Verizon's creative chief on building an in-house agency, AR and all those Thomas Middleditch ads
Andrew McKechnie also dished to Marketing Dive about Verizon's decision to return to in-game Super Bowl advertising and how he's broken its image away from being old, stodgy and corporate.
Over roughly the past 18 months, Andrew McKechnie has worked to turn around consumer perceptions of Verizon, softening the image of the largest wireless carrier in the U.S. to be more fun and relatable by focusing on experiences, emerging mobile technology and the people who both use and work for the network. Much of this has been done through the chief creative officer's work with 140, an in-house agency he was tapped, in part, to help launch and lead in February 2017.
"It was pretty much from the ground-up," McKechnie, who cut his teeth at brands like Apple and agencies like BBDO and JWT, told Marketing Dive in a phone interview. "We've managed to build a pretty phenomenal team in a short period of time."
With 140, which is based in New York City and now has over 130 employees, Verizon joins competitors like Sprint in establishing an in-house marketing model to wrest more control over the creative process and unify operations. For Verizon, that creative has manifested in work with actors like "Silicon Valley" star Thomas Middleditch and also a return to in-game Super Bowl advertising for the first time in seven years with a campaign that boosted positive mentions of the brand by 367 times, according to figures shared by the company.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
MARKETING DIVE: You work in a hyper-competitive wireless category, and are taking an in-house approach to marketing that's not that common but is becoming more so. How would you distill your strategy?
ANDREW MCKECHNIE: The in-house model makes sense for some brands but not all. It made sense for Verizon because we're on a journey of transformation. In terms of where the category and the industry are moving, it requires definition and a new approach.
140 was essentially created to be the creative core of Verizon. The way that I've built it out over the past 18 months is to focus on key areas in terms of where we need to evolve within the industry but also as our brand narrative needs to change. How do you take as much control of that and really make sure that we're thinking about it in the right ways and in the right places?
A big part of that was thinking about all of the owned channels we have — those are the things that give us the greatest ability to impact quickly. I've spent my time putting in the right teams and leadership to build out 140 and create an integrated production model across operations, creative, digital and retail. For the most part, there isn't necessarily a science to the structure.
Staying competitive in the space also requires strong customer loyalty. Could you talk a little bit about the Up program that launched last August, and how that's been supported in Verizon's marketing?
MCKECHNIE: We've always had rewards programs, but we changed the focus to be built primarily around experiences. We launched Up late last year and 140 has produced the majority of that work. It's a good example of a program close to our customers that the agency has a very strong application to.
The program is around experiences, from the day-to-day to big-tickets, whether that's a Justin Timberlake concert or an NFL game. That's something that we've put a lot more focus on — the customer and making sure we're rewarding their loyalty.
Right, because I know one of the challenges is not just attracting new subscribers, but also catering to those who are already with the brand. You seem to be mostly focusing on experiential rewards as a differentiating factor?
MCKECHNIE: Yes. The reality is you've got to speak to both customers and prospects, and for our customers, you still want to reward them with things that are not complicated. If they want a coffee or a discount on some tech gear, we give them the ability to do that easily through the My Verizon app.
But there are definitely customers and prospects who want more, especially when you think about millennials, who are much more experience-based versus materialistic. We've got a great roster of partners — the NBA, the NFL, IndyCar and music partners like [Timberlake] and Luke Bryan.
For the innovation piece of digital experiences, I wanted to ask about AR and VR, since they are increasingly popular, and Verizon is a mobile-focused company. I know you've run a few AR campaigns on Snapchat. How are you thinking about these tools?
MCKECHNIE: For us, there's no real excuse not to be digital- and mobile-forward in the way in which we bring either our experiences or narrative to our customers. Some of the areas we have been leaning into from a social standpoint has been an evolving AR platform.
We had an AR scavenger hunt for the iPhone on Verizon last year. We had the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade work, which was an AR experience that allowed people to be a part of the parade and discover Easter eggs within that environment. Then we've explored things like the Snap integration with AR around the karaoke with Maroon 5 — it allows people to be at a concert and sing along to lyrics while watching the concert.
Because these are sort of nascent technologies being applied on a fairly large scale, were there any lessons learned or takeaways you'd offer to avoid technical glitches or hiccups?
MCKECHNIE: A big part of it is making sure you have the right partnerships upfront. With a lot of these, we've been working with R/GA and Snap directly to really help think them through with a lot of lead time, so we can prototype them out. We've created a bit more of a skunkworks approach to these programs, where we're working directly with Snap to think about new things that we can do.
There are always hiccups from a technology standpoint that we overcome. But the biggest challenge is, when you create standalone experiences, you have to build around them every time, leveraging learnings or assets and continuing them through a platform approach. Not going, okay, we're going to do a VR thing here and some AR thing over here. Some of that happens organically, but we've tried to be focused on evolving some of the platforms and technology and to iterate on them as we go along.
We've talked about the technology behind Verizon's campaigns, but you also have a changing face for the brand that's manifested in spokespeople like Thomas Middleditch, of "Silicon Valley." How did you think about him and those partnerships?
MCKECHNIE: It wasn't that long ago where, for us, as a brand, our voice was not necessarily perceived in the most positive way. If you were to pull a research paper out, the verdict would have been old, stodgy, corporate white guy. Not approachable, arrogant and expensive — all of those types of things. We've made a very deliberate push through people like Middleditch to deliver a message that's helped us reframe opinions and perceptions of the brand.
Thomas has been a really good spokesperson and character for us in terms of being approachable, not taking things too seriously and being there to help. Those are the attributes that have helped soften the brand for us. We have a lot of data on that. And we're very collaborative with him.
We have a lot of TV spots out there with Thomas, but there are other elements out there that that campaign really helps us with in terms of having a consistent narrative. Some of those branding elements, like the three-dimensional logo, while you may see them on TV, they do appear in other areas. We're starting to slowly thread the needle across multiple touchpoints.
I did want to drill into TV, because Verizon returned this year to in-game Super Bowl advertising for the first time since 2011. We've chatted about how important digital channels are, but what was the motivating factor behind that big TV spot?
MCKECHNIE: We've been very intentional about whether we show up to the Super Bowl or not. If you're going to be there, you better either be really funny or have something important to say. This year, it felt like it was the right moment because we have something important to say. It's a reflection of where we're going as a company. We want to share real stories of real people and real, authentic experiences with the network.
If you go back to the end of 2016, the industry at large was just mudslinging. It was price wars and promos and everyone was down in the trenches. We've said, emphatically, we're going to take a leadership position. We're going to tell our own stories around how we impact our customers and what we're doing in society.
We decided that we wanted to share some of the stories that Verizon is involved in local communities, such as with first responders. It was something that was topical last year, when we had so many natural disasters. It's a situation where the network has to perform. Part of the narrative has been sharing those stories because they're emotional and compelling.
Traditional wireless, as a category, you don't get a lot of positive sentiment around the brand. We were No. 1 for that Super Bowl [across all categories]. I always try to tell the creative teams and the agencies not to think about those types of things, whether it's creative awards or what, but the [Super Bowl performance] is a reflection of us playing to an authenticity that resonated well within that space and that frame of time.
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