​​The Unofficial Super Bowl Playbook: 12 Things 12 Years in the Game Has Taught Me

Prepare to be unprepared

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It’s Super Bowl season—that time of year when everyone with a beer in their hand and guac in their belly is judge, jury and executioner. The one time the public waits with bated breath for advertising they will not skip. More than 100 million of them will laugh, cry or tell anyone within earshot they could have done better. This is the main stage, the chance to show your baby to the world and find out whether your baby is ugly.

Those who have created for the Big Game know there’s a lot at stake. Not just for your creative reputation, but for the opportunity to raise your brand to incredible heights. It’s not enough to just show up to the game. You have to show up before and long after it’s over. You have to tell a story with many chapters, each leading to the next with greater fluidity. And you have to understand all of the stakeholders involved, from the consumers to the marketing department, to the retailers, to the relatives who tuned in just to follow the vision.

These projects are a blessing and a curse. The rush is incredible. The opportunity is huge. And much like any bold creation, it’s incredibly stressful but always worth it.

At David&Goliath, we’ve been fortunate enough to create Super Bowl spots for 12 of the last 13 years. Our work has been recognized, but the impact of the campaigns always goes beyond the accolades. While there’s no silver bullet for winning the Super Bowl, we have pieced together an unofficial Super Bowl playbook of our own along the way.

It takes a larger-than-life village

This extends from the client to the agency to the production partners: The best way to ensure success at the Super Bowl is with incredible relationships. We’ve been fortunate enough to work with amazing brand partners like Kia, and together we have pushed each other to create the best work possible. We even convinced Christopher Walken to sit in a walk-in closet.

Client trust goes far beyond asking a handful of agencies to send some scripts in a shootout. When you plan long term, it yields sustainable success.

Be ruthless, be open

If you think it’s probably been done, it has. If you think there’s something topical that another brand may reference, they will.

In a typical year, we might review 1,000 different ideas. Everyone at the agency, in every department, has thoughts. So be open to all of them, wherever they come from. This past year, our lead creative team devised cryptic symbols for everyone to put on their work instead of their names so there was no bias in early selection. That’s how the best work wins.

You’re already late

Just as Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow started training the minute his runner-up cigar was finished, it’s time for advertisers to start thinking about next year. What will you do differently? Give yourself time to get to the good stuff: Time for music negotiations. Time for potential IPs to get approval. Time for Mötley Crüe to squeeze you in between world tours. Time for The Today Show to do an early release. Time to overthink, second-guess and, often, come full circle.

It’s not a spot, it’s a movement

To find success, you must own the conversation before, during and after the game.

Last year, we launched the Kia EV6 with a Robo Dog who fell in love with the car and its charging ability. We developed a “Dogmented Reality” experience for people to bring Robo Dog into their homes and teach him tricks days before kickoff. We created a TikTok challenge that picked up an additional 50 million views. And we partnered with Petfinder to help 10,000 real pets find their forever homes. With a holistic approach, you get more eyeballs, more engagement and more earned media. 

Make the product the star, not the celebrity

In recent years, the Super Bowl has become a celebrity arms race. While it can give a campaign a little more attention, you have to make sure the celebs don’t overpower the premise, the message or the product. They are not the idea. They can simply enhance it.

Of course, if you have a strong idea, you don’t necessarily need a celebrity. And if you decide to create your own IP, own it and use it to drive brand affinity—11 months after last year’s Super Bowl campaign, there are people still visiting dealerships to get their Robo Dog window clings. 

Sweat the details in the details

One year, we did a campaign that featured Kia Niro driver Melissa McCarthy trying to be an eco-warrior. Our final edit was version 237. Then in post, we spent days analyzing the size and the sound of the splat she would make when she was hurled by a whale against a Greenpeace boat. Those details pay off when you see that scene played over and over again by Al Roker as he talks about his favorite Super Bowl campaigns.

Be ready for the audibles

No matter how much you plan, something unexpected will appear at the most inopportune time. Your director may suddenly become unavailable. An actor may wait until the moment when the camera is rolling to inform you that they want to change the script. The zebra you booked may suddenly become too shy to come out on set.

You must prepare to be unprepared. How tenacious and how resilient you are in those moments will determine everything. What may seem like the end of the world can be a gift, a chance for you to give the campaign a little more thought to make it even stronger. 

Give purpose to the day

When possible, try to make your campaign part of a bigger effort to create some change in the world. One year, as part of our campaign, we added a real-time Twitter-activated component. For every yard rushed in the game, more money was raised to help three causes that combat youth homelessness.

It’s rare you get this kind of platform to make a difference. Use it. As a bonus, when your work is featured on press segments, these kinds of brand actions will be talked about.

Measure the long-standing impact

Sure, we all like to score high on the Ad Meter and rack up views, but it’s more than a beauty contest. You have to extend your KPIs. Look at the traffic that’s going to your website. Who else can you inspire to amplify?

When we launched the Kia Telluride a few years ago, we shot in West Point, Ga., where the vehicle was built. The community rallied around the campaign, and both the local mayor and the state governor voluntarily tweeted about it. Not long after the Big Game, there was a waiting list for the product. Those are the kind of metrics you can build on.

Lead with heart

You can find success with a variety of tones. You can be funny, you can be thoughtful, but there must be heart in order to make an honest connection. Producer James L. Brooks once said that the reason The Simpsons has endured is not because it’s funny. It’s because at the end of the day, you care about the family in it. The same is true of the Super Bowl. You can’t simply pack jokes into your commercial. It’s the warmth that makes people feel something after the laughs are gone. 

Everyone will chime in

Yes, everyone. They will look at your rough cuts, so make sure they’re tight.

One year, my boss David Angelo flew to an Aerosmith concert and met Steven Tyler backstage to present him the rough cut for the campaign in which he was featured. What he thought would be an intimate review expanded, as Tyler invited his daughter Liv and a handful of backstage models and groupies to aid in the review. Talk about pressure.

The world is your audience

The Super Bowl is populist. Your audience is your retired Aunt Mary from South Carolina. It’s the person who cuts your hair. It’s the President of the United States. It’s the guy who is in 17 fantasy football leagues, and the person who couldn’t tell you the difference between a home run and a touchdown. You must embrace the wider filter. And go for it. 

There’s nothing quite like the excitement of being in the Super Bowl, whether it’s your first or you have battle scars from years past. Your brand can make an impression that will last all year long.

Whatever playbook you follow, enjoy the process. If you are resilient, you’ll have the kind of impact you had hoped for. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get to do it again and again for the next 12 years.