Spike Lee started building his brand with a call from Wieden + Kennedy. After wrapping his first feature film, the 1986 cult classic She’s Gotta Have It, Lee remembers how Wieden executives reached out when he was broke and living in a pre-gentrification Fort Greene in Brooklyn, N.Y. “They said they saw my character [Mars Blackmon] and wanted me to direct TV commercials. That came out of nowhere,” Lee said last Thursday. What resulted was a series of iconic ads that helped propel both brand Nike and brand Spike to the forefront of American pop culture.
On stage with Charlie Rose on the last day of the PromaxBDA conference, Lee waxed nostalgic about his career and his brand-building efforts. He was there to receive a lifetime achievement award from the entertainment and marketing organization, and in an hour-long interview with Rose before he received his prize, Lee reflected on his film and commercial-making career, the state of the industry, and how he went about honing his image. “I can’t define [my brand],” he told the audience. “But I knew early on, I’d have to create some kind of persona behind my name because companies weren’t going to spend millions of dollars to promote my films. . . . Do the Right Thing opened same day as Batman . . . We can’t take out full page ads in The New York Times the same day Batman opens . . . so we had to do other stuff.”
Lee says he was relentless in seeking out exposure. By the early '90's, Mars Blackmon was appearing in ads alongside Michael Jordan. But in order to promote his film work, Lee says he “did a ton of press . . . When you’re an independent filmmaker, and your film gets picked up by an art house distributor, they don’t have the money to take out ads. So they get you plane tickets, and you visit every single city.”
Still, Lee says he’s been slow in adapting that press savviness to the Internet age. “Digitally, technologically, I’m a dinosaur,” he said. “I’m lacking in that skill set.” He does use Twitter, although he acknowledged that the website of his 40 Acres and a Mule production company is somewhat primitive. Improving the site, putting more content online, and making it more interactive is “something I need to do. I gotta get on it.”
And for all his brand-building efforts, Lee says he still has difficulty getting movies made. Though he’s been busy directing ad spots, he hasn’t done a feature film in three years, he says, because he can’t get the funding. “Inside Man was my most successful film. We can’t get the sequel made. . . . we tried many times,” he said, having exclaimed earlier, “What in this world doesn’t revolve around money?”