Inside HotJobs.com's Bumpy Ride to the Super Bowl
Richard Johnson, the president and CEO of HotJobs, can breathe a sigh of relief. On Jan. 6, shooting wrapped on his company's first non-Internet buy, a TV commercial to air on the Super Bowl.
Directed by British film director Trevor Robinson, the action opens on a security guard clad in a shabby uniform who works in a rundown building. His unpolished name tag reads "Dick." The guard is daydreaming about glamour jobs when he discovers, thanks to HotJobs.com, he's got a new gig, his surroundings are suddenly nicer, his uniform is spiffier and his new name tag reads "Richard."
This is the ad viewers will see when Super Bowl XXXIII airs Jan. 31. This is not, however, the first or even second idea that online company HotJobs approved from its initial agency, Boston-based Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, or its second agency, McCann-Erickson Worldwide in Troy, Mich.
But how McCann came to create this 30-second spot, titled "Security Guard," is a story in itself.
In fact, HotJobs' effort to fill a 30-second time slot on the Super Bowl would result in a rejected spot, an agency resignation and the departure of HotJob's marketing director.
The Sturm und Drang began in early November, when HotJobs hired Hill, Holliday, whose commercial was subsequently rejected by Fox Sports. Days later, Hill, Holliday and HotJobs noisily parted company. Agency executives felt betrayed that the client had gone behind their backs to find new ideas.
In addition, Peter Connors, the client's 25-year-old marketing director--who was responsible for bringing Hill, Holliday and HotJobs together--left.
With just eight weeks to go until kickoff, Johnson and his team did not have a commercial--or an agency. All HotJobs had was an empty time slot worth $1.6 million.
Why the fallout?
When the Hill, Holliday team--agency president Fred Bertino, management supervisor Fred Criniti and creative directors Jamie Mambro and Ernie Schenck [who has since left the shop to return to freelance writing]--arrived at HotJob's Manhattan office Nov. 20 armed with six ideas, only one spot, titled "Elephant Man," dramatizing the perils of a dead-end job, was considered a standout.
The commercial opened on an elephant house at the zoo where a man is sweeping, oblivious that an elephant is backing up toward him. Suddenly, the elephant sits on him. There's a terrible sucking sound. The camera cuts to a reaction shot and close-up of the elephant's eye. The elephant gets up. The broom falls to the floor. There is no sign of the man. The elephant trundles off, a slight irregularity in his gait. A voiceover concludes: "Still stuck in the same old job? HotJobs.com. All the hottest jobs at all the hottest companies."
Johnson, who had never seen a storyboard, loved the elephant idea. "It's great theater," he remarked after the presentation, but noted, "We focus on the skilled professional. We have to announce the category." Connors disagreed: "If we try to do too much, we'll muddy the whole thing."
On Nov. 23, Johnson told Hill, Holliday to proceed. Schenck and Mambro began calling directors to gauge interest and availability and a storyboard was sent to Fox's department of standards and practices for clearance, which rejected the spot on Dec. 2. Criniti was surprised and concerned, but initially confident that Hill, Holliday would strike a compromise with Fox. He was wrong.
"A man being sucked into the anus of an elephant is not in good taste," a network representative told Adweek. Johnson, clearly taken aback, wondered whether he should call Fox. The turndown "makes us want the commercial even more," he said.
Rather than call Fox, Johnson talked to reporters and his marketing director and publicist doubled as spin doctors. Was there a larger issue of network censorship? Was Fox cowing to larger advertisers irked that smaller, first-time advertisers, such as HotJobs and Autobytel before it, would steal some of their thunder?
A representative from Fox Sports denounced such assertions as a ploy by HotJobs to maximize exposure.
By early December, Hill, Holliday executives hoped Fox would reconsider, but once the ad's concept had been reported in the media, Johnson decided to kill it. This High Noon scenario happened in 14 days.
"Our initial thought was that we could pressure Fox with a David versus Goliath story. We've already risked disclosing our message to competing advertisers, so as far as I'm concerned, the elephant is dead," Johnson said at the time.
Now Hill, Holliday had its own ax to grind. "Richard [Johnson] has been totally inaccessible, and Fox is not budging," says Schenck. "My ideas are being thwarted. They want to develop the spot. They think we aren't listening to them. We knocked them out of their socks with the elephant. Now they are panicking and trying to generate ideas from others."
"They gave up on us," Mambro echoes.
Schenck defends their original spot, blasting Fox. "This is the network that is clearly the edgiest. They broadcast The Simpsons. We figured "Elephant Man" was up their alley." Criniti, however, remains focused on the main point: "We're appreciative we were even considered for this project, but we're not going to participate from here." [Hill, Holliday walked away from the business Dec. 4.]
Told by an Adweek reporter that Hill, Holliday plans to walk away, Johnson is caught off-guard. Feeling that "emotions are running high," Johnson says he wants the weekend to think. Emotions seem to be running high for Connors, too. The young, ambitious, marketing director, bothered by how Johnson handled the Hill, Holliday relationship, leaves.
Hill, Holliday chairman Jack Connor tried diplomacy, trying to persuade Johnson to let the agency finish the job.
Later, Johnson admits, "Connors was so good I actually told him to give me 10 minutes to think about it. He almost had me talked into it. Ultimately, though, it was too late."
Like Hill, Holliday, McCann is owned by Interpublic. But unlike Hill, Holliday or McCann headquarters in New York, the Troy, Mich., office had no experience creating ads for the Super Bowl.
John Wray, public relations director at the Troy office, says the shop had hired Kevin Moehlenkamp from BBDO in New York as executive creative director after the loss of GMC Trucks. In effect, a Super Bowl assignment would be a boon for the Troy office as well as HotJobs.
Moehlenkamp and Johnson, had met commuting into Manhattan, so when Johnson called seeking advice, his friend was happy to give it--much to Hill, Holliday's dismay.
The reasons Hill, Holliday threw in the towel are multifaceted: Clearly, the agency was displeased with the rejection by Fox, and coupled with the fact that Johnson had begun soliciting ideas from other shops, the agency felt betrayed.
Johnson even posted a plea on his Web site's homepage asking for ad ideas--and received 100 suggestions in a day.
Johnson says he was appealing for help wherever he could get it, including friends at other agencies. Johnson admits he was an advertising neophyte and unaware that a network could easily shoot down an idea. And with the clock running, he didn't have much wiggle room.
It's also possible Johnson wasn't fully sold on Hill, Holliday's ability to deliver more "breakthrough" advertising and sought inspiration elsewhere.
By mid-December, McCann had prepared a total of six ideas--four on storyboards and two scripted--including one idea posed by Johnson, which seemed promising.
That spot revolved around a man looking at a computer screen. His eyes grow bigger as he reacts to what he sees. The impression is that he must be looking at pornography. In fact, he is looking at job postings at HotJobs.com.
To defray its costs, HotJobs approached some of its largest clients and asked if they would pay to be named in the spot. Once again, Johnson encountered unexpected backlash.
At least five companies saw red. They turned down HotJobs' overture on the basis that the spot linked the Internet to pornography. The concept was quickly killed, replaced by "Security Guard." By early January, shooting was completed, a full four days ahead of schedule.
While Peter Connors is busy fielding job interviews, Johnson plans to watch the main event with friends and colleagues at a HotJobs-sponsored Super Bowl party, hopeful that the months of frustration will pay off.
One of the advertising objectives is to increase the number of hits on the site from 2 million to 10 million a day and, with luck, draw investors or even a potential buyer to HotJobs.
Come game time, HotJobs will be fighting for a share of the estimated 130 million Super Bowl viewers. Its largest rival, Monster Board, will air two spots. Will these upstart Internet companies effectively compete for high-profile visibility with such regulars as Pepsi and Budweiser? That's for the public to decide.
For Johnson, the journey to the Super Bowl was a memorable experience. Would he do it again? "In a heartbeat."