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These creative directors treat every project like it's the Super Bowl—here's why you should, too

Heinz's "Wiener Stampede" commercial aired in the third quarter of the Super Bowl on Sunday, February 7, 2016, on CBS.
Business Wire

The 2019 Super Bowl was a first for Ricardo Casal and Juan Javier Peña Plaza. They led the creative teams behind commercials for three major clients in one year: Budweiser, Burger King and Devour, the Kraft-Heinz frozen meal brand.

Not bad for a 46-person independent agency.

Casal and Peña Plaza, who are now partners and executive creative directors at boutique ad agency Gut, tell CNBC Make It that they've worked on a combined five Super Bowl spots in the past five years, but the hat trick of 2019 was a unique experience.

Their approach to their work that year wasn't out of the ordinary, however.

"Honestly, we have a mindset where for us, every brief should be treated like a Super Bowl brief," Casal says, referring to the research required to conceptualize and pitch a marketing idea to a client. "If you ask me to do a campaign to launch a product or a Super Bowl spot, it's the same amount of pressure."

Fortunately for the small agency, deadlines for each of their clients were well spaced out.

Work for Budweiser began nine months ahead of Super Bowl Sunday, which is a typical time frame for a major company to create a game day ad. The commercial, which was developed through November and filmed in December, focuses on Budweiser's commitment to renewable wind energy and shows a dog enjoying a wagon ride, being pulled by the company's famous Clydesdale horses.

Casal and Peña Plaza had about six months to work on the Devour "Foodporn" mockumentary-style commercial.

The Burger King ad, which featured 45 seconds of Andy Warhol eating a Burger King Whopper burger, used existing footage from the pop artist and came together much closer to deadline.

Casal and Peña Plaza may treat every project like it's the Super Bowl, but ads for the biggest television event of the year come with significantly higher stakes.

The biggest companies in the world spent $5.25 million for every 30-second spot during the Super Bowl last year — this year, that price tag climbed to $5.6 million. Creatives behind these commercials have the high-pressure task of capturing the attention of more than 100 million viewers with every ad.

Beyond dollar figures, several jobs are on the line if an ad doesn't resonate the way a brand wants it to.

Peña Plaza says this pressure drives him to take bigger risks. He says a general winning Super Bowl formula may involve a joke with wide audience appeal, or a classic use of emotional storytelling, but he prefers to bring a fresh take to the experience.

"Every time, you learn a lot," he says. "You think you'll know how people will react, but it's always a bit unexpected."

The pair acknowledge that last year's Burger King ad, the brand's return after 13 years without a Super Bowl commercial, was a huge risk for their teams. It was rated poorly in the USA Today Ad Meter, a consumer poll where viewers vote in real-time on the success (or failure) of aired Super Bowl commercials. The poll has since become an industry standard to measure the performance of these multi-million dollar projects, and many marketers covet ending up in the top five or top 10 spots.

However, "in the USA Today Ad Meter, [the Andy Warhol commercial] was the worst-voted spot of the year. And we're super proud of that," Casal says. He explains that positive viewer sentiment wasn't necessarily Burger King's goal with the ad. Instead, the objective was to spark conversation.

AdAge reports that Burger King's brand attributes improved following the commercial's airing, with increased numbers in positive sentiment, purchase consideration and media impressions. Google Trends data also showed searches for "Andy Warhol" soared that night.

"We knew not everyone would recognize Andy — it was surprising how many people didn't," Peña Plaza adds. "But that generated a lot of discussion. It was a big bet, but it paid off."

"The learning was, when everyone goes north, you go south," he continues. "We had a clear goal of generating conversation around the brand, and it helped raise brand awareness, which is what we were going for."

For their part, Casal and Peña Plaza say they still have their sights set on creating a commercial that gets to the top of the Ad Meter poll in the future. Their previous work with Heinz in 2016 called "Wiener Stampede" reached No. 2 on the charts that year. The feel-good 60-second spot shows a group of dachshunds, costumed as hot dogs, running toward humans dressed as life-sized Heinz condiments.

Until then, they say the best way to continue improving and working toward that No. 1 spot is to hold every project to the same Super Bowl standards. The pair credits leading teams without a lot of hierarchy and "rolling up your sleeves to do the work side-by-side," as Peña Plaza puts it, as fundamental to the creative process.

"You want to get those big results," Peña Plaza says. "If you treat every brief and project through the year like a Super Bowl brief, and you have the vision of 'let's break the internet' or get the world talking about the brand, and you have that mindset, that would be a win for every marketing agency."

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