NBC Olympics’ CMO on the Herculean Task of Marketing the Games

And his network’s promotional blitz

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As one of the men behind NBC's storied '90s slogan "Must See TV," John Miller knows what it takes to win over an audience. And for the past dozen Olympics, first as CMO of the NBC Sports Group and then last year as chief marketer of NBC Olympics, Miller's marketing and promotional efforts across the network's vast television and digital portfolio have made coverage of the games top of mind. Promoting the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro was a yearlong effort, which kicked off last July with 60-second spots across NBCU's 18 networks, online and social media. The campaign will go full throttle in the weeks before the opening ceremony.

For Miller, marketing the Olympics has been a gargantuan and exhilarating task—and an achievement that he will be recognized for at the upcoming Clio Sports Awards. Miller, a Clio Sports juror for the past two years, will be honored with the Stuart Scott Lifetime Achievement Award, which will be given during the 2016 Clio Sports ceremony in New York on July 7.

Adweek: You were involved in the first two Clio Sports Awards and chaired the jury last year. What has that experience been like for you?

John Miller: It has been an opportunity for me to see some very good work. While I give my time to the Clios to be a judge, quite honestly it's a class unto itself about trends that are happening, what's working, what's effective, and you're forced to analyze why. This has been a great experience.

From a marketing perspective, what can we expect to see for this year's Olympics that we haven't seen from NBC before?

There are two significant changes this Olympics from a marketing perspective. One is the digital/social component, which has grown exponentially compared to the last Summer Games, which was London. Another change is on the entertainment side. The number of musicians who have come to us with the idea of collaborating in some way around Olympic marketing is impressive. Initially, it was the winner of The Voice, Jordan Smith. Now, Alicia Keys, will.i.am, Fifth Harmony, The Band Perry have all hopped onboard, and there are a couple of other acts who we are still talking to. Sometimes you have to chase these entertainers, but in this particular instance, many came to us. I also think a lot of the interest has to do with the way they launch and the changing status of media consumption these days. These musicians know that if we put their music on the air, it's going to get a significant amount of exposure.

The elephant in the room is the Zika virus and its potential influence on marketing for Rio. How is NBC preparing its employees, and will this impact the amount of on-site marketing that goes on?

The company has been very proactive when it comes to Zika. Anyone who has to go down to Rio has to take a rather elaborate online tutorial, not only regarding Zika, but being in Brazil and staying safe in general. Honestly, anyone who feels that they don't want to go because they're thinking of having a family, or are pregnant, can opt out. Only a few have, with [Today anchor] Savannah Guthrie being the most notable case. But what we also look at on an ongoing basis is the overall awareness of the Olympics, as well as the intent to view. So far, the awareness is higher at this stage than it was for either previous Summer Olympics in London and Beijing. I give a significant amount of credit for that to marketing. On the other hand, I do think that conversations about various things that are happening in Brazil, whether it's Zika or water or political issues, have added to the awareness. The question of intent to view is a vital one. The awareness is strong, but will the issues in Brazil hurt people's desire to actually watch the games? I have found that the answer to that is no. We are finding that the intent to view is currently on par with London and Beijing.

What has it been like going from being CMO for the entire NBC Sports Group to now focusing on one massive property?

This is part of a three- to four-year wind down that sort of eliminates some of the things that I have been doing. That said, the Olympics is a massive undertaking in itself. We broadcast on 11 different channels, and we stream everything live between broadcast and cable. Altogether, we'll have something like 6,500 hours of Olympics coverage. It's a massive amount of programming. It's white hot for a period of 17 days or so, and then awareness and interest cools down quickly. It's our job to remind people of the charms of the Olympics, what they saw before and what they liked about it, and then the human interest stories that we are going to highlight. Aside from Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Kerri Walsh and some of the basketball players, we aren't dealing with household names. As a result, highlighting the human interest aspect of the Olympics is essential.

What are some of the highlights of your 34 years at NBC?

First, let's go with the Olympics. This is my 12th. Any Olympics is a highlight. I was also associated with two of the greatest eras of programming at NBC. In the mid-'80s, we had The Cosby Show, Cheers, Family Ties and Hill Street Blues. I launched marketing campaigns for a number of those shows. I was also involved with the launch of Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends, E.R. and Mad About You in the early '90s. I was part of the group that coined "Must See TV." Recently, it was named one of the top 11 campaigns of all time, which included not just television program campaigns, but also the great McDonald's, Volkswagen and Pepsi campaigns. To have "Must See TV" be considered one of the best campaigns of all time, and for me to be an integral part of that, was quite an honor. There were many people who worked with me during that time and who did some extraordinary work to make it happen. Obviously the shows were great, but I like to think that the marketing helped the success just a little bit.

What are some of your favorite Summer Olympics competitions?

I like almost all of them, although maybe more the ones where the U.S. has a competitive team. There are some competitions where they aren't competitive, but still interesting to watch. Team handball is one. The sports on the NBC broadcast network, which is where the significant amount of the revenue is created, are swimming, gymnastics, track and field, diving, and beach volleyball. All of those are interesting and exciting to watch. In this particular year, our women's gymnastics team is going to be outstanding, and that will be very exciting for the American public.

This story first appeared in the June 27, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@ajkatztv aj.katz@adweek.com A.J. Katz is the senior editor of Adweek's TVNewser.