The U.S. and U.K. press were in a frenzy last March, and it was all Jen Neal's doing.
E!'s stunt to promote the new series The Royals—uploading a "tourist" video that appeared to show a naked man climbing out of a window in Buckingham Palace—had gone viral, and dozens of news outlets were covering the video and debating its legitimacy. "When they started talking about 'Is it Prince Andrew's window?' those were moments when you thought, wow, this is working," says Neal, evp of marketing at NBCUniversal's E! and Esquire Network. "It was so hard to sit on our hands at that moment, but we had a plan in place."
Finally, on March 3, E! fessed up. Even the news organizations that had been taken in were impressed by the stunt. "As far as hoaxes go, this is a pretty great one," said People.com.
That cheeky video was just one of Neal's many innovative, digital-centric marketing flourishes to promote E!'s first scripted series, starring Elizabeth Hurley as England's fictional Queen Helena. The promotional campaign, E!'s biggest ever for a new series, was a huge success. The network's second-quarter ratings were up 29 percent over the previous year among adults ages 18-49, and 35 percent in women 18-49.
Because the reality-heavy network that introduced the world to the Kardashians was taking such a risk branching into scripted content, The Royals required a unique marketing touch. "We knew we needed to fuel the addiction to the show and create buzz," says Neal. "We said, 'How do we get folks to sample the show's content to make them interested prior to the series?'" The answer was to hook E!'s royals-obsessed audience seven months out. E! premiered The Royals' first trailer last August during its red carpet coverage of the Emmy Awards. Neal's group teamed with E!'s news department to make sure fresh content on the network's site coincided with royal events like Prince William and Duchess Kate's U.S. trip.
E! made a viral splash on Christmas Day when the network aired its own version of the queen's annual holiday message, featuring Hurley. The actress' expletive-laden speech racked up more than 1 million views in its first day. Then, on Valentine's Day, E! partnered with Tinder, where users could match with and get a message from The Royals' Prince Liam (played by William Moseley). And, when Neal got word, just two-and-a-half weeks in advance, that E! was getting a coveted Super Bowl slot to promote the series, she quickly mobilized her team to create a highly stylized and memorable Royals spot.
"We wanted to virally start seeding The Royals in a bit of a scandalous way: the anarchy in the monarchy," says Neal, who used the naked Buckingham Palace video "reveal" to launch D-Throned, a real website based on the show's fictional British tabloid. The D-Throned Tumblr page quickly drew fans in with lurid stories and content about the characters, and it has kept them engaged in between seasons.
"Everything was orchestrated to start hitting in this fantastically choreographed sequence, building up to the March launch. This was one of the most creative campaigns I've ever seen," says Frances Berwick, president, lifestyle networks at NBCU cable entertainment, overseeing E!, Esquire Network, Bravo and Oxygen. "I really do attribute a large chunk of the success of that show to that very orchestrated campaign."
After The Royals, Neal shifted gears to promote one of the biggest television events of the year, E!'s reality series I Am Cait, featuring Caitlyn Jenner. (Its July 28 debut drew 7.7 million viewers in live-plus-3 and was the network's biggest audience for a premiere since 2002.) At the moment, Neal is focused on the launch of Esquire's first scripted series, Spotless, debuting Nov. 14. Next up, Neal, who joined E! in 2012 after serving as BBDO North America's CMO (she added oversight for Esquire last December), will try to best herself for next month's Season 2 premiere of The Royals. She promises: "We've got some fun tricks up our sleeve again this year."
This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.