Jimmy Smith knows how to create content that captivates an audience, whether that’s co-orchestrating a skydiver’s 25,000-ft jump from a plane without a parachute (2016’s “Heaven Sent” for Mondelez’s Stride Gum) or conjuring up a make-believe basketball team for Nike that’s still making waves 20 years after the ad aired.
The Entertainment Jury President entered the world of advertising in 1985, cutting his teeth working on Nike’s seminal “Just Do It” campaign. Acclaimed stints at agencies including Wieden & Kennedy and TBWA/Chiat/Day L.A. ensued, resulting in award-winning campaigns like “Battlegrounds” for Nike (2003) and “Replay” for Gatorade (2009), before Smith founded his own agency Amusement Park Entertainment in 2011.
He was named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business a year later, described in the accompanying article as a man who “runs an ad firm that functions nothing like an ad firm”, with the aim of creating “branded content, from film to action figures, and [co-owning] most of what his firm makes”. Smith refers to this style of content creation as “branded entertainment”, and, when done well, it's something he’d like to see more of in the field.
“I'd describe branded entertainment — in general, there are always exceptions to the rule — as something that you are entertained by when watching, interacting with or listening to it. And then, taking it even deeper, it’s something you’re willing to pay something for, whether that's paying with your time, or with your money, or both,” he says, speaking from his home in California. And the key to making it good, he reflects, is ensuring you think creatively about it.
“It’s something you’re willing to pay something for, whether that's paying with your time, or with your money, or both”
“With branded entertainment, more often than not, it's like, ‘Oh, let's do a documentary and show how we make this product,’ and nobody gives shit. Then they wonder why they only got 1000 views on YouTube,” Smith laughs. “That’s because they didn't put in the same amount of effort, thought and time — this is both on the agency and on the brand side — into making whatever it is that you're making as interesting [as teams do on genuinely creative projects].”
On top of that, he notes, brands and agencies need to think bigger, and outside of the dotted lines. “Another mistake is thinking it should always be a film — it absolutely can be but it doesn’t have to be,” he says, adding that branded entertainment can extend to events, albums, satellite radio stations and beyond. “It can be anything as long as you know somebody wants to interact with it.” And how do you make sure of that? By making branded entertainment that can compete with the giants of its specific realm: “so Disney, Sony, Paramount, Interscope, Broadway Video or whoever that may be,” Smith says. “That should be the goal.”
“Another mistake is thinking it should always be a film — it absolutely can be but it doesn’t have to be”
The best thing about good branded entertainment, Smith says, is that it often generates incremental revenue, as well as doing “what a traditional piece of advertising does”. One of the most famous examples of this — although it didn’t start out as branded entertainment, Smith explains — is the beloved basketball-meets-Bugs-Bunny movie Space Jam (1996). “It began as ‘Hare Jordan’, a Nike Super Bowl commercial featuring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny, which came out in 1992 and blew up. After that, Warner Brothers apparently went to Phil Knight to try and convince him to turn it into a feature film, but he said no. The following year they did ‘Hare Jordan Part Two’ and it was even bigger, so they went back to Nike saying, ‘You can turn that 90-second piece of content into a 90-minute commercial that kids will pay you money to see!’”
Nike said no a second time, Smith notes, and so Warner Brothers made the movie by themselves, using the “Hare Jordan” director Joe Pytka and changing the name to Space Jam. “As I understand it, at the time, Nike was a $6 billion company,” says Smith. “Space Jam made around $260 million at the box office in 1996, but it made $3.5 billion in merchandising. That plus ticket sales meant it made almost $4 billion in revenue — almost as much money as the size of Nike at that time. That's the opportunity that's being left on the table all day long!”
Other great examples, he says, are the 1907 song-turned-baseball-anthem "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with a line about Cracker Jacks that, to this day, sees the American snack indelibly linked to major league baseball games; Popeye the Sailorman, who sent spinach sales skyrocketing during the Great Depression and still remains the most renowned champion of the vegetable and its strength-giving properties; and Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog’s 2016 documentary about the internet, which he names as one of the best contemporary branded offerings.
“That plus ticket sales meant it made almost $4 billion in revenue — almost as much money as the size of Nike at that time. That's the opportunity that's being left on the table all day long!”
Meanwhile, one of the most enduring pieces of branded content from Smith’s own career history is the 2002 ad he made with Andy Fackrell to promote Shox sneakers, made by basketball player Vince Carter for Nike. “We took Vince back to 1975 and created a fictional American Basketball Association team, the Roswell Rayguns,” he says. “It featured street basketball players from the ‘70s like Pee Wee Kirkland and Joe ‘The Destroyer’ Hammond in it, alongside a band with Bootsy Collins, Parliament Funkadelic, Snoop Dogg.” The resulting video is a masterclass in entertainment. As with ‘Hare Jordan’, it spawned its own movie, Semi-Pro (2008), which generated what Smith terms “a ton of money” in Roswell Rayguns merch, and in 2021, its cult status was confirmed when Nike released a sell-out capsule collection based on the team and its alien mascot. “I didn’t have any of the intellectual property for the idea,” Smith laments. “But look at how good branded entertainment can stand the test of time.”
Just as important as standing the test of time, Smith says, is moving with the times when it comes to making branded entertainment that people will actually engage with. “Things have been moving fast since the digital era and social media came along. We’re in the Web 3 era now but we won’t be for long.” Apple’s AR/VR headset, he says, is going to be the next big release to shake things up. “The landscape of what entertainment is and how entertainment and advertising will merge is going to be a serious new challenge, because why will kids want to sit watching a box when they could put on these glasses and head out into a whole new world? It’s not rocket science but we’re going to have to figure out how to create meaningful experiences that move products in a truly entertaining way.”
His key advice? “As you're creating, think — and make sure the whole team is thinking — ‘Is that something I would want to watch/spend time with/jump in my car to do?’ If it’s not, don’t do it. You’ve got to make things that you care about, that other people will care about, or no one will fuck with it.”
Written by Daisy Woodward