“Being the youngest of five children, it was either be heard or be forgotten,” says Niels Schuurmans, who has applied that lesson in every phase of his career.
As svp, consumer marketing and executive creative director for Viacom’s Spike TV since just after its launch in 2003, Schuurmans, a self-professed “blabbermouth,” has been charged with making sure the male-skewing cable channel gets heard.
“The philosophy for our media now is it’s got to be buzzworthy,” he says.
This spring’s effort, an outdoor campaign tempting hard-core Star Wars fans to watch the films (again) on Spike TV, definitely got the 42-year-old’s work noticed. “That was the biggest challenge. Everybody has seen all of the movies before and probably owns the DVD, so we had to ask ourselves, how are you going to give it a fresh perspective?”
Schuurmans decided not to stray from the franchise, since Spike TV is a guy’s channel and Star Wars, to which it owns the rights, is the ultimate action brand. The result: taglines like “Chewbacca: the original wingman” and a light-saber installation in a New York bus shelter. The network got tons of buzz and press attention. “For an $8,000 investment, we got $300,000 worth of media,” he says.
Based on that success, Schuurmans is preparing the next wave of work for the franchise, a “Force of July” promo campaign that will feature commercials starring Darth Vader playing golf, among other surprises.
Schurmanns, a first-generation American of Dutch descent, learned to use his wise-cracking creative powers for good during high school in Kinnelon, N.J., when, as an alternative to detention, he auditioned for the school play. Though partly motivated by a desire to meet girls, the budding thespian developed a real passion for drama that he credits with eventually leading him to a career that has taken him around the globe. “You have to take chances,” he says. “In my opinion, everybody gets opportunities. And it’s the people who actually take advantage of the opportunities who succeed.”
After a chance encounter with a roommate’s Super 8 camera while studying at Boston University, Schuurmans changed his major from pre-law to broadcast film. Following graduation, the budding entrepreneur spent a year in St. Thomas, USVI, selling art to tourists and making videos for local resorts before returning to Bean Town to teach drama for a year at the Park Arts School for troubled kids. Next he parlayed his experience directing school productions into a job in the on-air promo department at Nickelodeon in New York, and his career took off.
Schuurmans spent two years producing, writing and directing for Nickelodeon before leaving to become head of on-air creative at Turner’s new Cartoon Network. “It was intense learning on how to be a manager,” he says.
It wasn’t long before MTV Networks International approached this newly minted manager to launch Nickelodeon in Australia. His tactics were characteristically unorthodox. “I realized I didn’t want people who had done this before. I wanted ‘idea people,'” he says. So he hired stand-up comedians, actors, writers, and taught them how to produce.
Success Down Under led to similar positions in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and across Europe. His goal was not simply to import “Nick America,” but to understand each culture and produce relevant material, a strategy he has applied to fans of the Force.
Recently, on his way into the Holland Tunnel in New York, Schuurmans saw two men stop, turn around, backtrack and stand staring at one of Spike’s Star Wars. “The best thing is actually seeing your work work,” he says.
Education: Graduated from Boston University; switched his major from pre-law to broadcast film after borrowing his roommate’s Super 8 camera. “I made this film. It was called Le Verite, a period piece — very Fellini-esque — that took place during WWII, about a soldier that rapes a little girl,” he says.
First TV job: On-air promos for Nickelodeon in New York, on the back of experience teaching drama at Boston’s Park Arts School, where he directed a musical adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ Butter Battle Book. “It was a blast. I learned a lot about working with kids — I love working with kids,” he says.
Early nickname: “Turtle Boy,” bestowed by a crew of Rastafarian locals in St. Thomas, USVI, when he slept under an upturned boat while selling paintings to tourists.
Family: Schuurmans and his wife, Justine, have two children, a daughter, Finley, and a son, Sawyer.