Inside Verizon's Super Bowl Campaign With NFL Players and the First Responders Who Saved Them

The making of 'The Team That Wouldn't Be Here'

Verizon will air a national commercial on Super Bowl LIII this Sunday. But that's just a small piece of a much larger campaign that's been rolling out in stages. The work honors first responders, just as Verizon did in last year's Super Bowl, but on a much bigger scale—in the form of a sweeping documentary series crafted by McCann and Hollywood director Peter Berg. 

Last year's Super Bowl spot, created in the wake of 2017's rash of natural disasters, featured images of house fires, floods and medical emergencies—and the sounds of the people who'd been helped surprising the first responders by calling them and thanking them, sometimes years later. 

To expand the idea for 2019, and tie into the brand's NFL sponsorship, agency and client decided to look for NFL players who'd been helped by first responders—often in life-threatening situations. 

The result is "The Team That Wouldn't Be Here." The campaign is comprised of a dozen short documentary films, featuring 11 NFL players and one coach; a 60-second spot that's been airing since the AFC and NFC championship games; the Super Bowl ad itself (which is not being pre-released); and a full 30-minute documentary set to air on the Monday after the game on the CBS Sports Network. Much of the content was directed by Matt Ogens. 

The Team That Wouldn't Be Here | Verizon

Verizon's role in emergencies, of course, is to connect the phone calls between those in need and the first responders. It's an important story, and one Verizon feels stands out amid the spectacle and comedy of most Super Bowl campaigns. 

"A lot of NFL players have been impacted by injuries and tragedies throughout their lives. It's a very big driving force of who they are today," Andrew McKechnie, chief creative officer at Verizon, tells Muse. "It's very emotional, and it's a nice side to the NFL that we don't often see. We wanted to tell that story." 

At the same time, it's a story of the first responders themselves. Thus, the short films tell both sides. We hear from the NFL players themselves (as well as their families) and the first responders who helped them. 

"They sacrifice everything. It's a really tough job," says McKechnie. "They're not paid millions of dollars to run onto a field to play an NFL game. So there's a really interesting dynamic between the two sides of the stories. And hearing a little bit more about this notion of service—maybe in society and our community we should be embracing more of that." 

Finding the Players

Having tracked down disaster victims and first responders for last year's spot, the team at McCann embraced the much bigger scale of this year's project. From desktop research, they found only two players—yet they sold the idea through to Verizon before even finding the rest. 

"We knew there were more out there," says McCann creative director Alex Little. "There's 1,600 NFL players in the league; 40,000 Americans every year wouldn't be here without first responders. So based on our bad math, we said, 'We can figure this out.'" 

Before long, they had 11 players—AJ McCarron, Carlos Watkins, Carson Tinker, Adrian Colbert, Harvey Langi, Clay Matthews, Naz Jones, Mark Andrews, De'Angelo Henderson, Ben Jones and Ricardo Allen—and one NFL head coach, Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers, signed up for the campaign.

The Team That Wouldn’t Be Here | Clay Matthews
The Team That Wouldn’t Be Here | Anthony Lynn

The agency set up film shoots with each player, along with the first responders who'd helped them. They also shot some re-enactment scenes, and interviewed family members. Constructing the spots came naturally from the stories themselves. 

"Being in the room for all the interviews, we had a pretty good grasp of where the emotion came from, and the things these guys described and remembered that we could construct the narrative around," says McCann creative director Karsten Jurkschat. 

Most of the films start with a cold open, teasing a bit of the story, followed by a title sequence that links all the pieces together. Then, the films backtrack and tell the full story. 

"Obviously, we were a little bit worried they'd start to feel similiar," says Jurkschat. "But all their personalities are so different, and the way they recount the stories is so different. Some players are really emotional, and some are quite matter-of-fact about it. And we had quite a wide range of accidents in the end. So we found it wasn't a problem to keep them feeling fresh." 

The hardest part was convincing the first responders to be on camera and take credit for saving the players.

"They were like, 'Oh, I'm part of a bigger team. This is not just me. There's the people at the hospital, the people who answered the call. I'm one of 50.' Convincing them was the trickiest element," says Little. 

McCarron and Watkins

Two of the standout pieces, in the end, turned out to be the ones with AJ McCarron and Carlos Watkins. 

The Team That Wouldn’t Be Here | AJ McCarron

McCarron, the Oakland Raiders quarterback, was just a child when he flew off his father's jetski headfirst into a dock. 

"His first responder, Chip, is just so emotionally affected, still, to this day, which you can tell in some of his cutaways," says Jurkschat. "We interviewed AJ's mom. If these people didn't do their job, she wouldn't have a son at all. The NFL focus is great, and that's where we came into it, but in that story I think you get to the bigger point of, 'Yeah, they wouldn't be on a team. They wouldn't be here. They wouldn't be playing football.'" 

The Team That Wouldn’t Be Here | Carlos Watkins

Watkins, a defensive tackle for the Houston Texans, lost a close friend in a car accident. His recounting of the story is almost unbearably sad. 

"That was probably the most full-on interview for all of us," Jurkschat says. "I remember sitting in the room with the clients, and we were all tucked away so he couldn't see us. He knew he wanted to tell the story of his friend, and he didn't try to hide any of the emotion, which was really powerful. He told the story almost in honor of his friend. Everybody was just kind of sitting there in silence, crying along with him, which was a pretty incredible thing to be a part of. That was the second interview, I think, and that's when it hit home for us—that this was going to be something pretty special." 

A Different Kind of Super Bowl Ad

"The Team That Wouldn't Be Here" is different from many Super Bowl campaigns not just because it tells heartfelt stories but also because it tells true stories. In their quest to entertain, not many Super Bowl ads lean into real life like this. 

"We all love seeing the funny ads, and it's great for certain brands—whether it's a new brand or a brand trying to reinvigorate itself," says Verizon's McKechnie. "For us, we're very established. We want to make sure we're conveying messages that we think are important to our broader communities—not only our 130 million customers but also the communities that we impact and work with every day. In particular, the first responders. We see the Super Bowl slightly differently in that respect. We're having a more evergreen conversation around what first responders do, and using the Super Bowl as a lightning bolt to get the right attention on it." 

The McCann creatives say they see Verizon as a brand that, unlike many, simply has something real to say. 

"Everyone else is scripting work and creating fictional worlds," says Little. "When you have a great product like Verizon, it just works. You don't have to script that. You don't have to create a world around it and pretend." 

Client and agency won't reveal much about the commercial set to air during Sunday's telecast, though Little did mention that "moving away from celebrities is really interesting as well. I won't give away too much of what the ad is, but it just feels like a real story from a real person." 

The scale and variety of creative materials in "The Team That Wouldn't Be Here" is unusual. (McCann also designed a special NFL jersey honoring first responders—it's all white, with a special logo and other details like the numbers done in reflective tape.) But to McKechnie, it's a more modern way to approach a Super Bowl campaign, and certainly one that suits Verizon well. 

"I think you can't put so much reliance on a 60-second TV spot to perform magic for you," he says. "There are some spots that enter folklore as being the Super Bowl spot that everyone remembers, and I think that's great. But to put that level of pressure on a 60-second or 30-second spot, I think, for me, it's a slightly traditional approach. 

"When you think about a brand having a conversation versus just a campaign, and creating a longer narrative around the things we do, then I think you've got to approach it differently. We knew we had an amazing story to tell. For us, the Super Bowl is a moment to add another textual layer to that conversation."

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards.