Terry Tate: The Forrest Gump of branded content

The 13-year-old comedic series for Reebok still holds valuable life lessons, says the head of content and entertainment at J. Walter Thompson

If you are reading this, you’ve likely seen a poll or recap for the best Super Bowl advertisements of all time. Talking frogs and Clydesdales might sell beer. But they don’t teach us life’s essential truths like the legendary Terry Tate.  

The perennial listicle favorite, "Terry Tate: Office Linebacker" is the Forest Gump of branded content, only with more undiagnosed concussions. We learn not to steal ballpoint pens or eat someone else’s cake. Always to recycle, and if you finish the coffee, the right thing to do is make a fresh pot. Almost 15 years later, the making of Terry Tate provides valuable lessons, still useful for today’s brands and agencies.  

Go with your gut In 2002, I was with Hypnotic, a Web 1.0 content studio start-up led by the filmmaker Doug Liman. Being pre-YouTube, I’d spent several weeks shopping a VHS tape to brands and agencies. The pitch was to adapt a short film by Rawson Marshall Thurber as a branded film series. When I saw The Arnell Group had won the Reebok account, I messengered a tape to Chad Stoller. He quickly summoned us to meet with Peter Arnell.  

In a scene that could have been lifted from Robert Altman’s "The Player," we played the tape for Peter, who immediately called Mickey Pant, then Reebok CMO, to declare they had their Super Bowl idea. As luck had it, Reebok was entering into a partnership with the NFL and needed to make a big statement.

We immediately commenced negotiations. No focus groups or testing. No account person to object to a character named Felcher. Too often, we hold back pitching a great idea because it’s not exactly on brief, or the idea doesn’t fit within a consumer journey diagram.  But there is no brief for winning in popular culture. Only, don’t be boring and make something awesome.

Be the hero
Think big. Think Hollywood blockbuster. The genius of Peter Arnell was not convincing his client to buy one 30-second TVC on the Super Bowl — it was to buy two thirty-second spots, so we could run as a one-minute film. That differentiated us from the other ads and launched the film series. The TVC served as tune-in, like a movie trailer, with a call to action to watch the films at Reebok.com. Today, it would fit neatly into a content strategist’s Hero-Hub-Help programming framework.

And like all great stories, we led with a great character. Our hero was on a mission. We didn’t make a series of jokes to showcase shoes. If we want people to follow our brands, best we give them someone to follow.  

Make me laugh
Humor is enduring. Adobe recently published a report on the State of Content for 2016. Not surprising, it states making people laugh is the top motivation for sharing content. So lighten up, brand managers. After you read this, go to Twitter and search "Terry Tate." I guarantee you someone in the last few days has tweeted a line of dialogue, or posted a link to the films — from 2003. How many ads generate that kind of recall?  

Franchise it
The expression of our ideas is intellectual property, be it ads or white papers or TV shows. As a production company, our focus was not winning awards but creating value for a character. We wanted sequels, spin-offs and extensions. We wanted to sell lunch boxes and bobbleheads. We didn’t even know there was an advertising festival in the south of France. Terry Tate was a licensing deal to Reebok.  Hypnotic developed the content strategy, and produced the character and story with Rawson. Arnell Group developed the marketing and advertising.The rights have since reverted back to Rawson.

Key to all of this was having the pilot already produced. We would never have sold it from a PowerPoint presentation, voiced over by creative director. There needs to be an investment in IP. That will make your finance director nervous because that means risk. But that is what entertainment brands do. And of course collaboration and partnerships can’t be emphasized enough.  

In the end, we did win awards and acclaim. Terry Tate was viral before being viral was a good thing. In a digital era before YouTube and broadband, fans downloaded the films over 20 million times from Reebok’s website. Terry won a Gold Lion at Cannes and was voted "Most Likable Ad of 2003" by USA Today. Most important are the timeless lessons learned, applicable to any program today. And, remember: if you kill the Joe, you make some mo’.  

Mike Wiese is Head of Content + Entertainment at J. Walter Thompson, and President of the Branded Content Marketing Association — USA.  

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