If you’ve watched any amount of NBA in the last few months, chances are pretty good that in between game action, you’ve seen a whole lot of one very tall man in a red tracksuit traveling back in time to give younger versions of himself some valuable career and fashion advice, set to period pop hits of the time. That very tall man is of course All-Star Clippers forward Blake Griffin, and the context is the recent KIA series featuring Blake “time traveling” in his Kia Optima to ride mechanical convenience store steeds and make fun of jean shorts. The campaign has turned into a favorite for many an NBA fan, due to its absurd humor, impressive eye for detail, and above all else, Blake’s bone-dry sense of humor and impeccable comedic timing.
The man most responsible for the ads is probably Colin Jeffery, Executive Creative Director of the David & Goliath agency, behind not only this Blake campaign, but also the “UVO, Play Funk” Blake ads you might remember from last season, and such other campaigns like the “This or That” Kia Soul ads with the hamsters set to Black Sheep’s “The Choice is Yours.” But the time travel campaign might be Jeffery’s greatest work, and certainly one of the most creative and legitimately funny ad campagins of recent years.
I talked with Jeffery for a bit to ask him some questions I had about some of the ads’ finer points, to satisfy my own curiosity, if nothing else. (And check out Kevin Arnovitz’s fine article on the campaign on the TrueHoop network for a look at some of the commercial’s more technical aspects.)
TBJ: So what was the genesis moment for the ads? How did the time travel idea come about?
Jeffery: Well, this is obviously the second campaign we worked on, with Kia Optima teaming up with Blake Griffin. We really worked off the same strategy for both. When Kia signed Blake Griffin, the idea was that he’s this kind of new-age sportsman, he’s got this kind of Challenger vibe to him. He kind of burst onto the scene. He handles himself very differently [than other players] both on and off the courts. He’s kind of this clean-cut guy, with Oklahoma roots … and his game, he’s got this flair and energy to his game, and Kia sees themselves as similar — exploded onto the scene, had a rapid growth rate. From the outset, we saw this as an opportunity to do things differently with these two brands, since they both do things differently.
The genesis comes from strategy “Not your average mid-size sedan, not your average spokesman.” We challenged ourselves creatively and internally to come up with a spokesman that doesn’t feel like your classic spokesman’s work. Usually with spokesmen, it’s a tenuous link back to the product, but in this case, they fit quite well, actually, They’re both kinda young, new brands.
The idea came about … we spent a lot of time with Blake, we’d kind of sit down and throw around ideas with him, see what resonates with him. He talks a lot about his childhood — he’s very close to his brother, and they were quite competitive as kids. He talks fondly of his childhood, and we kinda got into that a bit. He has a lot of regrets, and one of them, he said “Yeah, I wore jean shorts a lot! I really regret it! If I could go back…’” And then we talked about the gym he and his brother used to work out in together, I kinda jotted that one down, and then the scripts just kinda came along from there. It just seemed like an unexpected way to use the spokesman, to go back in time, and creatively there was a lot we could do with that.
So was Blake in on the idea from the beginning? He was cool with it?
Yeah, very much so. One of the things about working with him, he understands and has a real interest in marketing and film-making. He also has this ability to poke fun at himself and be self-effacing. I think that’s a huge part of the success of this campaign, he’s willing to go places that other athletes wouldn’t. Like, the whole “Practice your free throws…” The fact that he’s willing to go on national TV and acknowledge that’s a weakness of his game, it’s cool, it’s refreshing.
Did all the ideas come out of those meetings with Blake, or did you go back and come up with them later?
Those are scripts that we then wrote. There’s an approval process, getting the Kia marketing team on board with the idea of going back in time, giving them a sense of the humor we were going for, and then once they were comfortable, going back to Blake and making sure he was comfortable. First one we shared with them was about the free throws. I was obviously a little nervous, I wasn’t quite sure how he would take it. But he gets it. He was like “It’s awesome, let’s do it.”
What about the red warmup suit he wears in all the commercials? Where did the idea for that come from?
We wanted it to be unexpected and memorable. We played around with multiple wardrobe options, and that one was inherited from the first campaign. Putting him in an old school, shell suit, it had that kind of retro, Wes Anderson feel, and that wardrobe, with his sense of humor and those awkward pauses … it felt right. We did have multiple colors, a red one, a white one and a blue one. We put the other ones on him, but keeping it with the red made it more iconic, and more memorable.
We also put his crest on the breast pocket there. It’s an actual embroidered griffin [the animal], with his name on it. Where we took it from, on his website or his business card, he has an icon of a griffin, so we just borrowed that and re-did it, put our type underneath it.
How did you come up with the period songs that you used for the commercials? Did you just go back and look at old Hot 100 charts?
We obviously just pinpointed years that we thought it would be right to come back to. First, what ages would it be appropriate for him to go back to. Then once we narrowed it down like, “We want him to be four years old, then seven, or eight”… we broke it down. We kinda set about finding music. What we did is we started looking at Hot 100 playlists, going through what was popular at the time, working with various music companies and labels. With rights management these days, some songs are much easier to get than others. We had to weigh that as well. We had a wishlist, then we went about seeing which ones were actually accessible.
To get Montell Jordan, “This is How We Do It” [from the 1995 ad] that made complete sense … Baby Blake hanging from the net, it made sense, and that was a huge hit globally. It was a no-brainer … then OMC, “How Bizarre” [from the 1997 ad] and he punches the shit out of a football … it kinda works conceptually. “How Bizarre.”
Did you want to use songs that people knew but maybe hadn’t heard in a while? Like “Oh, this song, I forgot about this song, I love this song!”
Yeah, absolutely. As a brand, Kia, we focus very heavily on music, and we’ve done a lot of different things over the years with them, using Black Sheep in one of the Hamster commercials … we’ve just realized how powerful music can be. And that was a bad-ass track, but there was also a nostalgia attached to it for people 30 or over, and for people younger, they’ve probably never heard that song, so they discover it through that. I was hoping that would happen a little here. You get people online going “Montell Jordan, sick!” then a kid going “Oh, what is that?” It’s kinda cool that you can connect with two different audiences in a totally different way. Eiffel 65 ["Blue" from the 1999 ad], I hadn’t heard that song in like a decade.
What about the 2006 ad? I noticed that’s the only one without a period song.
That’s Vokab Kompany and Crush Effect, “Back to the Past.” They were a band from San Diego. That song is actually on a fairly recently released album, but the song is older. We went for it for a couple reasons, one because conceptually obviously it makes total sense, and it felt right on it. We tried a bunch of different things [from 2006], and we couldn’t find anything that worked better. And they’re a lesser-known band, so that’s cool. We probably coulda gone full for a bigger track, but again, we look at all the legal stuff we have to go through, and this one was just something we could get, and it made sense conceptually.
Are there any ideas you guys had of things for Blake to do that you just couldn’t get into the ads, for whatever reason?
Well, there’s a new cut up — if you look on YouTube, we put up a Director’s Cut of “Bench Press,” and it’s just a fun additional edit that we did. This is something we kind of did on set, just rambling about the difference between weightlifting gloves and racing gloves. It’s really funny, but we just couldn’t fit it into a 30 second ad. It’ll run in stadiums in full.
[Blake's] ability to act, and to ad lib and recite lines, is like nothing I’ve ever seen. For an athlete … he’s not a trained actor, but his ability to hit timing, to ad lib, remember complex dialogue … we’ll build [his ad libbing] into our schedule, where we have these approved scripts, but we give him time to add his own thing to it. Things like the “hiyah!” on that horse. And him kicking the football … in our minds, we always just had him tossing the football, and one of the ideas behind that is he’d injured his knee on his left leg a few months before. So I was just like “You’re just gonna toss it,” but on set he was like “Naw man, I’m gonna kick the shit out of it!” and he just punts the ball right across the park. And it was golden.
It seems like the ads have just gotten weirder and weirder. Was that a conscious decision, that you’d start out kinda straightforward, and as the series went on, you’d have Blake doing crazier stuff?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s responsible. We’re trying to build this brand affinity for Kia and for Blake, and to keep the integrity of the campaign. And I think he’s getting more and more comfortable, and we’re learning more and more about his personality, and what is his sweet spot. And every time gets a little more complicated, and each time he’s able to handle it. So sure, we’ll keep pushing the boundaries.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I feel like — and this might just be me — but having him be a little self-effacing, pushing him in that direction and him being OK with it, I kind of feel like it’s happening more with other athletes [in commercials]. Like Chris Paul with the Cliff Paul thing, that’s a great ad, and that’s kind of self-effacing, with the glasses … Kevin Durant with the pajamas in the Sprint ad. It’s smart, taking these athletes, and they’re suddenly OK with poking a little fun at themselves, not seeming too cool.
Have you looked at other athletes you’d like to work with? Is there anybody else you think might be on Blake’s level?
I do think just watching other athletes, spokesperson type work recently … I think people have caught on to the fact that you need to play to their strengths and weaknesses. Trying to pull too much performance out of a pro athlete doesn’t work. Trying to get a pro athlete to be overly expressive, play lots of different emotions, that’s really tough. Blake’s sweet spot is his dry, emotionless kind of vibe, and yet he’s still able to put the little twinkle in his eye, wry smile … I don’t know if there’s anybody out there doing that.