Dwyane Wade will pitch the Disney film “Solo” during ESPN’s coverage of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. In a spot produced by ESPN’s in-house ad agency CreativeWorks, Wade and the “Star Wars” character Chewbacca walk down a tunnel in an NBA arena. A voice-over says, “Who’s your co-pilot? Tune into the Eastern Conference Finals and see ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story.’”
The spot has the same look and feel as the ESPN commercial starring Raptors guard Kyle Lowry during the first round of the NBA playoffs for the Universal movie “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.” Or the one with ESPN on-air personalities such as Jalen Rose during the second round that hyped the Warner Bros. movie “Ocean’s 8.”
Over on Turner, the “Inside the NBA” crew — Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal and Ernie Johnson — have starred in commercials hawking Hulu during TNT’s playoff games this year.
NBA viewers have been seeing more of these types of commercials this season, and they should expect to see even more in coming years. The reason: ESPN and Turner have in-house creative units to develop such ads and both see these parts of their businesses growing.
“We develop some of our biggest work during the NBA Finals and NBA playoffs,” said Carrie Brzezinski-Hsu, vice president of ESPN CreativeWorks and marketing. “At CreativeWorks, we made that shift from an agency inside a media company to really starting to make ourselves look like an actual traditional creative agency.”
The idea of media companies having their own in-house agency is not new. CBS has Studio 61, NBC has the Content Innovation Agency and Viacom has Velocity.
But ESPN’s CreativeWorks and Turner’s Turner Ignite Sports focus on sports. And during upfront presentations this week, the work of these in-house agencies will be highlighted.
At ESPN’s upfront on Tuesday, for example, ESPN will show new virtual ways that allow advertisers to push their brands and messages outside of a traditional 30-second spot — akin to what executives describe as “tombstone units” that virtually rise up from the field during ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” telecast.
“Unlike a traditional agency, because we’re embedded in ESPN, we can pitch out these really cool things,” Brzezinski-Hsu said. “A lot of our clients don’t really live and breathe sports the way we do, so they’re timid about getting into sports creative. But they know that in order to reach this audience, they want to be as relevant as possible and speak their language and be in the inside joke with them.”
ESPN executives see this business as a big growth opportunity for a group that already seems big.
CreativeWorks is staffed by 85 people — a combination of creative directors, designers, writers, producers and project managers. Last year, the group produced 125 long- and short-form videos, 175 ad partner campaigns and 100 ESPN-branded campaigns. It is the group that developed the ESPN+ logo.
Notably, it took over the development of ESPN’s “This Is SportsCenter” campaign from ad agency Wieden+Kennedy. So far it has produced two “This Is SportsCenter” commercials that have the same look and feel as the ones produced by Wieden. One stars Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees, the other Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks.
“We think we can mobilize the campaign quicker and across our platform more seamlessly,” Brzezinski-Hsu said. “You’ll start to see it come to life beyond the television creative in smart ways.”
Bringing the “This Is SportsCenter” campaign in-house underscores CreativeWorks’ move to become more of a full-service ad agency, as opposed to a creative agency, which is how it started, she said. She sees a trend of advertisers moving away from using larger agencies of record in favor of using smaller ones.
“Some of that business is going to independent shops, and some of it is going to partners inside media companies like ourselves,” Brzezinski-Hsu said. “They are not only looking for cost savings. They are looking for native advertising opportunities — understanding that they want us to do their sports work versus a big agency of record doing everything. … We’re positioning ourselves as a sports agency of record.”
ESPN launched CreativeWorks in 2010 to find unique ways to get advertisers closer to the games. One of its first deals was with GMC, which was a presenting sponsor of “Monday Night Football” at that time.
“But they wanted to take a step further and really show off their brand,” Brzezinski-Hsu said. “One of those first pieces of creative was when someone pulled into a cul-de-sac of a neighborhood, every neighbor had a GMC truck. The horns started to play the ‘Monday Night Football’ theme. It was relevant to their sponsorship and the video cut to a card that said, ‘Monday Night Football sponsored by GMC Trucks.’”
Another early campaign was with Samsung, which was promoting an HDTV set in 2010. Samsung’s creative agency developed a campaign that demonstrated the clarity of the HD picture.
“We said, ‘Let’s make that about a boyfriend and girlfriend watching football, and she’s got all the knowledge about fantasy sports,’” Brzezinski-Hsu said. “We celebrated the TV. But we were putting it in the language of a sports fan.”
Movie studios have targeted the NBA playoffs to promote their summer blockbusters and have used CreativeWorks to develop the ads. ESPN sold round-by-round exclusivity: Universal in the first round, Warner Bros. in the second, Disney in the third and Sony in the finals.
“The movie studio will tell us the film and whether they have film talent available,” Brzezinski-Hsu said. “If not, we need an athlete or our talent to really pull the weight of the film. Then we have to figure out — What are the sports moments that really inform the creative? What are the sports moments that best align with the film? How do we make that marriage for the fan so that it feels relevant and fun?”