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Volume 20 No. 41
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The Sit-Down: Jeff Goodby, Goodby Silverstein & Partners

From ‘Billy Ball,’ the campaign that brought comedy to sports, to the split-screen visual graphic that was copied throughout pop culture, the ad pioneer is a proponent of thinking like a regular person.

I t used to be just a couple TV spots, make your friends laugh, go home. It’s hard now.

It’s true that I’ve worked with every team in the Bay Area over the years, because I’m very old. Including the Oakland Invaders from the USFL, so that’s how far back it goes.

In 1981 — this shows you how long back it goes — along with Andy Dolich … I was lucky enough to work on a campaign for the Oakland A’s, which starred their new manager, Billy Martin. It was a campaign called “Billy Ball.” It was one of the first, if not the first, campaign that actually gave you a chance to see players doing comedy, doing skits, acting a little bit and people liked that.

It was actually a wonderful thing to suddenly be able to see and feel these individuals trying to do something, and we all appreciate it when somebody in sports actually can do something intelligent and funny. It makes us like them better on the field, and I think that is kind of what we did with Billy.

We talked about, mostly ironically and humorously, about the guy and built a whole campaign around him. We had like two old people on the porch in Berkeley reminiscing about what a polite shy child he was and things like that.

There was a risk of course with a guy like Billy because he wasn’t necessarily the best-behaved dude off the field.

When we were working with him, [A’s broadcaster] Bill Rigney said to me, “You should have assigned a 20-year-old production assistant to him and he’ll do whatever she says,” and sure enough it’d be like, OK, go get Billy to come over here and she’d go, “Billy,” and he’d go, “Yes, dear,” and he’d show up.

One day I found myself telling Billy that I grew up as a Boston Red Sox fan and that my father had taught me to hate the Yankees and especially him. After the words were out of my mouth I was like, I just said this to Billy Martin. I can’t believe this, and he said, “Isn’t baseball great?” and he just walked away.

Throughout the next few decades I think the humorous or ironic use of teams’ individuals became pretty commonplace. You see this in local and national TV everywhere now. “SportsCenter,” of course, has advertised themselves that way for years.

I think it is our challenge … to move beyond that solution.

TV as we know it is not as dependable as it used to be. … Luckily, sports are one of the places, as you know, where people don’t time shift. They still look at things live. You can make use of that. It’s a smart thing to make use of.

The $10 billion question these days is what we do instead of TV, and the answer is usually answered in terms of media. We do stunts, we activate, we do social media, we disrupt, we do all of these other things.

I would submit that the answer lies more in being sensitive to the context around your product because many times the context that we operate in is the answer to that question and we don’t realize it and we don’t think about it.

What are people saying about you? Is the media saying anything about you? Is there a big gorilla in the room that maybe you should address and use for public relations, for humor, for some kind of public installation? Use that thing.

A lot of times we think as marketers — and not as regular people and think about “What do I know about this sports entity in the real world?” — and we kind of forget to do that because it’s exhausting.

This is a lot of work these days, but it’s what makes marketing come alive because I think what you need to do is maintain a surprising intimacy with your audience. Have them go, “Wow. They know that about me? They know that I’m thinking that about this team or about this league at this time?”

We do a playoffs campaign for the NBA every year, and some executions are better than others.

One year really stands out. We hit on a device that really resonated with people. … We did a number of iterations of that commercial — that split-screen thing — and they were good. I think they’re actually really good. They were TV spots and I think one of the things we did was we went to school on what happened after that.

Time magazine actually used the device on the cover of the magazine and this started to happen in the world. “Saturday Night Live” did a split-screen thing with a parody of Obama and Hillary talking to each other about this one thing and the punch line of it was Hillary saying she deserved to be president, which I thought was kind of nice.

Things started to get picked up in popular culture, and when that happens that is the most amazing thing and you have to go out and use it. We started making these enormous banners outside all the arenas in the NBA that had the split-screen device going on. We started using it online. When you do an interview, talk about the split screen thing.

When you get that lightning in a bottle use it everywhere.

Keep in mind that contextual thing. Challenge what you think about it and take a different route to work every day, and that will really help.