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Management in Practice

How Do You Market a TV Phenomenon?

Starting in the late 1990s, a series of television shows with a novelistic sweep, many of them produced by cable channels, have redefined the medium; at the same time, technology has given audience members new ways to engage with each other and their favorite shows. As AMC’s executive vice president of marketing, Linda Schupack '92 has had the job of selling two of the biggest hits of TV’s second golden age: Mad Men and Breaking Bad. She talked to Yale Insights about creating great marketing for great stories.

Q: How did the older American Movie Classics become AMC, and what did that mean for the brand?

We made a conscious decision, first, to move from American Movie Classics, which had no commercials, to become a commercially driven entity—to take on a second revenue stream. At that point, we moved to more contemporary movies. So that was the first piece of the evolution. But we later realized that movies were very quickly becoming a commodity product, and we needed to distinguish ourselves in the larger television landscape. So the decision to move to original programming was to offer singular programming that audiences would rally around, that cable operators would truly value and be willing to pay a premium for. That was the strategic imperative.

We very keenly felt that we wanted to create original programming that could stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the greatest movies of all time.

Q: You very quickly had two big hits with Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

I think the so-called new golden age of television was probably ushered in with The Sopranos and Sex in the City. And then Mad Men and Breaking Bad are right up there. Those shows provided an amazing foundation to continue to develop original programming. Those shows set the network up as a place, as a destination, for quality and distinctive and cinematic television.

Q: Looking back at the first couple seasons of those shows, how did you describe what the brand was?

Our brand positioning at the time was “story matters here.” Storytelling was always really important to the brand and fundamental to the brand. And you can trace that back to movies and American Movie Classics. By “story matters here,” we were saying that story and everything attached to quality storytelling was important to us across all aspects.

Q: Were you at all able to anticipate the scale of the success with those programs?

You always hope, but you never know! It has just been sort of an extraordinary ride to see it happen, and to see all the different ways that people want to engage and interact with our programming.

Our goal is always to go beyond the television page in some way, and with Mad Men, people are writing about the fashion, they’re writing about the politics of it, the design of it. Mad Men has just touched people in so many ways, and offered all sorts of different ways in. And I think that’s what you’re seeking with all of these great TV shows. You want to start a conversation in a variety of different ways. It’s sort of like literature. You read a great book, and you want to talk about it with people. That’s what our shows are tapping into.

Q: There’s a kind of energy in a great story.

There is, because you’re playing it back in your head, and you have to discuss what just happened or what might happen, and you want a community of likeminded people. That’s why social media has just amplified that response. I remember when I was growing up, my sister lived in New York, and there was this show called Thirtysomething. We both watched it. And we would call each other during the commercial breaks and talk about what had just happened. I mean that’s social media, just enormously rudimentary. That’s what you’re seeing happen with second-screen experiences, people tweeting before it, people tweeting after, live blogging, all of it.

Q: Some of these shows create an alternate world and you want to find other people who are in that world, if you will.

These characters and the worlds are so meaningful and so real to people, and I think that’s the power of the artistry. They are so finely realized across all dimensions of artistic expression. You have beautifully written characters. You have beautifully acted characters. You have beautifully shot characters. Once you enter these worlds, what happens there is playing out in your head, and these characters do feel real. So yes, you are proud of Don for doing something, because you’ve been with him for the past two or three seasons and you know he hasn’t necessarily done these things before. Again, it’s like literature. In fiction you have this deep understanding of characters’ motivations, or you think you do.

Q: Let me come back to the brand and ask, what is the place of the brand in that? Individuals are having these very meaningful experiences that engage the imagination and the emotions in their relationship with the show and the characters. How much do you want them to relate to AMC as well?

You want them to have a relationship with Mad Men, and you also want them to have a relationship with AMC. Any of one of our shows is a part of AMC, but they are not the whole.  And the whole is eclectic by design—so it can serve as an umbrella under which all these shows fit. With AMC, you can’t really say it is just one type of programming. Our current brand positioning of “something more” promises that whatever sort of experience you get, it will be deeper, it will be richer, it will be more immersive, it will be something more than what you maybe had conventionally expected.

Q: How do you think about marketing something like Mad Men in its second or third seasons, when it’s already a hit and widely known and understood, versus at the beginning?

That’s the challenge of the job, and that’s what is so exciting about the job, and it is why I’m never bored in my job. A show in its first season is very different than in later seasons, but it’s different also because the world around it has changed. There’s new competition or there are new ways to experience it with technology, and the audience comes to the show with a different set of expectations. These are all the things that you need to think about. In the first season, you’re introducing the series to an audience, so you want to get the essence of what the thing is, and you’re sort of intriguing and teasing and getting people to get excited by the experience that will come.

In subsequent seasons, they know what the show is, so you want to satisfy those expectations, but you also want to promise something else, something different. You’re sort of teasing what this new season is versus previous seasons.

Q: You’ve talked about turning fans into evangelists. Do you give up some control when fans broadcast their experiences of a show?

I think you have to. I would say, though, that we’re very lucky. With our shows, people care so passionately about the shows, and so whatever they are doing comes from a good place. They’re not making fun of the shows. They may be having fun, but it’s because they love these shows. If something gets passed on, it’s because other people appreciate it, and it extends the community or cements a relationship with the series. And there are some things, to be frank, that I prefer the fans do, because it might not be appropriate for the network to do, but a fan can have fun with it.

Q: A lot of what you’re talking about is this emotional connection with people. Your role must have a quantitative component as well in trying to think about how you maximize the effectiveness of what you’re doing. How do you think about the art and the science of it?

It is an art and a science. I probably lean more on the art side in developing positioning or creative. I’m always looking for insights into our audience and behaviorally what they’re doing and how they’re responding to what we do. I want information to analyze. But it may not be super quantitative, because the world is changing so rapidly that sometimes quantitative information just does not give a full picture of right now. So it’s taking whatever is available, whether it’s hard data or soft data, and then making informed choices.

We do use more quantitative analysis in figuring out where to deploy dollars, and when we’re building our marketing plan, assessing impressions and reach. All of that factors in. But when we’re developing creative that we think gets at the essence of a show or that is going to be a distinctive experience for our audience, the high bar is always the show. We want our materials to be as distinctive as the show itself.

Q: How do you balance promoting the juggernauts you have with trying to build a stable of programs that all have the potential to be successful?

Everything we have on our air, everything that we create, is important to the brand in some way. And it is figuring out the different role that each show plays in the portfolio of the AMC brand and understanding how the business of AMC, the network with 100 million-plus households, can work for us. We tackle each show individually, and try to make as big a splash as possible to bring the broadest audience possible to the network.

Q: How much does the audience move from show to show?

We’re always trying. That’s what is fantastic about something like The Walking Dead, the number one show on television. That’s a massive promotional platform for us, and we can use it to get rather pointed messages about other shows out to a vast audience. The goal is that they go from show to show to show and not leave AMC. And that’s the appeal of the brand positioning with “something more,” and being known for quality storytelling.

Q: You’ve made a big splash with series finales. Is there a part of you that thinks, “Oh, God, what do we do when these things are over?” Or is it exciting to think, “Well, now there are new shows and new propositions”?

As a fan, I’m always sad. The meetings where we’re talking about the show finale are bittersweet. But as a marketer, there’s something satisfying about tying a ribbon around the series and then moving on to the next thing. Everything is so fluid these days in television, and I think our brand is appropriately organic and fluid. I’m excited to see the shape that a new set of shows will give to the brand—all under the same umbrella of offering quality storytelling.

Interview conducted and edited by Jonathan Weisberg.