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How ESPN made that awesome State Farm ad for the Michael Jordan doc ‘The Last Dance’

It’s likely the best pandemic-free ad of the COVIDvertising era—and one of ESPN’s best too—thanks to ‘SportsCenter’ anchor Kenny Mayne’s eerily correct predictions from the 1990s.

How ESPN made that awesome State Farm ad for the Michael Jordan doc ‘The Last Dance’

It just makes perfect sense. Here you are on Sunday night watching ESPN’s new 10-part documentary series on the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls and up pops some vintage 90s-era SportsCenter footage from that very era. Anchor Kenny Mayne starts off normally enough, but then quickly veers off into all-knowing, Nostradamus territory.

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As Mayne ends the spot, it proves to be a commercial for State Farm, and its creative revisionist history got an immediate reaction across social media.

Of course, the brand couldn’t have picked a better time to post maybe the first great non-COVIDvertising ad since the pandemic began. The first two episodes that aired on ESPN Sunday also attracted an average of 6.1 million viewers, making it one of the most-watched pieces of original content ever for the network.

That massive audience is understandable, given the dearth of any decent sports on TV, and since live sports began halting in the second week of March, fans had been calling for the early release of the long-awaited docuseries, originally scheduled for a June debut. Those fans rejoiced on March 31, when ESPN made those wishes come true, officially moving up the premiere to April 19.

Within the network, plans and timelines had already been shifted for a few weeks, and the race was on to make a new ad with not only a schedule now cut short by months, but also with the added bonus of creating the production with the limitations of everyone sheltering in place.

“The original conceit was staging Kenny Mayne in the 90s, [doing] man-on-the-street interviews with Bulls fans,” says vice-president of ESPN CreativeWorks Carrie Brzezinski-Hsu. “So when everything shut down, and there was discussion of the doc airing moving up to April, we had to get a bit more clever with what we were going to produce.”

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State Farm was one of just a few exclusive advertisers for the series, along with Facebook and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Working with the brand, along with its agencies Optimum Sports and Translation, Brzezinski-Hsu and her CreativeWorks team talked about how much State Farm wanted to make it happen. On the one hand, they could make it more in line with their current, broader advertising campaign, with the discussion revolving around how the spot could feel like something they’ve already done and the value of that continuity.

On the other hand, how much did State Farm want it to match the style and subject of the series—balancing on the line of branded content—and potentially rewarding the fans with something fun? For CreativeWorks, this was the preferred option. “To their credit, along with Optimum and Translation, once we all saw the script, it was like, ‘Yes, this makes sense,'” says Brzezinski-Hsu.

Ideas about how best to make the ad were tossed around the week of March 16. Since the doc features plenty of vintage footage of SportsCenter and ESPN reporting, the idea of playing with archival footage quickly gained traction.

“To make it work we had to find ESPN anchors who are still with us today, so it would give the audience pause for a second,” says Brzezinski-Hsu. “As you can see, we found a great clip of Kenny and Linda Cohn. Then we started thinking about how to make sure it’s natural and fun for State Farm. That logo in the ad is a vintage logo that they ran on ESPN in the 90s. It’s not actually in that specific SportsCenter clip, but we put it in there.”

From there, all that was left was to get Mayne to shoot his lines from home. “We had a few recent shots of his face from his last broadcasts in-studio before the shutdown, but thank goodness for his 20-year-old daughter, who was home from college and could tell him how to set up his phone for 4K and get the footage over to us,” says Brzezinski-Hsu.

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In the end, everyone was happy with the result, with an extra boost of pride for what they pulled off under unique circumstances. But the real payoff was seeing it air and the fan reaction.

“The biggest surprise was watching it play out. I don’t think we could’ve planned for how it felt so right as it aired during the doc, and saw the immediate response on social media, how nicely connected it all felt,” says Brzezinski-Hsu. “This will now be a benchmark for us around contextually relevant creative.”

Since The Last Dance is airing over the next three weeks, there are discussions happening right now around a potential follow-up. No doubt that Zoom-call debate is pretty lit.

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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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