- Friday, Jun. 22, 2007
- NEW YORK
Al Merrin, vice chairman, executive creative director and member of the board of directors of BBDO New York, has extensive commercialmaking experience. But even the most seasoned industry professional can find him or herself on a learning curve when diversifying into new forms. And Merrin, based on his work as creator and an executive producer of Fast Cars & Superstars--a seven-episode primetime hybrid sports/documentary/reality series for client Gillette--values the education this project provided.
"This show sprung from our agency's mandate to take our brands and find new ways to make them relevant to consumers, I've been working on this for the better part of two years," related Merrin, noting that the project represents his first major foray into longer form branded entertainment. "It's a long and intensely collaborative process to get a primetime series on the air. This show must have died 30 or 40 times along the way but somehow we kept it alive and overcame the obstacles. There were many approvals to secure--NASCAR, our client Gillette and then the most difficult drawn out process is with the network. You've got to meet the right people, you've got to sell it and you have to have a great deal of resilience. Once you sell it, there's still no guarantee that it will happen."
Fast Cars & Superstars centers on a dozen celebrity drivers--ranging from athletes (football star John Elway, skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, tennis champion Serena Williams, surfer Laird Hamilton, volleyball's Gabrielle Reece, former NBA pro John Salley, rodeo champion Ty Murray, World Wrestling Entertainment champion John Cena) to entertainers (singer Jewel, actor William Shatner, actress Krista Allen)--who learn to drive high speed stock cars in competition, tutored by the Gillette Young Guns who are six of NASCAR's top drivers, including reigning NASCAR Nextel Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
The series consists of six half-hour episodes and then an hourlong finale that crowns the victor. In each 30-minute installment, several celebs compete against each other, facing elimination based on their speed and precision performance on the track. The competition events are covered by ESPN anchor Kenny Mayne and ESPN NASCAR analyst Brad Daugherty, who's a former college and pro basketball player. There are documentary-style backstories on all the contestants, as well as behind-the-scenes coverage of their training sessions with the Young Guns, chronicling how the celebs progress as drivers.
BBDO and Gillette formed the Young Guns contingent in 2004 to help drive awareness, appeal, trial and usage of Gillette's products among NASCAR fans. "It was a natural to develop a series like this around them [the Young Guns] because the brand is woven inextricably into the content," said Merrin. "Plus being NASCAR, having branding is totally permissible. It doesn't seem out of place. It would feel weird if you didn't have it [branding]--just look at Talladega Nights...It made sense all the way around....NASCAR wants to reach out to a wider audience--and they're certainly getting a wider sports audience with the way this is timed [episodes are slated to run prior to each NBA championship playoff game on ABC; the series debuted on June 7 just before Game 1 of the Spurs/Cavaliers game]. And Gillette reaches out in a distinctly new way to consumers."
For Merrin, another lesson learned was that you don't necessarily have to go outside one's industry circle for production. "I interviewed a lot of TV production houses, people that specialize in reality shows, thinking that's the direction I should go. But when it was all said and done, I was incredibly disappointed with their production quality."
But the figurative "lightbulb" went on," continued Merrin, during lunch with Jon Kamen of @radical.media. "Here's a company that shares our aesthetic values, that knows the quality and perfectionism that BBDO demands on every production. I asked myself, 'What am I doing looking into these [reality TV] companies?' I need to partner up with @radical. Coming from advertising, they understand branding, the sensibilities of clients yet they also have their feet in long-form production."
@radical brought director Michael John Warren on board for the project based on not only his directorial prowess but his experience as an editor. Warren noted that Kamen gave him his first career break in '99 with the editing gig on the verite documentary series The Life, ESPN's first foray into original entertainment. Warren later served as lead editor on the first two seasons of the @radical-produced Battleground: King of the World for Nike. Via @radical, Warren made his directorial debut with Fade to Black, a documentary on rapper Jay-Z. He went outside @radical to direct the VH-1 documentary Heavy: The Story of Heavy Metal. And recently through @radical he oversaw editing on 30 documentary shorts for the Ford online series The Bold Moves.
Producer Andrew Fried of @radical explained that Warren was the ideal director for Fast Cars & Superstars in that four hours of programming were shot in a mere three days in Charlotte. "There was so much going on simultaneously that a director with a documentary aesthetic and an understanding of editing were needed to make sure we got everything we needed in a whirlwind schedule," said Fried, the series producer. "We had a live sporting event, a documentary series and a reality show all being filmed at the same time. Plus we needed to maintain the feel of a live event throughout, and a large part of achieving that was on the back end through editing--so having a director like Michael was key to pulling this off successfully."
Particularly gratifying to Warren was capturing enough viable material those three days that some 70 original webisodes were also fashioned, giving additional value to Gillette as part of an ambitious web campaign.
Warren noted that he's not a fan of the reality show genre and that what helped make Fast Cars & Superstars ring true were its documentary sensibilities and focus on the sporting event competition. "There are no boardrooms, no gags, no rose ceremony," said Warren in reference to reality show staples. "We had live event play-by-play and didn't go for the overly dramatic [reality show approach]."
Merrin noted that BBDO also had responsibilities on the sponsorship front, a key point person for the agency in that regard being Peter Geary, senior account director on the Gillette blades and razor business. Geary explained that the series was essentially a time buy for Gillette and to offset some of the production and media costs, sponsors were sought, some woven into the show like the Cars.com leader board showing the speed times and performances of contestants. Others are sponsors of individual cars in the competition.
Core corporate sponsors include Alltel, Cars.com, Kroger, Lowe's, Sam's Club, Orkin/The Scott's Company and Walgreens. Lowe's is a BBDO client but the balance have other agencies. BBDO secured New York company Leverage to act as an intermediary, reaching out to other agencies and clients to get involved in the series. "Having a number of retail companies as sponsors was by design," related Geary as Gillette could take advantage of product/point of purchase displays at these stores promoting the show.
While Gillette Fusion (a Procter & Gamble brand) is prominent among those buying spot time, also in the commercials mix were such companies as insurance firm Progressive, Men's Wearhouse, Sony's Ghostriders and other P&G brands.