Zach Enterlin, EVP of Program Marketing for HBO
Zach Enterlin
EVP, Program Marketing HBO logo

HBO’s Zach Enterlin On How Game of Thrones Set New Experiential Benchmarks in Miles, Sacrifices and Blood

How do you properly send off the most watched (and talked about) show in HBO history? The answer is you don't. You give it to the fans. And that's exactly what HBO's EVP of Program Marketing Zach Enterlin did. Here, Zach shares his view on the data revolution, priceless career advice and a look at how his team used the power of fandom to pull off a first-of-its-kind campaign for the final season of Game of Thrones.

Tell us a little bit about your background and why you chose to join HBO. 

I’ve spent the majority of my career working in entertainment marketing. Most of my career choices were guided by my passion for entertainment and culture. In the early 2000s, I was fascinated by The Sopranos and the new idea of premium programming on television.  I can remember Sunday nights being an HBO event, much like they were this year with Game of Thrones. As I learned more about the company, it was very exciting to see how the DNA of the programming – unique, high quality and designed to stand out amidst the clutter – directly informed the company’s culture overall and in particular, the approach to marketing its shows.

On the heels of the Game of Thrones series finale, how did your team approach the send-off campaign?

As we thought about the final season, we felt an enormous amount of responsibility. How do you send off arguably the best and biggest show in the history of television? We sought to build a singular campaign platform that properly celebrated our fans and the series as a whole, and based it on a very simple insight – for seven seasons, our characters had sacrificed and battled for the throne, so what would fans do for the throne? What would brands do for the throne?

The campaign was a first of its kind for HBO. We essentially minimized traditional paid media tune-in tactics and focused on a promotional campaign that prioritized partnership activity and earned media: it was an open source brief to fans, brands and celebrities.

What were some of the notable brand partnerships?

We convinced Bud Light to shock audiences by letting The Mountain execute their Bud Knight during the Super Bowl. Oreo changed the face of their cookies for the first time ever – to our house sigils. We collaborated with Shake Shack to create a secret menu only available if ordered in Valyrian. We worked with Mountain Dew to strip all branding from their product to create “A Can with No Name.” The Minnesota Timberwolves became the Minnesota Direwolves. (See more on the best brand collaboration stunts for Game of Thrones final season.)

HBO collaborated with Shake Shack to create a secret menu only available if ordered in Valyrian.

And with some of the most loyal fans in television, how did you engage them in this campaign?

On the fan side, over 30,000 people from 93 countries used 360-degree videos and cryptic clues to travel nearly 3 million miles on quests to sit on six thrones hidden in six remote locations. And more than 300,000 fans gave blood, potentially saving over one million lives. As we approached the season premiere, the For The Throne campaign generated 26% of all Game of Thrones social conversation and garnered 19 billion earned media impressions for the marketing alone. Beyond the KPIs we established at the outset, it became clear we ultimately created some new benchmarks around fan celebration and devotion — miles traveled, alliances forged, blood donated, sacrifices made and weddings proposed (3 at our events!).

More than 300,000 fans donated blood as part of the experiential activations to celebrate the series finale.

Fans from 93 countries used 360-degree videos and cryptic clues to travel nearly 3 million miles on quests to sit on six thrones hidden in six remote locations.

What are you working on now that is innovative?

"...sometimes innovation means going left when everyone else is going right."

Our digital team is doing amazing work around AR, VR, voice, etc… As many of our competitors invest in similar digital approaches, we’ve also invested resources to go against that stream and deliver more traditional experiences designed to connect with consumers on a real-world, deeper level.  For two years in a row at SXSW, we bucked the digital trend and developed experiential events (See more on the Immersive Westworld Activation at SXSW). Similarly, earlier this year for Game of Thrones, we brought Westeros to Austin and gave fans the chance to step into the world of the show.  We always have an eye on what’s next, but sometimes innovation means going left when everyone else is going right.

What’s currently happening in marketing that most excites you? 

We’re all in the middle of an industrial revolution around data and the myriad ways it will continue to impact our approach to communicating with our audiences. On a day-to-day level, it’s incredibly exciting to see firsthand the light bulb moments our creative teams experience, whether it’s a strategic insight around a new potential audience or an unexpected creative hook that helps drive interest and intent. Beyond the basic creative optimizations that we’re pushing forward, the ability to have more real-time actionable insights that can inform our ongoing approach is particularly fascinating. And when looking ahead to more advanced real-time attribution models for tune-in that are delivered at scale, it’s pretty inspiring to think about the evolution of our approach yet to come in an increasingly nimble and responsive environment.

What big learning moments have you experienced during your career?

"It’s important to be reflective, authentic and empathetic."

A big learning moment for me was understanding and embracing the difference between working hard and working in the right way. It’s very easy to focus on “the work” and working hard, but being the best colleague, collaborator and leader requires a much more emotionally intelligent approach.  It’s okay to be vulnerable or wrong.  It’s important to be reflective, authentic and empathetic.  And it is mission critical to listen.  As we work in increasingly broader teams and agencies filled with amazingly talented specialists, bridging the gap between all the disparate personalities and styles has never been more important.

How do you pick and develop the talent on your team?  

There is a long list of considerations when evaluating potential new talent, but I’m typically focused on a few key things beyond the basic skill set: passion and enthusiasm, a strong point of view, ability to play well with others, and diversity of perspective and voice. A couple of those are pretty self-explanatory, but two elements really stand out to me. As our business continues to change along with the breadth of programming we market, it’s never been more important for our team to reflect the diversity of our audience. And no matter how brilliant you are, if you can’t function as part of a team and be a good colleague, it’s not going to be a good fit.

Developing talent is equally critical. While each person brings their own unique skills, a few key tenets I apply to developing talent are setting them up for success, granting them autonomy and ownership of their work, and providing consistent feedback and a sense of appreciation. Whether being put on the right assignment or being provided with the right collaborators, tools and training, we must set up our team for success.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

"The best advice I’ve ever received is to “listen first"...

The best advice I’ve ever received is to “listen first,” and it’s now more applicable than ever. In the rush to make our point or finalize that thought, we’re often missing out on the greater win that truly listening could have provided. Whether a much clearer understanding or the path to build a relationship better, it has the ability to have a real impact on our business – and taking a shot in the dark, could probably have an impact outside of work too.

Bonus Questions

If you weren’t in marketing, what would you be doing? 

Playing for the Philadelphia 76ers. Or more likely working in education.

What book would you most recommend to fellow marketers?

Contagious by Jonah Berger