Not marketing TV, marketing HBO

Oct 28, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Let’s start with the tagline. In the history of cable TV, two memorable taglines stand out. One is, “I Want My MTV.” The other is, “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”
The latter, which came from HBO’s ad agency BBDO Worldwide, is exactly what the doctor ordered. The doctor in this case is Eric Kessler, HBO’s marketing meister.
Mr. Kessler has been with HBO since 1986 and has been executive VP of marketing since 1995. His responsibilities include not only promoting the brand but also creating and overseeing its advertising, on-air promos and its subscriber marketing.
Throughout his tenure, Mr. Kessler said, his overall goal has remained the same: “to build the subscriber base.” That effort began with brand-building and now is focused on individual, high-profile, must-see HBO series.
Marketing the brand and marketing the shows are reciprocal and mutually beneficial. “It all sort of works together,” he said. When advertising on radio or elsewhere “we are generally promoting individual shows. But the programming that we are promoting really helps to define the HBO brand, so it’s promoting the brand itself.”
Simply put, “You need programming that reinforces the basic brand position, which is articulated in the phrase, `It’s not TV, it’s HBO,”’ Mr. Kessler said.
The first product of the “It’s not TV” campaign was a hilarious TV spot in which various primates in Tanzania’s Gombe Preserve were seen cavorting in the wild while reciting famous lines from “The Godfather,” “Network,” “Forrest Gump,” “Star Wars,” “Animal House,” “Rocky” and other movies. Then as night falls, Dr. Jane Goodall, a famous primatologist (identified in the spot as an HBO subscriber), is seen writing in her journal, while she waits for “Braveheart” to begin, about her puzzlement at the apes’ recent peculiar behavior. The message was clear and clever, and the spot, called “Chimps,” in 1997 won the first Emmy award ever given to a commercial.
Setting HBO apart
“At the time the goal was to set ourselves apart from the rest of television,” Mr. Kessler recalls, “to let consumers know … why every single month when you get your cable bill you’re going to want to keep subscribing to HBO.”
Listening to the critical chorus of hoorays and watching those golden-winged statuettes accumulate on HBO’s mantel, it might seem that Mr. Kessler spends much of his time courting the critics and Emmy voters. Not so, he said. “Our money is really targeted at the consumer. When these shows become cultural phenomena, that’s something we can’t control. That just happens and it reflects the quality of the show.”
HBO as cultural phenomenon may have reached its apogee last month when the hotly anticipated return of “The Sopranos” whacked the broadcast competition, drawing an estimated 13.4 million viewers. That new Sunday night episode, the first in 16 months, beat all the broadcast competition in the time period as well as in that night’s prime time, and became the single-most-watched program in the pay-cable network’s history. (The previous HBO ratings champ was a 1989 boxing match that drew about 11.3 million viewers.)
The night was a triumph for HBO and Mr. Kessler. But Mr. Kessler, who heads the approximately 150-person department that won Advertising Age’s Cable Marketer of the Year award in 2000, declines to market himself at all. Instead he assumes an attitude of total modesty when asked about his own contributions to HBO’s present and to its greatly envied dominance in Hollywood’s creative community and as a critical darling-contributions that have made the network TV Topic One around the Monday morning office water cooler.
Job made easy
The Emmy voters, the TV critics, his own exceptional marketing team and, most of all, that swelling band of monthly subscribers have made his job easy, he maintains.
Emmy accolades are gratifying because, “This is a third party, as opposed to HBO, saying our programming is terrific,” Mr. Kessler said.
But whether it’s Emmy awards or the almost jaw-droppingly glowing critics’ reviews, such as the June 1999 observation by Stephen Holden of The New York Times that “The Sopranos” “may just be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century,” for Mr. Kessler, “Ultimately … the most important people are the people who are voting with their pocketbook every month.”
That consumer-centric approach results in more than 150 million direct mail pieces per year to nonsubscribers and more than 10 million telemarketing calls per year, plus direct-response television and programs at the grass-roots affiliate level to get people to call up and subscribe by offering them, say, a month of free HBO or a discount on installation, Mr. Kessler said.
Meanwhile, the critical analyses and pop-cultural conversations about HBO shows can reach a near Talmudic intensity, as in the close analysis given to the recent striking Annie Liebowitz photograph of “The Sopranos” cast, a tableau that turned up on billboards before the start of the new season and occasioned a level of debate probably not seen since the fervent Paul-is-dead discussions that surrounded the release of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album. “Critics are no different from the consumers,” Mr. Kessler said. “Sometimes there’s a level of analysis there that’s a little surprising given that it’s a television show, but there is a lot in the television show.”
Every Monday morning, Mr. Kessler notes, the latest “Sopranos” episode is a subject of talk radio. “[When] people are looking for clues and meaning, they make [my job] easier,” he said.
And what is Mr. Kessler proudest of in his tenure so far? “That people who have worked with us, whether it be Tom Hanks, David Chase, Sarah Jessica Parker, Robin Williams, Mike Nichols or other Hollywood talent, are not only pleased with the advertising and promotional campaigns but also feel the entire marketing process was a collaborative one. They appreciate that their project was handled in a creative and professional manner and they want to work with HBO again.”