Launching Howard Stern
Advertising has a perception of being a sexy business. But the reality isn’t quite as glamorous as it seems. Long hours. Low pay. Tough clients. But, every now and then something incredible happens that reminds us why we got into advertising in the first place.
For me, that happened back in 2005. I was an Account Director working at Euro RSCG (know called Havas) in NY. My main client was GlaxoSmithKline. I was doing the advertising for Advair, a $3+ billion asthma drug. The account was an important one for our agency, generating millions in billings.
But, after spending over a year on the business, I was starting to get bored. Doing advertising for a pharma brand is very interesting in many ways. But, it can also be a grind. All the FDA regulation makes the creative development process extremely slow and challenging. There’s a lot of waiting around for the government to approve our ads before they can air.
So, one day I was sitting in my office when an email came in from our COO Annette Stover with the subject line: “Are there any Howard Stern fans in the office?
I immediately perked up. I grew up outside Philadelphia listening to Howard on 94.1 WYSP. I actually remember when he came into the market and took on John DeBella, the hometown DJ on 93.3 WMMR, who had a morning show called “The Morning Zoo”. Eventually, Howard took over the #1 spot and came to Philly to hold a faux funeral for the “Death of DeBella”. You can read more about it here.
I wouldn’t call myself a Howard super-fan. But, I had been a listener for a long time, read his books and saw his movie Private Parts. So, I replied to Annette saying that I’d be interested in learning more. She asked me to join a meeting later that day where we would get briefed by the marketing director from Sirius Satellite Radio. Our agency had been invited to pitch an ad campaign that would launch Howard’s move from terrestrial radio to Sirius.
Wow! Do an ad campaign for Howard Stern? I had spent my entire advertising career doing ads for laundry detergent, snack foods and drugs. This struck me as an incredibly exciting opportunity.
I attended the briefing. It was pretty straightforward: Create excitement for Howard’s move to Sirius and drive up subscriptions. The catch, we only had about two weeks to do the work. And, we would be presenting directly to Howard and Sirius CEO Mel Karmazin. It was a pretty crazy situation.
So, we got to work. The marketing problem was not insignificant. Howard had a large base of passionate fans who would follow him wherever he would go. Those fans went out and bought a Sirius subscription as soon as Howard made the announcement that he was leaving terrestrial radio. The real challenge was to convince those casual Stern fans to pay for something they were used to getting for free.
Dave Arnold and Jason Kreher were the creatives assigned to the pitch. They were both young and highly ambitious. They were also very good at doing work that was both funny and smart, so they were the perfect team for the assignment.
When I briefed them, we talked about what made Howard, Howard. Yes, he was the King of All Media. Yes, he was a “shock jock”. Yes, he had millions of loyal fans. But, what really made Howard interesting and compelling was the fact that he would always cross the line. He would push further than any normal person would. And that created great radio. There’s a scene in the movie Private Parts where the radio station exec (known as “Pig Vomit”) is reviewing listener research about Howard. Here’s the exchange:
Researcher: The average radio listener listens for eighteen minutes. The average Howard Stern fan listens for – are you ready for this? – an hour and twenty minutes.
Pig Vomit: How can that be?
Researcher: Answer most commonly given? “I want to see what he’ll say next.”
Pig Vomit: Okay, fine. But what about the people who hate Stern?
Researcher: Good point. The average Stern hater listens for two and a half hours a day.
Pig Vomit: But… if they hate him, why do they listen?
Researcher: Most common answer? “I want to see what he’ll say next.”
That dialogue capures the brilliance of Howard. He’s compelling. You don’t just want to listen. You have to listen. Because you know that if you’re not listening, you know you are going to be missing something.
So Jason and Dave set out to create advertising that was true to the brand. Advertising that would grab your attention. Advertising that you simply couldn’t ignore.
The team developed several creative concepts that were really funny. But, we didn’t want to just walk into the pitch with storyboards on foam core. We wanted to blow them away. So, we went out and produced a series of videos that would really showcase our creative talent and our understanding of the Howard Stern brand.
Below are two of the videos we created for the pitch. Note, some will find these videos offensive so click play at your own risk. You’ve been warned.
Personally, I think the “Stars” video was really smart. At the time, we couldn’t actually show any photos or video of Howard because of his contract with his terrestrial radio company. We could only use his name. Plus, Sirius radio was all about satellites in space. So showing the starry sky was a nice connection to the Sirius brand. And of course, the ad shows the kind of raunchy fun that Howard is known for.
The day of the pitch, we walked into the Sirius boardroom to get set up. We only had 30 minutes for the pitch so we had to be brief and brilliant. No long setups. No strategic frameworks. Just the ideas.
Howard and Mel walked in the room. We did brief introductions and then got to it (Interesting note, Howard is a known as being extremely germ-o-phobic. He often talks on the air about how he hates shaking hands. So, I instructed our team not to shake Howard’s hand. But, when he walked in, he came up to each one of us and shook our hands.).
It was surreal sitting there next to Howard and Mel. We showed the first video and Howard burst out laughing. We nailed it. The meeting was huge success. But, a good meeting doesn’t always mean you’re going to win the business.
So, we waited. A few days later, I got an email from the Marketing Director at Sirius. She said, “Hi. Can you guys be down here at 2pm today for a meeting. Welcome to the team.”
I remember running around the agency like a maniac yelling to anyone who would listen that we won Howard! It was a great feeling. We went on to launch a lot of the work that we presented in that pitch.
Below is a series of billboards we created that ran in high profile outdoor locations in NY, LA and Chicago.
Not surprisingly, a lot of the ads created controversy and had to be pulled. That ended up being a good thing because the PR value it generated was much greater than the media spend. The “Stars” ad only ran in movie theaters showing rated “R” movies. And it still got a lot of complaints and was eventually taken down. You can see some examples of the backlash below.
In the end, Howard’s move to Sirius was a big success. He brought millions of subscribers to the company. He was a big reason that Sirius was able to acquire rival XM radio and create a single Satellite Radio provider. Looking back, I don’t know how much the advertising campaign really contributed to the success. But, as a Stern fan, I’d like to think it did help a bit.
After the launch, we tried to get more projects from Sirius but they had some management changes and brought in a different agency. I had to transition back to my pharmaceutical account. Jason Kreher went to work at Wieden & Kennedy and Dave Arnold is now at Pereira & O’Dell. Both have had very successful careers in advertising.
I still look back at that pitch with great memories. It’s one of those crazy stories that I’ll always remember from my NY ad agency days.
Who says advertising isn’t sexy?