Microsoft’s Marketing Chief on Working With the NFL During Covid

Microsoft Corp.

has relied on the National Football League’s mass audiences since it became a sponsor in 2013. This year, the coronavirus pandemic left the company wondering whether there would be an NFL season at all.

Now that the season is under way even as the pandemic continues, Microsoft is coming out with a humorous ad campaign tied to the NFL that it hopes will offer consumers a sense of normalcy.

A new commercial shows New Orleans Saints players using Microsoft Teams and Surface products to remotely give rookies advice on their fashion choices and touchdown dances.

Microsoft Chief Marketing Officer Kathleen Hall talked to The Wall Street Journal about working with the NFL in the early days of the pandemic and the challenge of striking the right tone at a highly fraught time. The interview has been condensed and edited.

WSJ: When the pandemic struck, how did the NFL handle the uncertainty looming over the coming season with sponsors like Microsoft?

Ms. Hall: This summer we had a sponsor-partner meeting. It included the NFL’s head of operations, alongside their head medical adviser. It wasn’t a sales pitch to partners to spend money. They were sharing their own rigor and process around what it would take to make the season work.

There was this evolving candid spirit behind conversations with the NFL that were grounded in science and data. We were seeing projections and theories and scenarios. I thought, “They have this covered.” When you look at the trajectory of [Covid] incidences and some precautions being taken and how they’re reducing exposure, we were getting optimistic.

WSJ: What kinds of questions were sponsors asking during the meeting? What did you learn?

Ms. Hall: The questions I recall were along the lines of, if there’s no fan representation in the stadium how can we get that energy; what would that look like?

WSJ: How did they respond? Would the lack of an in-person fan experience mean less bang for your buck?

Ms. Hall: The fan experience was probably where the league was the most conservative because you’re talking about public health and safety. Most, if not all, of our value comes from the broadcast calculation, not the in-stadium experience. Broadcasters have done a good job keeping energy positive.

WSJ: What contingency plans did the networks offer?

Ms. Hall: You realize the value of your relationships through the years. The heads of sports at most networks I’ve known since their kids’ bris. The NFL is another deeply embedded relationship. It was more pulling together than a rigorous alternative contingency value-add. No one got to that level of planning.

WSJ: What inspired the latest campaign?

Ms. Hall: We thought, can we achieve some sense of normalcy here and execute this in a different way? I think the fear was, could this be hokey, not entertaining?

There’s a feeling that people have empathy overload now. There are [many] deep emotional spots. We’ve got to have a little fun.

WSJ: The news cycle is more heated and active than ever, from a coming election to the Black Lives Matter movement. How does that affect your messaging, how you talk to consumers?

Ms. Hall: This year, we’re self-censoring a lot more than we used to. It’s more in the concepting and how it might get interpreted. Right now I’m looking at our holiday advertising. We have a range of things we’re looking at, from a sentimental, serious message to humorous to empowerment.

WSJ: What has been the greatest change in the creative process in recent months?

Ms. Hall: Timelines have shortened. You can’t plan out. You don’t know the production reality. Can we be on set with crew, can we not?

WSJ: Do you save money with fewer people on shoots?

Ms. Hall: You do. It’s 50% to 75% of what it was. Travel and hotels for 10 days costs a lot. Now shoots are shorter with less people. For some you want to be careful; if we do have to fly people, how do we make it as safe as possible?

Write to Alexandra Bruell at [email protected]

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