As Super Bowl ads go, it’s a pretty damn good one. Microsoft’s 2014 big game ad opens on Steve Gleason, the former NFLer living with ALS, controlling his computer with his eyes. It asks, “What is technology?” while showing all the ways technology makes lives better, from high-tech prosthetics to space exploration, medical advancements, and more. It was one of the brand’s best-rated ads ever, and it was created by the producer of Wedding Crashers, Van Wilder, and CHiPS. Andrew Panay and his creative company Blk-Ops have worked on every major Microsoft commercial ever since.
The collaboration is no big secret, but neither the tech company nor Panay and his team have talked publicly about how this relationship came about, and why Microsoft decided to enlist Hollywood producers to work alongside its more traditional ad agency partners. Now, five years after they first met, the brand and producer share the story of their unique partnership with Fast Company.
Back in 2012, Microsoft was getting ready to launch the Surface tablet/laptop. This was to be one of the brand’s biggest product launches and it needed to have a marketing campaign that appropriately marked the new hardware’s importance.
Even though Microsoft had made positive strides in its advertising, both in terms of quality of work and the way it worked with its ad agency at the time, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of brand, advertising, and research, Kathleen Hall, thought a launch this significant required a nontraditional approach. While discussing ideas, Microsoft’s corporate vice-president for Surface computing, Panos Panay, suggested Hall talk to his brother Andrew for suggestions on whom to chat with in Hollywood about brand collaboration. After meeting, Hall decided that Microsoft should team up with Andrew Panay himself.
“I go to all the ad conferences and awards shows, and for all the talk about data and boosting the numbers, I’ll take great creative over the ability to measure down to the household level every time,” says Hall, using an industry expression for an advertiser’s ability to target specific customers. “Beyond that, it’s all about personalities. How does creativity happen? It generally happens when there is a high degree of trust and respect for each other’s capabilities. And that happened pretty much off the bat with us.”
Hall says Panay is one of those people who can articulate and absorb strategy quickly, and then bridge that with creativity just as speedily. “Movies are a business. If you’re producing movies, you’re doing it to make money, so there was a lot of commonality between us,” she says. “There are obviously some differences, just in the details of how each works and the definition of terms and roles, but the underlying foundations were very similar. Launching a movie is like launching a product. So we built on those similarities.”
Panay says he initially just wanted to help the brand in any way he could. “I put together a team of filmmakers who I thought were outside thinkers, and each one had a very unique perspective–very quirky, fun, people,” Panay says. “I thought it would be a fun team to connect with this executive group. The fact it took on a life of its own wasn’t expected or planned. It just came out of the connection we had with Kathleen and Microsoft after we had met a few times.”
Now under the name Blk-Ops, Panay’s team includes head of creative Brian Klugman, head of production Nate Tuck, and creative Ahmet Zappa (yep, Frank Zappa’s son). “We have this incredibly collaborative partnership with them, and we work together as a team to get at what the company wants to say, and how it wants to express itself,” Panay says. “Over the years, that’s just gotten closer.”
Klugman says their creative process for Microsoft is very similar to how they work in film. “What we do in film, we look for a theme to explore, so it’s the same with a brand,” says Klugman. “You look to find or identify the soul of that company, then work to tell the story around that.”
Hall says that Blk-Ops does work with Microsoft’s agency partner m:united//McCann, and that all the creative efforts are collaborative–something she was aiming for from the beginning, when she saw the traditional model as an often painful, long process. “By contrast, the Hollywood creative process is more about collective iteration, where you sit in a room and throw ideas out, you storyboard live. It’s just more human,” Hall says. “The energy with [Blk-Ops] was their lack of knowledge of how brands are supposed to work and bypassing it. There are agencies that are figuring that out, but there is always a tension between the process of making ads and the genius of making ads.”
Hall still sees that 2014 Super Bowl ad as the one that perfectly illustrates how Microsoft and Blk-Ops work together.
“That spot, for me, was a turning point for the company,” she says. “It planted a flag to declare who we are, what we stand for. We weren’t being cautious, we were being bold. And that came from the recommendation from the Blk-Ops team to root ourselves in reality. We’re about people, the lives they lead, and the amazing things they can do with our products. That’s an insight and creative vision that drove the execution.”
If the tech company had assigned the spot to an agency, Hall says the typical process would’ve gone through multiple concepts and lots of back and forth. “These guys walked in with a concept rip,” she says. “They said they had an idea and, essentially, the final spot is about 80% what it was when they showed us their concept rip–which no agency would ever do. And a lot of it is real, found footage, internet footage.” (While other factors obviously play their part–competition, lack of new products–Microsoft could use another Surface boost from Blk-Ops soon: The brand reported in April that Surface sales had fallen 26%.)
The partnership has grown over the years because Hall says the results demand it. “If the data we were seeing showed this wasn’t beneficial to the brand, this relationship would not have continued,” she says. “But by every indication, this is working. We don’t just look at awareness and recognition, it’s purchase intent. This is creative that drives business results.”
As far as brand communications go, Hall says the biggest lesson here is for clients not to be tied to any particular model for creative. “When it comes to creativity, you should feel free to recreate the how, not just the what. The process, not just the work,” she says. “Clients need to inspire the creative process, not just demand it.”