A Place to Play

By Adam Chorney
Agency: Fallon, Minneapolis
Client: CNBC's Squawk Box
Category: 2006

Intro: How a Small Assigment Got Big NBC Universal is a really big account for Fallon Media. We develop connection strategies and media plans for NBC Primetime, NBC Sports, NBC News, USA Network, Sci Fi Channel, Bravo, MSNBC and CNBC. We have 16 people working on the business and usually at least 10 plans being developed at any one time. I’m a connection planner on the business, which means you’ll generally find me jumping from team to team, helping them set the strategic course as they develop their media plans. They’re my creatives, if you will.

This paper is about a little assignment we undertook for CNBC, the smallest-budget network in the NBCU portfolio. We were asked to develop a media plan to promote the network’s revamped signature morning show, Squawk Box. But as we began looking at the business problem, we came to an insight that led to a whole new way of approaching the CNBC brand. Which, in turn, led to a game-changing idea for Squawk Box.

The Starting Point: Taking Stock of Context Connection planning believes that context can be just as resonant with meaning as content. So we seek out insights about where, when and, most importantly, how a brand is experienced in order to complement and amplify what it is saying. We then brief our teams with the connection idea we’ve developed out of this work.

We began by looking at what the experience of CNBC had been since it was founded in 1991 as a niche channel for the financially obsessed. We learned that there were basically three phases—the stiff years (pre-bubble), the sexy years (bubble), and the sober years (post-bubble). In short order CNBC had gone from having no swagger, to lots of swagger, to a kind of gun-shy anti-swagger.

We talked a lot about this roller coaster—how CNBC had come to represent people’s perceptions of the market as a whole, and how some wayward negativity had managed to rub off on the brand. People didn’t necessarily blame CNBC for what had happened to their portfolios, but the idea of watching the network just brought back a lot of regrets they didn’t want to relive.

They had played the market as if it were a game, and when they started to lose their money, the game just wasn’t fun anymore. In fact, it sucked.

The Inflection Point: Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game This idea of the stock market as a game opened up our thinking. If people felt burned by this “game” they really shouldn’t have been playing in the first place, what if we could find a group of people who actually were qualified to play it? So instead of pursuing the masses of viewers for whom CNBC had always been an awkward fit at best, what if we rededicated ourselves solely to those who thrive on playing the game seriously?

The more we thought about this idea of playing the game seriously, the more correlations we found. All in all, we realized the only real difference between playing the market and playing a game is in the stakes. Both are ruled by emotion, but in the stock market the financial stakes take the emotional stakes to a whole new level. It was this aspect that reminded us of another serious game—poker. The Metaphor: Strategists versus Gamblers In poker there are two kinds of players—those who know what they’re doing and those who don’t.

For those who know what they’re doing, poker is a game of strategy, pure and simple. Gambling and luck have nothing to do with it. Experience counts. You need the discipline to fold your cards when all you have going for you is luck. As Kenny Rogers says, you need to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.

Those who don’t know what they’re doing, on the other hand, play poker like a gambler. They don’t have the fundamental knowledge of the game, so they have to rely on luck. Sit down at a poker table with these people and you’ll see them play cards they would never play if they had known better.

The Rigor: Validating the Metaphor This distinction between strategists and gamblers in poker felt like a vivid metaphor to inspire the teams. But we knew we would need to prove it before writing the brief. So we set out to validate the idea by enlisting our data-mining specialist to develop a segmentation.

What we discovered was a segment of ambitious investors motivated by the competition of the market. By looking outwardly at the performance of others, they use the success they see as a yardstick by which to measure their own. This leads them to embrace risk more than others do because they know it is the only consistently reliable way to outplay the competition.

The key, however, is that to effectively manage the downside of risk, they are extremely diligent about doing their homework and emphasizing rock-solid fundamentals. This gives them a feeling of control and confidence that frees them to engage in a game most would consider too risky.

Which, of course, is exactly how a good poker player approaches the game—relying on superior knowledge to embrace otherwise intimidating risks.

The Insight: Drawing a Line in the Sand Having validated the poker metaphor with this segment, we turned our attention back to the stock market to see how the idea of a strategist playing the market might illuminate our thinking.

Pre-bubble, the market was clearly a place for this type of person. Playing the market meant calling a stockbroker or financial planner and having him or her execute a smart investment strategy on your behalf. Only those who really knew what they were doing went near the market themselves.

In the bubble era, however, companies like eTrade and Schwab helped democratize investing. People were empowered, and encouraged, to take charge of their investments. The promise of easy wealth led them to abandon their tried-and-true strategies. But just as in poker, relying on dumb luck like that doesn’t serve you in the long term—eventually the odds catch up with you.

Thinking about it this way, our problem became clear. During the bubble years, the distinction between strategists and gamblers in the market had become blurred, and no one had managed to fix that in the years since. If we wanted to rededicate CNBC and Squawk Box to the serious players, we would need to step in and do something. We would have to let strategists know that CNBC was drawing a line in the sand on their behalf.

The Idea: A Place to Play Following the poker metaphor to its conclusion led us to our solution. We saw that serious poker players congregate online to hone their skills against other serious players. Being able to stack themselves up in an insulated environment makes them that much better when they sit down at a real poker table. The idea we briefed the creative and media teams on was to give strategists a similar place to play, a place wrapped in the spirit of serious competition. In short, a whole new context where both strategists and Squawk Box could get their respective grooves back.

The Work: Beyond Advertising The result, using online poker and fantasy sports leagues as our model, was to create the Squawk Box Fantasy Portfolio Challenge, an online game in which strategists could stack themselves up in an ongoing stock-trading competition.

But what helped the idea really take hold was integrating the Fantasy Portfolio Challenge into the show itself. Each morning, Squawk Box highlighted the strategies and tactics of participants, with the hosts discussing what the competitors at the top of the leader board were doing right, so viewers could feel connected to the larger community of like-minded strategists.

And to solidify our competitive credentials, our media plan was built around the NCAA basketball tournament’s March Madness, occurring at the time of our launch. We sought out adjacencies to bracketology grids, tournament feature stories, and game coverage on television.

The result was that, instead of creating a small-budget ad campaign to promote Squawk Box, we used our advertising to create and promote the Fantasy Portfolio Challenge as a platform representing the show.

Results Going in, we were confident the Fantasy Portfolio Challenge would do well. Pre-testing told us that 68 percent of viewers said they were likely to participate, and that 66 percent would enjoy seeing strategy and standings updates featured on Squawk Box every morning. What we didn’t realize was just how well these optimistic numbers would hold true.

Although the show had been averaging only 102,000 viewers per day, more than 150,000 people signed up to participate in the Fantasy Portfolio Challenge. But, more importantly, the six-year negative ratings trend for both CNBC and Squawk Box ceased. In fact, since the campaign launched, ratings for the show are up 14 percent in the key demo, and the network as a whole is up 12 percent.