The sneaker endorsement is a precious thing in this world of professional athletics that we see today. Most participants in pro football, basketball and baseball are happy to simply have free shoes brought to their lockers before gameday, if they get any sort of footwear arrangement at all. So one can appreciate the oddity of having a fictitious ex-athlete as the frontman of any brand’s ad campaign, because that just doesn’t happen.
Matt Murphy worked for one of the most innovative advertising agencies in America at Wieden+Kennedy. That’s the same firm that jettisoned so many Nike ads into our collective consciousnesses. But Murphy had a different job at 72andSunny, an LA-based ad firm that he joined last year: take one of the most starched-up brands in athletic apparel, California’s own K-Swiss, and deliver its goods to a new generation.
I had the chance to speak with Matt last week about his vision for the campaign–taking a fictitious vulgar character in Kenny Powers (played by Danny McBride) and turning him into a savvy sneaker shill–and how he got K-Swiss to go along with it.
JZ: So did you just go to K-Swiss and say, “We want to sell your shoe with Kenny Powers talking about having sex in a graveyard.”
MM: That’s probably the greatest question I’ve ever been asked.
Once we had it figured out how we were going to launch the campaign, we decided to write up a script for Funny Or Die, and we had to respect that audience. I think it was just understood that if you’re gonna do something on that site, whether it’s branded or not, you have to respect that audience and blow their minds. Again, you have to give credit to the client for letting us begin the story with that.
Some people wondered if that was part of the show. As if they were thinking, “Is this episode one?” That’s what we wanted people to think, but a good way. Having Stevie in there was the only other part from the show in the campaign, but everything else was just Kenny.
JZ: So timing the launch of the campaign close to the season premiere of “Eastbound And Down,” that was intentional?
MM:That was super-intentional, and really cross-promotional: We kind of leveraged Kenny to tell our story, and his character got some exposure in advance of the show.
JZ: The Tubes shoe is a bit of a departure for K-Swiss. If the Internal Revenue Service spent three years developing a tennis shoe, would they have even come close to developing a shoe as boring as that white K-Swiss shoe?
MM: K Swiss is constantly telling the California story. They’re based in California, and they want credit as a California sports company. Their philosophy is not a win-at-all-costs philosophy.
JZ: So…they don’t protect this house?
MM: Nope. Some people want to win Wimbledon. Some people just want to play ping pong or bocce.
JZ: Actually, that attitude seems to be an emerging concept with apparel these days.
MM: Yeah, when we started talking about it, we noticed some brands trying to occupy that space, that whole “weekend warrior,” don’t take yourself too seriously, type of attitude. But I think that whole thing is sort of a west coast thing. Beautiful weather with people always out doing their thing. But that’s how we started the conversation with K-Swiss in 2009. Our original campaign had more to do with their classic apparel.
JZ: Like that all-white canvas shoe with the white laces?
MM: Yeah, just a better look for shoes that you could chill out in or compete in or both. But the Tubes were different. They were more adopted for culture, for fashion.
JZ: More for the “mainstream” conventional athlete. A more serious athlete.
MM: And that came about in the search for a better business model and a desire to become a more performance-oriented company. So K-Swiss went hardcore into running. From a business perspective, it made a lot of sense; it’s a fiercely competitive category. And they went in like gangbusters with this shoe. The Tubes are kind of a hybrid of a running/training shoe.
It’s a colorful shoe, too. It’s different looking from the rest of the perceived K-Swiss line. So with this shoe we’re going after the college-aged dude that goes to the gym four times per week. The guy that’s not starting on the football team.
JZ: And you thought a fake baseball player with a sailor’s vocabulary was the guy to bring these shoes to America?
MM: We thought, how do we keep that California vibe, but still get credit for making a great performance shoe? We decided that we would go after that guy with unfiltered straight talk about the shoe. And the thing about Kenny is that he can talk about the world in the most unfiltered way.
JZ: Like he says something so ignorant at first, but something that turns out to be so profound, and genius.
MM: The thing from a credibility standpoint was that he actually was an athlete on the show. So let’s bring that character out into the world and blur that line between entertainment and reality and mix him up with people like Jeremy Shockey. It’s funny to think about a real-life Kenny Powers meeting a guy like Shockey.
JZ: So when you were shooting that commercial, what was that interaction like on set, between a real world-class athlete and, to be frank, a fake world-class athlete in Danny McBride, who plays Powers on the show?
MM: You know, we just had sh*t-eating grins on our faces while we were shooting it. I’d say 80 percent of the time, we stuck to the script. But sometimes Danny McBride would just veer off and start being Kenny and just go wherever…it was just so hard to not crack up. Jeremy Shockey rolled up and had memorized every catch phrase from Season 1. But Danny’s just such a damn good actor. And Jeremy would actually try to out-funny him, but then Danny would just say something that would just destroy him.
JZ: Do you forsee this profanity-centric style of campaign catching on with other advertising? The phrase “game changer” is kinda gay, but was this campaign a game changer?
MM: It’s a historic effort. I have to give K-Swiss a lot of effort for letting us create a campaign that works hard for them. It talks about the shoe, it talks about the training with amazing athletes, but also we didn’t water down who Kenny is. The public will really relate to Kenny and that whole unfilteredness and his whole Freudian takes on life.
But in terms of building a carbon copy campaign, like “Plug in new character here?” I don’t think so. Celebrity endorsements are pretty common, with real celebrities anyway. But I think that whole blurring the line was the exciting part of it, but it was all about our brand, and using Kenny to that end.
The game-changing thing is just creating it and pushing it out into the culture. The most boring thing you could do is to do the same thing again. After we’ve dropped this bomb on the world, we have to think, “What else is there?” You just can’t throw out there what people are expecting.
Portions of the interview were edited or omitted for clarity, context and space. Season 2 of Eastbound & Down premieres next month on HBO. More on the Tubes line can be found here.