WNBA CMO Phil Cook Welcomes Rookies and Fans to the Pros

Fresh campaign dropped during March Madness

The WNBA rolled out a new marketing campaign in the midst of March Madness—and in the run-up to the league's draft on April 15—hoping to turn college hoops viewers into pro-ball fans.

"We recognized last spring that there could be unbelievable attention around the tournament. So, whatever the message was going to be, we wanted it to live in tournament time," says league CMO Phil Cook.

Created by Wieden+Kennedy Portland, "Welcome to the W" features three spots directed by Funny or Die's Jake Szymanski. They use humor to build hype around the incoming class of stars. (Standouts expected to join the WNBA Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso.)

In one commercial, the New York Liberty's Breanna Stewart munches on very special breakfast cereal.

Elsewhere, Arike Ogunbowale of the Dallas Wings plugs "No Shade SPF," a faux-sunblock that's "unclinically proven to fight vet vitriol."

In a third spot, a fortune teller predicts some challenges rookies might face on their path to greatness.

Other elements across social and OOH feature Ogunbowale, Brittney Griner, Nneka Ogwumike and A'ja Wilson.

Here, Cook, who has masterminded WNBA marketing since becoming the league's first CMO in 2020, discusses the campaign and the strides made in building a fanbase.

MUSE: The fact that you were able to do funny spots is an accomplishment. The league has worked hard to be taken seriously—and it can be funny now.

Phil Cook: That's maybe the kindest summation of the ads that I've heard so far. It took a little courage to go into this space. Do we have the chops? Have we earned the right to take this approach? And to your point, the W has led a lot of very heavy discussions and dialogue over the last 28 years. This gives us an opportunity to share a very common and understood message and do it in a way that is unique.

You could come out and just do what a lot of leagues do: talk about how great your game is, show some plays and fast motion/slow motion and sign off with the tagline. That's historically what our brand and many leagues have done. We wanted to approach it differently. And Wieden is brilliant at this. So, we got to a comedic type of tone and a parody of fake products. In this case, having the existing WNBA athletes welcoming the rookie class makes it fun.

The truth of the message is: The WNBA is the best basketball league in the world. It's really hard to make that jump from college to pro. There's 144 athletes at the pro level who are looking forward to welcoming these rookies.

Did you go to the shoots and watch Jake Szymanski work?

No, I sent my creative director Roman King. Roman has been on our team for a little over five years, and his eye for this type of stuff is better than anyone's. He knows the athletes, and he certainly has a great handle on what he wanted this to look like. He is friends with the woman who wrote the ads—Jordan Dinwiddie of Wieden. I give him a lot of credit for ensuring that the tone and the WNBA brand came through.

What made you want to join the WNBA to head up marketing?

I was at Nike working in global basketball strategy. My job was to unlock new markets for the business. One of those audiences was women’s basketball. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert came out for meetings. She had just been named commissioner. Nike’s a supplier and one of the key partners of the WNBA.

I get an hour with her and I say, unscripted, no slides, no nothing, "Hey look, here are some ideas that I would implement if I worked at the W." And I list 10 things, crazy things. And she’s like, "Oh, that’s very interesting. Nice to meet you," and off she goes. We ran into each other once or twice in the following months, and then I got a call from her saying, "I understand that you're looking to move east and stay in basketball. Why don't you come and do those things you said you wanted to do for me at the W?"

I jumped because I could see where she wanted to go. Cathy's a visionary, and she took the job because there were things that she knew she wanted to apply, and it was easy to work for her because she knew we had to make a change. 

The WNBA has been around since the late 1990s, but there has been an explosion in popularity of the league in the last few years.

I give Cathy all the credit. She gave me the opportunity to build what I wanted to build: an organization of the future. She said, "Build your org, fill slots with the types of people or the types of content and the functions you think are going to drive this thing, and we'll invest accordingly, and we'll see where it goes."

When I started, there were five people in the marketing organization, including me, and our budget was barely seven figures. Today, I've got a team of 23 people. My budget is over $10 million. I've been able to hire really good people who are not only passionate about the W but experts in their fields.

That was the beauty of it—Cathy unlocking the opportunity for me to grow the team and to invest in marketing to get it to where we are now. We're relevant 8, 9, 10, 11 months a year, where we used to be relevant five months a year in our season. You have things like the draft lottery in December, and our players participating in the WNBA All-Star [Celebrity] Game in February, and our players at the Olympics in the middle of this summer.

We're everywhere now. The NBA is relevant 12 months a year. We want to lean into that cadence of relevance.

Christine Champagne
Muse contributor Christine Champagne is a writer based in NYC.

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