’t or ones that watched the Super Bowl and ones that didn’t and you can do that research and find out, and if you see if you get a large lift in purchase intent among people who are the fans of whatever you’re sponsoring then that’s a good way of measuring of whether it was a good investment. So I think it’s probably those components—the media, the hospitality, and then the sales lift among people who are fans of that particular sport you’re sponsoring versus ones that are not fans.

Jon: Which kind of leads me into, again because I have you here, celebrity endorsements. Because of influencers and social media, there’s been some pushback on celebrity endorsements that more companies are putting more money into the influencers. Why do companies hire celebrities to be in an advertisement in the first place?

Brian: Well I think there’s a very obvious reason. When you see a celebrity in an advertisement, it catches your attention and if you like that celebrity and generally the biggest celebrities are the ones that are used, it draws you into the commercial. And there’s a difference between a celebrity endorser and using an actor. So in the case of commercials we did for Kia, we used Pierce Brosnan and Christopher Walken and Melissa McCarthy – are they celebrity endorsers? No, they’re actually playing roles. Pierce Brosnan was playing himself being an action hero. Christopher Walken was playing Christopher Walken. Christopher Walken the actor in all the interesting roles and movies he’s done. Melissa McCarthy was playing a role, she was playing herself but playing a role with her name on it.

Jon: So it’s more the attention.

Brian: Yeah, then you see other things. You see infomercials where people are actually pitching a product and they might have an interest in that company, a beauty product or something like that, or a product that they say they use themselves, that’s what I consider an endorsement. You just have to ask yourself how credible those are. I think those are trickier to pull off and people today in particular are a little more skeptical. They think they might just be doing it for the money.

Jon: Really? Where—and this is foundational because I want to get into how advertising campaigns have changed over the years to include social as a component, where does advertising fit in in marketing? Just from a foundation perspective.

Brian: It’s the outward part of marketing. Marketing is a big term right? Any way that you’re promoting your product. Advertising generally refers to paid media support of your product, and marketing can have all kinds of other dimensions.

Jon: So back before the internet, and it hasn’t been that long – YouTube’s only 11 years old, it’s hard to remember that. Pre-YouTube let’s put it that way, there were one-way ads, that being television ads. There was very little feedback that you would get. How long did it take companies to fully adopt the social media component where it was two-way, where people could comment, people could like?

Brian: Well, I think they’re still adopting, it’s still evolving. People are trying to figure it out. When brands first started using social media there was some backlash with people saying, “You’re just trying to sell me something. You’re not being authentic,” and today it’s really important for brands to be authentic. When that two-way communication is happening that they’re being true to who they are that they’re not just trying to sell something, when it truly does become a dialogue, today consumers have the ability to co-create brands or co-develop brands because of the feedback that has been created with social media and the internet, people have a voice in what a brand does now.

Jon: Right, what about cost? Have they done studies on TV commercial versus hiring an influencer to do a YouTube video?

Brian: The research that I’ve seen in general, and I think the influencer marketing is still an emerging marketing channel, the research I’ve seen on the return on investment tends to be much better from influencer advertising than traditional media but you can’t always use them in the same way. Television is still an effective ad—I think we can talk about this later—the media landscape is changing. There’s a lot of television that we watch on Netflix and HBO and Amazon that doesn’t have any commercials in it anymore, but it still can be a very good tool to create mass awareness. Like there’s no other way to reach 110 million people all at once with a commercial than the Super Bowl and to a lesser degree some other television channels. You can generate widespread awareness really quickly. You may not be able to do that with an influencer campaign. But, generally speaking the ROI the research I’ve seen says the ROI is much more efficient for influencer campaigns.  

Jon: How do you determine the mix? If you’re doing an ad campaign now, the mix of social versus traditional?

Brian: Complicated. It depends on what your specific objectives are at the moment. I don’t think you can say it’s as simple as you put 30% in this and 40% in that. It depends on where the brand is and its development, what it’s trying to accomplish, who it’s trying to reach. If you’re trying to reach a much younger audience, you might lean much more into social media because they tend to be a little more skeptical of traditional media. They don’t like being sold. There was this great study, I think Deloitte did it, in the last two years suggesting that people are becoming ad-allergic between all the changing media landscape where people are willing to pay for their content as opposed to have it be free and supported by making them watch ads, and technology on your DVR, or ad-blockers you can use on your phone or your computer that people are just trying to push advertising to the side to an extent, so it makes it very challenging if that’s the way you built your brand over the years, to build one today.

Jon: So if you’re a company or an ad agency looking to hire an influencer, what do you look for?

Brian: Well first and foremost, you can do everything from a giant— you know these celebrity influencers—

Jon: – with big followings

Brian: Sure, with millions of followers and things like that, or you can use micro influencers. And then the next thing you’re going to try to do is decide how well aligned is it with your brand? Are they already using your brand? Is it really authentic? Because if you’re going to use an influencer, it really needs to be authentic. It can’t be like a celebrity endorsement, so I think brands will look for ones that have already shown an affinity, an interest for their product, even if it’s a micro influencer. And then they’re going to say do they fit with our values? And some influencers are more edgy than others, so if you want to make yourself attractive to a certain brand, you would have to be reflective of the values of that kind of brand and do they appeal to the right audience? One thing is to have a certain amount of reach but are you reaching the audience of that brand?

Jon: When you’re talking about micro influencers from your perspective, what would be the level of following an influencer would have to have?

Brian: Again it depends on the situation. I would say at least 5,000, but you know probably 5 or 10,000 before somebody’s going to be interested as a brand and say yes, I can get real value out of this. Below that, the effort might not be worth it.

Jon: What do you see on the horizon for influencers?

Brian: I think it’s going to become a growing marketing channel and still people are trying to figure it out, how to make it work, but ultimately it’s worth of mouth advertising. If it’s somebody you admire, you see them using, and it’s better to see them using it authentically than pitch it to you. If they’re using it authentically you’re going to want to be pre-disposed to want to do that, just like you would a friend. People think of influencers like friends so it’s like getting a recommendation from a very well-regarded friend, so I think you’re going to see a growing use of—

Jon: --you’ve chosen to be their friend.

Brian: Absolutely, absolutely.

Jon: We touched lightly at the very start that your career in advertising, you just launched a new venture. Tell me about that.


Brian: Well it’s called Invigor, and you know the idea is invigorating brands—helping invigorate brands and the reason I started it is because my thinking about how brands are being built today is evolving, because the media landscape is evolving, because consumers are evolving, and my belief is that the best brands today are built more from the inside than the outside. Say when we were talking about pre-internet, if you had a giant media budget, a giant TV advertising budget, and a great ad agency that could come up with really clever ads, and you could run them so often that people you know eventually decided to believe or—

Jon: --by osmosis

Brian: Yeah exactly, or could just play back what they were about, you could build a brand that way. And now, if you say something, you have to be able to back it up, you have to be able to walk the walk because there’s so many tools people have to go online and basically call bullshit if you’re not saying something’s that true or authentic and you see that happen a lot. They have so many ways to express themselves, and people research brands a lot more and purchases a lot more because it’s so easy. So, I think it’s really important—the best brands today are the ones that stand for something, they have kind of a higher purpose, that stand for something that either makes the world a little more interesting or a little better, and by that I don’t mean in an altruistic way, I mean there’s certainly brands that do do that and they do that well, but—

Jon: --I mean colored socks

Brian: Yeah, exactly—

Jon: --I mean it makes the world better, you feel better about your feet.

Brian: Exactly, you feel like your socks look a little more stylish, but you know big brands like Apple, they’ve always been about empowering creative thinking through technology and that’s what’s Steve Jobs original vision was. He had this great quote that I always loved to use, he said he thought of the original Mac as being a bicycle for the mind, as a way for you to get to new, more interesting places faster than you could without it, and I always thought that was making the world more interesting. They also have the highest market cap of any brand in the world. They’re the most valuable brand in the world, so I would say they’re marrying a higher purpose with a great product of course, and an incredible customer experience. Most of the brands today realize that it’s not just what you stand for, it’s not just the product or service itself, it’s the entire experience you have around that, and again Apple’s a great example of a brand that has done that so well. From their online experience to their retail experience to the Genius Bar, it is an experience. And then they’ve created an entire ecosystem with music and video as well and phones.

I’m focused on helping brands figure out what is your higher purpose that’s going to help you achieve your full potential and making sure that you have a customer experience and content, which may include advertising, content to support that. If you know who you are and you know who your customers are, you’re also going to be better at continuously innovating because today, if you’re not continuously innovating, you’re falling behind. What is great today might only be good tomorrow, so you constantly have to be disrupting yourself.

Jon: Well my youngest son made the comment a month or two ago, he said, “Can you believe how fast technology’s changing?”

Brian: Yeah, and this is your son.

Jon: It’s like yeah, I can actually. So how can people find you?

Brian: or they can find me Brian Dunbar on LinkedIn.

Jon: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

Brian: Thank you, it’s been a real pleasure. Thanks, Jon.

The Creative Influencer is a bi-weekly podcast where we discuss all things creative with an emphasis on Influencers. It is hosted by Jon Pfeiffer, an entertainment attorney in Santa Monica, California.  Jon interviews influencers, creatives and the professionals who work with them.

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