Media Plan of the Year: Spending Between $1 Million and $10 Million – MPG USA

Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers is a show that defies definition. Created by Man Show hosts Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla, the series uses actual prank phone calls as the basis for a fictional town inhabited solely by puppets. Prior to its launch last June, building viewer awareness of the series was the cable net’s first challenge. With the show now having completed its second season (and with 20 more episodes set to air beginning in September), Comedy Central has met that challenge head-on, due in large part to MPG USA’s innovative media campaign, which takes Mediaweek’s award this year for Best Media Plan between $1 million and $10 million.

For MPG, the challenge was getting across to potential viewers what the show was about. And because Comedy Central’s target audience is young, active and largely male, MPG staffers knew they’d have to think outside the box. “It’s not as simple as placing a level of TRP [total rating points] in a given daypart mix and hoping the reach and frequency that’s realized is sufficient to drive tune-in,” says Tom Stolfi, senior vp/group account director of MPG. “We had to integrate the client’s message into the lifestyle of a select consumer.”

Stolfi adds that the agency reached potential viewers through a combination of traditional and nontraditional methods. “The general staples of the campaign were radio, print and cross-channel promotion that delivered the audience, but some other strategies created the necessary buzz and excitement to send the message home,” he explains.

The plan’s most creative components included an online marketing campaign, the distribution of phone cards, a guerrilla marketing campaign and even talking bathroom billboards.

But clearly, the plan’s most innovative element was its online marketing campaign. With the help of Boston-based MPG Media Contacts, the interactive network within MPG, a strategy was devised that would enable online users to send crank phone calls to their friends. To achieve its goals, MPG Contacts enlisted the Washington state-based solutions provider eStara to re-engineer the traditional functionality of online ads.

Whereas most banner and column ads enable users to click through to a new destination page, the Crank Yankers ad spawned a pop-up window through which the user could enter information about himself and a friend to whom a crank call —and tune-in message—would be sent.

With recipients of those crank calls forwarding new ones to other friends, the campaign’s viral component “enabled us to gain incremental reach within the existing media buy,” says Ryan Griffin, media planner at MPG Contacts. “By enabling us to reach people we might not have, it gave the campaign additional legs.”

The strategy also “allowed the crank call sender to become a personal advocate for the show,” says Nathan Woodman, account director for MPG Contacts.

In choosing sites on which to place Crank Yankers ads, Griffin says the team looked to where Comedy Central’s target 18-34 demographic might go on the Web. “What we tried to do is put ourselves in the behavioral mindset of the consumer, to try to figure out what would engage them online,” he says. Because the online movie site Atom Films was “predisposed to downloading,” Griffin says, it was a good match—as was, which, in addition to being a humor site, “was very viral in nature, and great for building buzz.” The third major destination was Yahoo’s Fantasy Sports site, because it attracts young males.

Woodman and Griffin say approximately 350,000 calls were sent, which, combined with the plan’s viral component, reached an estimated 750,000 potential viewers. Don Epperson, president of MPG Contacts, says the strategy’s success can be attributed to the fact that “the media became the message.”

In addition to its online campaign, about 300,000 phone cards were distributed to potential viewers via street teams and inserts in Entertainment Weekly that ran in New York and Los Angeles, according to MPG account director Jake Phillips. Before phone card users were connected to their calls, they received reminders to watch the program.

Phillips says two customized Yankerville phone company trucks—dubbed “Yankermobiles”—also were built, featuring life-size puppets of the show’s characters. The trucks traveled to three major cities on each coast: New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

In addition, talking billboards were placed in men’s rooms at bars, clubs and restaurants. Using motion-activation technology, computer chips would play audio clips from the show for passersby. “If we were advertising Maalox, these are not things you would normally see,” Stolfi says. “But you have to tailor the message to the attention span of the consumer.”

The strategy aimed to reach the campaign’s target audience, sure, but also was the result of a sense of adventure among executives at Comedy Central, Phillips points out. “This plan wouldn’t have been possible without a client who was willing to take a risk,” he says. “That’s what the Comedy Central brand is all about, which gives us the flexibility to come to them with new ideas, and also enables them to take a leap of faith.”

As risk-taking as Comedy Central might be, its executives believe the credit for the Crank Yankers campaign resides firmly with MPG’s staff. “The people on our account love and watch and support Comedy Central, and sometimes they know more about the shows than we do,” says Cathy Tankosic, senior vp/marketing for the cable net. “They are the ultimate consumers, and they bring a tremendous passion to their work.”

Stolfi agrees that the award for Best Media Plan belongs to Comedy Central as much as MPG. “They understand who their consumer is—and what it takes to effectively get to that consumer.”

A.J. Frutkin is a senior editor for Mediaweek.