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How One Commercial Led To ESPN’s New Doc Series, Directed By Errol Morris

The network says its collaboration with the director and Wieden + Kennedy New York is one of the team’s biggest expressions of marketing-as-content to date.

How One Commercial Led To ESPN’s New Doc Series, Directed By Errol Morris

Back in 2012, director Errol Morris and agency Wieden + Kennedy created a very cool ad for ESPN as part of its “It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports” campaign. “Team Spirit” was both an ad and a short film, and looked at a group of fans who took their team devotion to a unique length–beyond the grave.

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Next week, the network is unveiling a new two-hour “It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports” special that will feature six new short films directed and personally introduced by Morris that explore the inspiring, dramatic and unexpected in sports fandom. “Most Valuable Whatever, ” delves into the strange world of sports memorabilia, “The Subterranean Stadium” introduces us to a group of New Yorkers who gather to play electronic football, and “Being Mr. Met” looks at the man behind the mascot.

The films are being aired as a TV special, and also being rolled out individually on Grantland, much like 30 For 30 shorts. The films will be a part of “Errol Morris Week” on the site, which will include a comprehensive Q&A with Morris from Alex Pappademas, and a filmography from Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Wesley Morris, all on a customized home page.

It’s an exciting project that should have sports and doc film fans stoked in equal measure. It’s also a direct result of conversations that started between Morris and Wieden + Kennedy New York while shooting “Team Spirit.” ESPN senior vice president of marketing Aaron Taylor says the agency came to him with about 20 ideas, wanting to partner with ESPN Films to tell those stories. “The timing didn’t work out, but we talked more over the next year or so, and the conversations got more active in late 2013 and early 2014,” says Taylor.

According to Dan Silver, senior director of development for ESPN Films, the network’s 30 For 30 shorts–seven-to-14 minute versions of its popular doc series–paved the way for this project to happen. “Ever since we started 30 for 30, Errol was someone we’d always wanted to work with. It really came down to the timing when we finally understood how this content could not only be distributed but consumed in short-form,” says Silver.

The fact the idea was coming, not only from Morris, but an ad agency didn’t matter. “We evaluate any story idea–whether from an athlete, an agency, a filmmaker, a producer, or writer–based on the story,” says Silver. And knowing the kind of work both Errol and Wieden do, we felt comfortable just talking about them as short films. We never viewed them as anything else. Especially since there’s been some separation from the campaign of the same name.”

Taylor says the relationship with Wieden + Kennedy New York is based on creating ideas that touch sports and culture. “We’ve never treated it as just advertising, always advertising as content,” says Taylor. “It’s not unique for them to come with ideas that can live in a longer form because we see all of our work with them as content anyway.”

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Silver says that, along with production company Moxie Pictures, Wieden + Kennedy New York creative Brandon Henderson and producer Temma Shoaf were there throughout the entire process. The agency actually wrote and shot all of Morris’s intros to the films, as well.

“I think it’s the first time an agency idea has received the kind of widespread distribution it’ll get as a TV program, and the stature that accompanies that,” says Taylor. “This is the biggest expression of marketing-as-content that we’ve done with them.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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