NFL and 72andSunny: Creative Blueprint of a Winning Team

Tim Ellis and Glenn Cole on building a modern sports brand anchored in the voice of the players

In December 2018, 72andSunny was named lead creative agency for the National Football League, succeeding Grey, which had had the account for a decade. The move reunited two creative marketers who knew each other well—Tim Ellis and Glenn Cole.

Ellis had just arrived at the NFL as CMO a few months before, following a long and productive time at Activision—where he worked with Cole and 72 on a string of breakout campaigns. Ellis had held a full review for the NFL account, to see what else was out there, but he knew 72's abilities well. And once the assignment was official, they set about rejuvenating the image of a brand that was still known in some quarters as the "No Fun League."

Now, more than three years later, Muse sat down with Ellis and Cole to take stock of how far they're come. In the conversation below, edited for length, we talk about the driving vision early on, how it was expressed in striking creative, how they've embraced progressive issues despite resistance from some older fans, and what the future looks like for a sports brand that also happens to be one of the world's great producers of unscripted entertainment.

Muse: To start off, were either of you big football fans growing up?

Tim Ellis: Oh, we're both football fans. In fact, we're rivals. I'm a 49ers fan, and this guy is a Seahawks fan. And it's become one of the biggest rivalries in the NFL. Although right now I'm not sure they are, but we'll see.

Glenn Cole: [laughs] He beat me to it. Yeah, I've been a Seahawks fan all my life. And also Eagles fan. I have family in Philly. But yeah, the Seahawks decided to hit the implode button in the last few weeks. My son is already going Chargers.

Tim Ellis: It's all right. We love all 32 teams.

Muse: Tim, you worked with 72andSunny when you were CMO at Activision. What were your first conversations about what you could do together at the NFL?

Tim Ellis: We worked together for seven years at Activision, so I understood the strengths of the agency, and of Glenn in particular. There was a good deal of trust and faith in their capabilities. But we ended up doing a full-out pitch because I wanted the best ideas. Relationships are very valuable, and trust and credibility are incredibly important in this business. On the other hand, my job is to get the best work for the brand.

So when we initiated the pitch. I wanted 72andSunny in there. I knew they were capable for the job. And the initial conversations were great. I could feel their passion and excitement for the game, which is very important. And I had a pretty clear vision of the potential of NFL marketing and of the NFL brand. They understood that very clearly, and bought into it.

Muse: Glenn, your feelings coming in?

Glenn Cole: Well, my feeling was, "What the fuck is this pitch all about?" [laughs] But it made absolute sense. Tim rightfully points out there's more stakeholders than him involved, right up to Roger [Goodell]. It's one of the most important levers for their business, the marketing of this entertainment brand. The marketing has to hit an entertainment standard, and it will be evaluated that way, whether you want it to or not. The NFL is arguably the king of unscripted entertainment. So I understood that. I was frustrated but confident.

For me personally, I spent the first 10 years of my career working on Nike soccer, helping turn Nike from a basketball brand into a global soccer brand. There's some parallels there. And I was working in Europe. So we've always had a shorthand about sport. There was trust there that we saw the landscape the same way. And the agency team is built from that DNA.

I do remember the pitch being very competitive, which it should be. It reminded me of doing work for Nike, where everybody thinks it's easy to do Nike things. It's absolutely the hardest thing to do because the standard is so high. And the other agencies were the best in the world. But we tried to listen a lot, and we were able to convince the other stakeholders we were the right call. And then we also had the work that landed it.

Muse: The pitch was toward the end of 2018. You got your first work out in the world pretty soon after that.

Glenn Cole: Work was out within three weeks. The Super Bowl ad—the one in the ballroom—was out within a month and a half. I consider those two of the best things we've done as a company, and definitely in this partnership with Tim.

NFL | The 100-Year Game

Tim Ellis: There was definitely some risk involved with that first big campaign we did for the Super Bowl. I don't think the NFL ever had more than a handful of players in a spot. We had over 50 players for that spot—the biggest names who ever played the game, ranging from Jim Brown, 80 years old, to some of the young guys coming up who are in the early 20s. To get all those players together and to figure out how to execute it within literally a few weeks ... that was a very stressful situation.

And by the way, I've never hired an agency where I didn't want to run at least one or two pieces of work they presented. I listen carefully to the recommendations around strategy and the business, but I always look at the work and how they express the strategy in the work. If I can't see it, I don't buy it. I always need something where I feel like, "I would run that tomorrow." So the spot we ended up running [on the Super Bowl] was almost identical to one they presented, at least in concept. The execution changed quite a bit, of course.

I remember Glenn and the guys said, "We love the spot, too, but we can't do it for Super Bowl. It's not enough time. We can run it for kickoff [in fall 2019]." I said, "No, it's a Super Bowl spot. We have to do it."

Muse: The work for the playoffs that winter came out even quicker.

Tim Ellis: The creative for playoffs was called "We Ready," and the spine of it was this video of a high school team who were doing a chant in the locker room. I got the chills when I heard it. So I said, "We have to run that for the playoffs." And again, they found a way to bring it to life and execute it within a few weeks.

I feel like 72 understood the heart of the athlete, that mix between modernity and badass. And then just the open, transparent human emotion. All those things combined, to me, were the magic recipe for the NFL. To this day, if you look at all our work, it is a combination of all those things. Raw, transparent emotion. Badass athleticism. Openness and honesty.

NFL | We Ready
Muse: So, as CMO, were those the main pillars you wanted to build the brand around?

Tim Ellis: The real strategy was to get the helmets off the players. We called it the "helmets off" strategy, and it was about diving into youth culture and really speaking to younger audiences—which helped us bring in that new generation of fans who are either distracted or disinterested in the NFL, and also helped us drive energy and a sense of rejuvenation into the brand.

The brand had begun to feel kind of stale, almost like a grumpy old man. And so we wanted to inject a sense of vitality and youthfulness, and also honesty. Raw, human honesty, and getting behind the players and what they cared about. Those were the strategic pillars around a more human approach for the NFL.

Muse: And Glenn, 72 had the chops based on the youth work you'd been doing.

Glenn Cole: Youth brands and sports brands have been the core of 72. We started working with Nike on their global soccer stuff, even when they were in relationship with Wieden[+Kennedy]. Adidas, K-Swiss. But to build on what Tim was saying about the helmets-off strategy—we were very determined not to have our voice, the NFL, be the voice of the NFL brand. If you go to the NFL's mission, the first sentence is, "We are the stewards of football." We were like, "Oh, there it is. Let's get back to the first sentence of the mission."

That leads to to: "What is football?" "Who is football?" Well, football is the people who play it. And so we made a decision creatively to let the voice be the voice of the players, which aligned with Tim's helmets-off strategy. So all of our digging—it was editorial. It was found artifacts, quotes, speeches, locker-room soundbites that viscerally captured what the game is about. Let's reconnect people through those voices, not the NFL's voice. People don't want to hear the NFL's voice. They want to hear the players—football's voice.

It's funny, that locker room thing. It was a team in Tennessee, a high school team—that was actually our internal team's mantra. We would watch that before staff meetings, before creative reviews, just to get pumped up. And by the end, we're all jumping out of our chairs. Jason Norcross, one of the partners and ECDs at the company, said, "I think this should be the first thing the NFL puts out." Get behind these guys. It's high school footballers, but we're like, "It's about the NFL. It's about football." That was, to me, when we landed on, "Oh, it's the voice of football. It's not even NFL players to start. That's the gold mine. Everything we do is going to mine this game." And if you look at the last three years of work, I think you'll find we've stuck to that.

NFL Kickoff l We Run As One

Tim Ellis: Even our youth football. We talked about the teenagers from Tennessee in the playoff commercials. We also have girls' flag football. The Predators were in our kickoff commercial this past year. Two years ago, our Super Bowl ad that ended up winning an Emmy—that was just kids throughout the country. It was one of the prolific players, Bunchie, and 32 other kids and just elevating them. So elevating youth football, but again, using the athlete, the player, as a central part of our strategy and our executions. And it's worked very well.

Glenn Cole: Those young guys were, for that beat, the voice of the game.

NFL | Next 100
Muse: So this focus compelled fandom in a way the previous work hadn't.

Tim Ellis: We test every single ad, and we have an ongoing quantitative tracking study, so we really know which specific pieces of communication are landing or not. And I will say that the ads we've just been discussing here, those are the ones that really resonated with the emerging fan of the NFL, which is the young fan, the fan of color, and female fans.

What we found is that the more mature fans, if you will, they enjoy the energy [of the new work]. Some of our messaging around cause marketing and social justice marketing, in particular, some of that's been more controversial or even polarizing for them—essentially the older white-male segments. But it has not driven them from the game. They still continue to be fans, and it really has brought more fans and more avid fans. 

A lot of our work is not just bringing in new fans, it's making a casual fan an avid fan. So by getting behind the players' causes and interests, as well as being very open and transparent about societal issues, it's helped us not only gain their attention, but gain their fandom.

Glenn Cole: It wasn't just the voice. It was the voice plus the messages. I bucket them all under community, unity and purpose. Those are probably the three we get the most. Everybody has an opinion on the NFL. So, unlike certain products or brands where it might be more narrowly segmented, you really have to hit everybody, like Tim said. So to make sure the 50-plus set, or if my dad and mom are also on board, I think all the work is always pretty visceral. Do you feel it? We almost put the feels before the message sometimes. You can end up in the same spot, but I think we got a lot of the these [older] fans on board because it's still delivering some of this stuff in a "Let's effing go" kind of way.

Muse: Let's talk about "Football Is Gay," your Pride spot from last year. That's certainly new messaging from the NFL that not every fan will be on board with. How did that process begin?

Tim Ellis: After Carl [Nassib, then a defensive end for the Las Vegas Raiders] came out [on June 21, 2021], it was very inspiring to everybody. I got on the phone with the team and just said, "Hey, I know there's no time here, but what can we do? I want to do something." We just started thinking, "OK, what's the way that we could get it done in time and still do something impactful and emotional that people would pay attention to and talk about?" 

The guys got back to me like, "Yes, we definitely want to do this." And so they went back and had a couple of different ways in. And then this one way in that they had, which was actually quite easy to execute. I thought immediately, "Wow, that's bold." And what was interesting about that was that the first words that came up on the screen were "Football is gay." I remember Glenn said, on the call, and he goes, "By the way, if anybody says those shouldn't be the first few words..." I said, "Don't even say it. I know they have to be. Don't even say it."

NFL | Football Is for Everyone

Glenn Cole: So we got to lock arms and be united. You're supporting this community or you're not. Small degrees are going to feel like big whitewashing if we don't.

Tim Ellis: Now, there were people within the organization, the NFL family, who were uncomfortable with it. And we had to really think about that. But we just thought it was the right thing to do. And we thought, it's OK if some people aren't comfortable with it. There's fans who aren't comfortable with it. There were players, there were owners who were uncomfortable with it. But ultimately, it spoke to the people we were trying to reach and bring in. 

There was a really beautiful story. I don't know if you're aware of it—the Rainbow Dads, two gay dads, who had a son, and they never felt comfortable taking their son to a game. They were Bills fans. And after they saw that ad, they went on and did this TikTok video, which created a lot of attention, with their son. And they ended up going to a game and they had a great experience. In fact, I'm accepting an award next month, and the Rainbow Dads are going to introduce me.

@rainbowdads Can’t thank the @nfl & @buffalobills enough for hosting us at our first Family NFL game. Thank you for accepting our family. #nfl #football #fyp #lgbt ♬ original sound - Big Forge
Muse: I'll be honest, I was surprised to see that work. I assumed the concerns from various stakeholders would be too much.

Tim Ellis: There was a lot of pressure, there's no doubt about that.

Glenn Cole: Again, it's the players. Carl made it happen. It's not like we haven't wanted to say that, but we've given the microphone, the pen of the authorship of the NFL brand, to the players. We'd supported them for two years up to that point with anything they said was important to them. Both with the stuff 72 did, but also stuff Tim and Ian [Trombetta, head of social, influencer and content marketing for the NFL] and the rest of the organization has been doing. Which is, "You said that's important to you. We're going to have your back." Carl said that, and I think the absence of support would have been much louder than anything we actually made.

Tim Ellis: Every year we do a lot of content around Pride. So it wasn't as if we weren't going to do any special pieces. But that was specifically because of Carl. And one of the things I'm really proud is that we not only ran that during the month of Pride, but we also ran it at kickoff [in the fall].

Glenn Cole: Which is the conversation we had at the beginning. If we're going to do this, we're going to show up again during the season and really support this thing. And Tim was immediate. He cut us off and was like, "Yeah, yeah, absolutely."

Muse: There's obviously shades of Nike there—the Kaepernick stuff, taking a stand on an issue that's polarizing. Do you take inspiration from that work?

Glenn Cole: I spent my career at Wieden, so I think it's implicit—conscious and unconscious.

Tim Ellis: Nike have also really found a way to understand and bring to life, in a very emotional way, the heart of the athlete. So, certainly. One of the accomplishments we've made here at the NFL is that—Nike are one of our biggest partners, and when they saw the work we were doing and the strategies we had and we met for the first time, they were like, "Wow. This could be our presentation." Obviously, it was uniquely NFL. But I think that was a real compliment that they felt like the quality and the thinking and the humanity and creativity around the expression of the work was up to their standards.

Glenn Cole: They're masters of provocation and truth—using mass media to deliver uncomfortable truths. So it's from that playbook, for sure.

Nike | Dream Crazy
Muse: There are other uncomfortable truths involving the NFL. The political issues that were polarizing with Colin. Issues of racism. The safety issue, where some kids are not playing the game because of the danger of concussions. What conversations do you guys have on those issues—whether and how to deal with them?

Tim Ellis: The important thing is to have really good, deep conversations about these issues and also to expose Glenn and his group to all of the executives and experts over here at the NFL. So it's not just me giving a brief, or my team giving a written brief. We bring them together to have deeper conversations around the issues, so there's a real understanding.

Glenn Cole: The first question is, what is the NFL doing in this space? Before we start talking, we're going to be scrutinized for what we've done—and we should be. Some of the creative work ends up being actions, not messages. I have a 15-year-old son who just went to high school and had to make the decision about football or other. That's really real.

Tim Ellis: Like every brand, there are certain things where we say, "Well, because of these legal reasons or whatever, we just can't say this." I don't ever say we can't say something unless we really can't say it. If it's up for debate, let's talk about it. But you have to have these discussions. Not only do I introduce the 72 team to all of our executives and all of our experts over here, I also volunteer to speak not just to the teams working on our work at 72andSunny but the entire agency. I want them to understand. I want them to be proud to work for the NFL, or at least understand it, whether they like something or not.

Some of the things you're referring to, whether it be safety or race issues, harassment, those are very, very serious issues and complex. And if you're going to try to do some kind of PSA or marketing behind it, it really requires deep thought and discussion before you decide on what you're going to do.

Muse: How does the process work in practice? How often do your teams meet?

Glenn Cole: Our day-to-day teams talk a couple of times a week to just see where things are at, which is somewhat typical. I think what's unique, relative to our other clients is, the phone is constantly at work. Me calling Tim, Tim calling me, our ECD Zach Hilder, our head of brand Shane [Chastang] calling Tim or his deputies. "Hey, we're thinking about something." "We're concerned about something." "What do you think about ... ?" "Hey, we're going to show up in two days and this is where we're going." It's so trusting that it's just literally like calling friends and getting a bounce on things. I don't know if friendship is the right word, but the trusting, "Just call me," "Let's just talk."

At the core of this, from our perspective, there is a very, very clear commitment Tim makes, at least annually, to the relationship. That's kind of rare right now, especially coming out of Covid—everything's a project; it must be 95 percent projects [in the ad industry], to my eye. We do have some steady relationships, but I think in general, in the business, it's more like, "Let's see how it goes after this one" or "I can afford this right now. Let's just do this."

And we don't have that with Tim. And the consequence, both intended and I think also unintended, is that nobody's worrying about that. Tim doesn't have to worry if he's getting truth or not; he knows he's getting truth. And I don't have to worry about our teams consciously or unconsciously trying to tell him something we think they want to hear because you want to stay on the roster. Those are not big secrets, but that's why this works.

Tim Ellis: Also, at the end of the day, we both really want great work. I don't want work that's just going to get me through the next day, or that won't create any kind of backlash or controversy, or won't get me fired or whatever. I don't even think about that. I think about, "I want great work." That's it. 

Obviously, I'm paid to drive business, but I believe in the power and the ROI of great work, and I know the agency knows that, and I know they're not telling me something just because they think it might get through or it'll get sold.

Glenn Cole: Tim has a mantra, whether he knows it or not, which I coach my teams on. I tell them, "Guys, the feedback is going to be 'Make it emotional,' so just let's skip the step where we're presenting work that's not."

Muse: I'm curious about formats and platforms—new media, TikTok, music, gaming. There's so many places this brand can go. How do you navigate that? Is there a north star for finding the consumers you want to find?

Tim Ellis: We do a lot of that stuff in-house, and I think we do it pretty well. Glenn sees it, and he comments. His team sees it, and they comment on it. Sometimes they come up with ideas that we end up using as well. We were presenting at Brand Innovators not too long ago, and Ian Trombetta, who does all our social influencer marketing, he's really a tremendous marketer, and Glenn and his team are going, "Shit, that's great work. We've got to be getting inspired by some of that in our work."

We've been very aggressive when it comes to all these different platforms and opportunities. We have very strong relationships with Twitter and TikTok and Snapchat, and all of them. We're always working closely with them to do things than aren't just firsts for us, but are first-to-platform. That's when you really know you're doing well when they're doing things for the first time—with you.

Glenn Cole: We'll design ideas for the big beats—kickoff or playoffs or Salute to Service month. We'll design them around those new media. Sometimes those are the north star, even though 72andSunny might not be responsible for executing it. We'll give Ian's team thought-starters. And they often come up with something better. Like Tim said, they're a strategic input because they're right at the front lines of what the players and fans are saying in the moment. That's where the insights are coming from, really.

Tim Ellis: One of the things we did a few years ago when I came is we hired all these content creators. They're called LCCs [live content correspondents]. There's over 100 of them now. And they are responsible for basically getting intimate with players on the sidelines and also off the field. And sometimes these guys end up even hiring them to be their personal documentarian. And they still work for us, but we've basically given to them big players. They provide really great intimate content, which fans just love. They love that access. And then we've seen things happen with some of that work that then spin off and become bigger ideas by themselves.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Muse: Tell me about this year's NFL Super Bowl spot, and how it embodied where the brand is right now.

Tim Ellis: We could see it in the data and we could just feel that fans were looking more for an escape. They didn't want to pretend as if Covid hadn't happened, or that we were out of the woods on the pandemic, but they clearly were looking for more fun and for more enjoyment around the game.

I saw some work from this group out of New Orleans [Swaybox Studios] who were working on two big blockbuster films, and I thought it was really cool—puppetry animation. So I asked for some examples of what they were doing, and I brought it to Glenn and Zach and I said, "Look how cool this shit is. We can make players out of this." And they were just as excited, and went back and worked on this concept of how to bring these players to life through puppetry. 

We got on it very early. It took us almost nine months to produce. Neither one of us had ever worked on anything like that before—we were sort of feeling our way through it in the dark. And this company never worked with a marketing or advertising firm before. They were used to working with directors and producers who say, "Go off and do this," and then come back in two or three months, whereas we were steady involved pretty much every day.

NFL | Bring Down the House

Glenn Cole: All great things are tough at stages, and this had its challenges, particularly at the end. With every Super Bowl thing, that last 10 meters of the 100-meter race is where the winner's determined. So that was rough, but what I was excited about, and I'm still excited about, is the NFL is one of the great, still under-leveraged IP's in entertainment. You see where Marvel is going, you see where Disney is going, you see where all these things are franchising. And the NFL has done obviously an incredible job over the last 30, 50 years doing that. But now, in this new media world we're in, we see so much opportunity to create new IPs, how people think of the game in new ways and create other storylines and other ways of expressing football or football players, which is what this was the beginning of.

The NBA did a great job with Space Jam at one point, building off marketing concepts. You don't have to squint too hard to see this and go, "That could be something you can scale into programming." So I think getting into ideas that could be kickoffs for entertainment platforms is a lot of where the excitement is for us going forward—for both of us. All these new relationships the NFL has, these contracts with Amazon and some of the other streamers, it's opening up a lot of potential for innovation. That's what I hear they're all craving, too. And we have all the raw materials—we have the mythology, the heroism, the stories. Even when the game is not happening, like this off-season, it's full of stories. We're just now starting to figure out how can we have fun with this in new ways.

Muse: You need a really flexible view of the brand to make that work.

Glenn Cole: You do.

Tim Ellis: I think that's such a great look for the NFL. Taking risks and doing things that haven't done before. It speaks to a brand that's dynamic, forward-leaning and modern.

Glenn Cole: Not the "No Fun League."

Tim Ellis: And all these things take risk. We did a spot the year before where we did this big hologram on the field. And the film itself was really strong, but that hologram didn't turn out exactly the way we wanted.

Glenn Cole: I think the key is, you said, "This big hologram." I think the learning is, don't go life-size—5-foot-8 is not impressive enough as a hologram.

Tim Ellis: We took a risk, and it didn't turn out the way we hoped. I remember we were there on the field watching it come to life, and I'm looking at Glenn he's looking at me...

Glenn Cole: You turned and looked at me, and I became the Homer Simpson GIF where he goes back into the bushes. [laughs]

Tim Ellis: But that's risk. You have to be willing to fail. And that means you might fail, by the way.

NFL | As One

Glenn Cole: We're picking on the hologram, but the message about unity, through the return of Vince Lombardi, really landed. So I think when you shoot far enough, even if you slip in execution a little, you'll still land with some people. As opposed to just executing what we think is safe.

These past few years felt scary, I will say. Even this year, with the characters coming out of the TV, as much as part of me is like, "Well, that's just an obvious touchdown of an idea," it still is scary. I still wanted other things to be executed differently. We would have done more with it if we could do it again, but hopefully, that's the trajectory.

Tim Ellis: Laird Hamilton, the surfer, likes to say that at some point every day he wants to be afraid of losing his life. He wants to be afraid he's going to die every day. And so he does stuff, even if it's submerging himself in ice. And I sort of feel that way from a creativity standpoint. If everything feels too safe or like what we did last year, or a campaign I saw a year ago, then I don't get excited. I don't feel right. Glenn and I push each other and try to get to a place where we know there's something that could be brilliant or special and unique. But there's also risk. And I think that's where we're most comfortable.

Muse: You want to be on the 50-foot wave.

Tim Ellis: Yeah, I do.

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards, editor of Muse by Clio, and host of the podcast Tagline. He is the former creative editor of Adweek.

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