How do you top a Super Bowl commercial that was yards better than the game itself? That’s the advertising challenge facing Tim Ellis, the NFL’s chief marketing officer.
Ellis, who joined the league in August 2018, led the creative effort for NFL’s “100-Year Game” commercial during CBS Sports’ telecast of Super Bowl 53 on Feb. 3, 2019.
The two-minute spot showed six generations of NFL legends – ranging from quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw to running backs Jim Brown, Franco Harris and Barry Sanders – battling for a golden football at a black-tie dinner celebrating the league’s centennial season.
Created by ad agency 72andSunny in Los Angeles and directed by Hollywood director Peter Berg, the spot has been viewed nearly 7 million times on the NFL’s YouTube Channel. According to the NFL, it has been watched more than 100 million times across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
Adweek called it a “brilliant” way to kick off the league’s 100th season in 2019.
Ellis, who previously served in top marketing roles at Activision Blizzard, Volkswagen Group of America and Volvo, told Front Office Sports he believes there are several reasons why the spot took off.
First, it tapped into the nation’s love of football, which cuts across all ages, genders, and backgrounds.
“It was a love letter to football. All of the guys, the 43 guys who were in it, they wanted to be in it, because the rest of the guys were in it,” said Ellis. “So once we got Joe Montana, Deion Sanders, Jerry Rice, and Barry Sanders, they were all begging to be in our spot.”
Second, it illustrated Ellis’ “helmets-off” marketing strategy. The NFL has always been at a disadvantage versus the NBA and Major League Baseball as its biggest stars wear helmets with their faces obscured during games, making it harder for fans to relate to them vs. basketball or baseball players.
During the “100-Year” spot, Super Bowl TV viewers got to see current stars like Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams, Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs, Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants and Odell Beckham Jr. and Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns in a more humorous and glamorous light.
Third, it aired on Super Bowl Sunday.
That is the only TV show of the year where people actually tune in to watch commercials, noted Ellis. The challenge of creating a successful Super Bowl ad has made and unmade careers on Madison Avenue. But Ellis came to the NFL with experience.
In 2011, he led VW’s creative charge for “The Force:” a Super Bowl commercial showing a pint-sized Darth Vader trying to control everything from his Dad’s Passat sedan to the family dog. Nearly eight years later, that landmark spot by Deutsch, Los Angeles remains the “Dark Lord of Super Bowl ads,” according to Adweek critic Tim Nudd. “The Force” has been viewed nearly 55 million times on YouTube.
With “The Force” under his belt, Ellis welcomed the challenge of positioning the NFL for its next century. He reached out to Berg, director of Hollywood films like Friday Night Lights and Lone Survivor.
“I thought there was a huge opportunity for us to do something big, to do something high impact and to kick off the 100th in the right way,” Ellis said. “I had worked with Pete Berg while I was at Activision. We had created some blockbuster commercials for Call of Duty. So we had a shorthand with each other. We knew what we were trying to accomplish.”
Glenn Cole, founder and creative chair of 72andSunny, said his agency worked around the clock with Ellis, Berg and Film 47 to try to capture the qualities that make the NFL great: the bigger-than-life personalities; the competitive spirit; and the childlike sense of play.
“I knew we nailed it when Jim Brown looked around and said, ‘I like this party,’” recalled Cole. “Couldn’t have said it better myself.”
So what’s next? Ellis confirmed the league and 72andSunny are already working on a new commercial that will air during Fox Sports telecast of Super Bowl 54 on February 2, 2020.
He described the league’s upcoming commercial as a “handing off of the torch” but declined to elaborate further. When it does hit the airwaves, it will be big.
“The concept we have in mind will be thought through – and executed on a grand scale,” Ellis promised.
If the NFL wants to top the “100-Year Game,” they should call an audible on comedy and address football’s serious concussion and CTE issues, advised Matt Reinhard, co-founder and chief creative officer at O’Keefe Reinhard & Paul ad agency in Chicago.
“Show the audience/fan base the commitment the NFL is making towards player safety,” said Reinhard. “Announce the financial support for current and former players who’ve sacrificed their individual health to serve the greater NFL franchise.”