Tim Ellis – EVP and Chief Marketing Officer at NFL
Think the NFL runs a six month season? Think again. The NFL is now an around-the-clock machine deliberately churning out content and programs year round. At the center of those stories is the NFL’s EVP and Chief Marketing Officer Tim Ellis. A true innovator, Tim has accumulated more prestigious awards than he can count over his three decades as a marketing professional. This includes winning Marketer of the Year by Ad Age, being recognized as a top CMO by Adweek, while being awarded with 4 Emmys along the way.
In this episode of the Courageous Podcast, Ryan asks Tim what it’s really like to work for Commissioner Roger Goodell. Tim also shares what he perceives to be his boldest move during his time with the NFL so far. And, finally, Tim explains what the NFL’s “helmets off” strategy means, and why storytelling around players is the secret to the NFL connecting more authentically with audiences old and new.
Ryan Berman 0:00
This is a show about facing fear, unlocking courage, and taking action.
Tim Ellis (Female) 0:05
Courage isn't necessarily a daunting thing.
Speaker 3 (Male) 0:07
It's going to give you more purpose, it's going to give you more drive.
Speaker 4 (Male) 0:10
It feels like making a courageous decision is going to get you closer to who you aspire to be.
Ryan Berman 0:14
It’s knowledge, plus faith, plus action equals courage.
Tim Ellis 0:18
The agency came back with an ad that started out with ‘football is gay,’ it was all about football is for everyone. And I knew that it would be controversial, but I also knew it would be so meaningful, it would also send such a clear signal that the NFL really stood for inclusion and equality in [Inaudible 0:37] community.
(Intro Music 0:37-0:42)
Ryan Berman 0:42
Round and round the shield goes, where it stops, nobody knows. We've seen the shield now in London, in Mexico City, in Germany, and we feel the shield doing work not just in 70,000 fan-induced arenas, but in the community arena, and the cause arena. And we experience a shield not just on a false Sunday, but now, on a Thursday, or on Amazon, or in the heavy thick of April. And with this year-round success, you might as well rebrand the NFL as ‘The National Flourish League.’ And at the center of all the stories being told is my guest today, the Chief Marketing Officer of the NFL who I had to go to Canada, by the way, to meet and have dinner with, ironically, Tim Ellis. What's up, Tim? Good to see, man.
Tim Ellis 1:33
Hey, nice to see you again. Little warmer weather since Canada.
Ryan Berman 1:38
I know, but that was… Oh, my gosh, was that place beautiful or what?
Tim Ellis 1:41
Gorgeous, gorgeous. I had never been there before, it's amazing.
Ryan Berman 1:45
Yeah, it was my first time too. Shout out to the guys at The Gathering. Tim and I both had a chance to speak up there. And you're sort of trapped in the mountains, it's a nice strategy.
Tim Ellis 1:53
Yeah. Good place to be trapped, it is a good strategy.
Ryan Berman 1:57
So look, I read the statistic that 50% of America, back here in America, lives 50 miles from where they were born. The Apple really doesn't fall far from the tree. But when I look at your career, and you put it on timeout, and pause, and check it out, like, you've gone where the job is taking you. Santa Monica, Area for Activision, Volkswagen took you to Sweden, I think Northern Virginia as well. And then, you're back here in New York with the NFL. Do you think you've just always been up for the adventure?
Tim Ellis 2:35
Yeah. Believe it or not, it actually started before I began my formal marketing career. In my early 20s, I set out to go to school for a short time in Paris and I had such a great time. And I was so curious about the rest of the world that I decided not to go home. I bought a one-way ticket to Israel, which I knew nothing about, and joined a kibbutz, which again, I knew nothing about, and had an incredible time. I met a lot of people who had traveled the world for many years, and so, I decided at that point that I was just going to sort of work my way around the world for the next five years, and then, I would still be a relatively young man when I got back. I figured, like, “Hey, this is exactly what I want to do,” And that's what I did. So, I worked in Norway on an oil rig, and I worked in Japan as an actor teaching English, and I worked on a cruise ship for a long time, I drove tractors in Israel. It was a really fascinating period of my life. So, I had a lot of international experience and living abroad before I ever started any kind of sort of formal marketing job. So, when I joined Goodby Silverstein & Partners, which, at that time, they were really in their heyday during the ‘Got Milk,’ days and so forth. Everything they did was just being recognized and celebrated around the world. I decided that I was going to go to Sweden, you mentioned Sweden, right? So, I decided I was going to go to Sweden and start up in a firm there as part of an international agency, Lintas, which later actually then got bought by publicists, and I spent the next 12 years of my career in Sweden. Some of that was in the agency world, and then, I went over to the client side for the first time. It was actually Volvo that I worked for over there. But if you about courage, it was a big move to go from, by far, the most recognized, celebrated, creatively celebrated agency in the world at Goodby, and then, decided to leave all that, leave the US and go to Sweden to work for the small agency.
Ryan Berman 5:01
Well, I think it worked out. I wouldn't say I wish, the amount of times that I've… because I come from agency world, that's my background too. And the amount of times I wish I would have had, and this is not to hate on partners I've had in the past, but like… How much empathy do you have for your agency partners because you kind of really know what it's like behind the curtain over there?
Tim Ellis 5:26
You do, and you know what it's like in order to sort of motivate them and ensure that all the internal dynamics over there are in the right place. That you really, truly trust each other, and that you're a partner because the biggest mistakes that -- particularly if you’re a former agency person -- the biggest mistakes that a lot of clients make is that they're like, “Okay, well, now I'm in charge, I'm going to tell you what to do. I'm going to direct everything here.” I think I always approach my relationships with agencies like, “No, we're partners here, truly, and my success is your success. And I know the internal dynamics of an agency, and I respect that, and I do my best to try to provide them with as much sort of support and input which motivates people and ensures that the people want to be in our business. Sure, working for the NFL, and before that, working on brands like Call of Duty of Activision, there are a lot of particularly younger creative people that want to work on your account. But you want, you want them to feel like they're going to do the best work of their career with you as their client, and you're going to help them do that, which is going to be mutually beneficial for the partnership.
Ryan Berman 6:47
We're going to talk a lot about your current role today, but before we do that, where did you grew up? Like, where did you grow up? Any siblings? Are you close with the fam?
Tim Ellis 6:59
I grew up in Northern California, Stockton California which, at that time, was really a small town, at least by California, it was like about 100,000 people. I had a couple of brothers. So, very short mom who's a firecracker from Arkansas, who serves really, really strong. She had three big boys. And I grew up there playing sports. My dad worked as a principal in a school forum. Before that, a teacher. And he was actually a Golden Gloves champion boxer in three different states. So, again, my two brothers and I, we grew up in a gym, them teaching us how to box…
Ryan Berman 7:41
This is good to know. This is good to know.
Tim Ellis 7:45
We spent our youth sort of playing sports, and we played Friday nights. We played football on Fridays, all three of us. But then, toward the end of my high school there, my junior/senior year, I walked into the theater, the stage theater, and tried out for a play where I could use a sword, Romeo and Juliet. I was very athletic, and I thought it was cool. So, I ended up loving it and decided not to go to a traditional university and go to an acting conservatory. And so, I spent those two years there, which was really then, when I told you earlier, that I went over to Paris after that. I was interested in exploring and discovering things, and not necessarily just jumping into a more traditional work environment straight on.
Ryan Berman 8:37
So, I imagine that the… I mean, look, our business, there is theater. Anytime there's a subjective, especially the idea space, there is theater involved. And it's funny, I always say my dad is a lawyer, my mom was a teacher, and my style of presentation is smack down the middle. I've got the empathy and the thoughtfulness of my mother, the third-grade teacher, but I have the reality of, like, every day you're presenting an idea. It’s like a lawyer presenting it to a jury, and you got to make sure the first piece of information is set before you move on to the next, and then, the next, and the next. I do think there's theater in the way I was sort of brought into the world. Just the three of you, three brothers?
Tim Ellis 9:27
Ryan Berman 9:28
Where are you in the order?
Tim Ellis 9:29
Ryan Berman 9:31
Oh, the middle.
Tim Ellis 9:33
I’m in the middle. And both of them, they pretty much stayed where they grew up. So, well, my younger brother is still in Stockton, although he's about to move to the Napa area, Phil, but because he's in the wine industry, but my older brother went from high school to college in Texas and never left. For whatever reasons, they didn't really have the same edge that I did. And neither did my… Well, my father, I told you he was a boxer, but his family, his dad worked around the world in the military. So, he had to travel around the world. So, when he came back to California and started his own family, he didn't want to go anywhere. He wanted to stay, and he did. He stayed in that Stockton when he was a young man, stayed in Stockton his whole life. So, I've really been the only member of the family who had that sort of desire to explore and see the world., but I've been that way my whole life doesn't say,
Ryan Berman 10:33
Where do you think the curious gene came from?
Tim Ellis 10:35
I don't know. Even as a kid, my poor mom, even when I was like, 10 years old, I figured out how to get change off their dresser and go put it in the local buses that would take me downtown. And a little tiny kid, I was down there exploring around, and getting a beef jerky, and coke, and wandering through the mall just as a child. And I've always wanted to just go out and see what was sort of just beyond my own environment.
Ryan Berman 11:04
We're going to need a whole nother hour on free-range children because when I was a kid… I have a seven and a 10-year-old, and we walk them to school. I had to catch a bus, survive the bus, it's a very different time. I know our listeners are probably tuning in because they're like me, they're ravenous NFL fans. They love the NFL. And five years ago, you were hired, I believe, directly by the commissioner. I'm very curious, share what you can share, what was like the interview process? Who connected you guys? Was it like 12 rounds with the commissioner? And as a boxer, that's not a bad thing, but what was it like?
Tim Ellis 11:55
Well, listen, it turned out to be the perfect opportunity for me. And I think, in many ways, my background was really suited for what they were looking for. It didn't take very long at all. They had been looking for a CMO for I think over six months, and they talked to many, many candidates. I had no idea they were looking for a CMO. I had recently decided that… I'd been at Activision seven years, and I love gaming, but I didn't want to spend the rest of my career as a gaming guy. So, I began to sort of like to see what was out there. I was actually talking to another potential brand to work for as a CMO, and I was a finalist there and they were having a hard time making a decision. And so, I asked the headhunter at the time, “Well, do you know anything else interesting out there?” “Just maybe this NFL thing.” And then, when they said that, I'm like, “Are you kidding me? NFL thing, what? Show me the job description.” I'm a massive football fan. I grew up loving the game and playing the game. So, I looked at that job description, I went to meet the guy over the head, I'm like, “This is perfect for me. This whole job description reads my whole background and my spirit.” So, I said, “Here, let me just jot down five things you should tell the NFL why they should meet me.” And sure enough, I had an interview within a few days. I met on a Zoom. I met, I don't know, four or five executives, one of whom was my first boss. And then, after that day, they brought me to New York and I met Roger and a couple of other people. And then, they offered me a job shortly after. All it took is like a few interviews on a Zoom one day. And then, the next day I came to New York to meet Roger, and that was it.
Ryan Berman 13:54
The universe is like a funny thing when it's like, “Wait a minute, this is it.”
Tim Ellis 13:57
It was a perfect match because, here's the thing. I had a lot of brand experience launching and building big brands, understanding how to nurture and how to build a brand that was appealing to a variety of different segments. And then, with all the car experience because, not only did I work for Volvo internationally for four years, I then worked for three years for Volkswagen in North America, but I headed up their marketing there. So, I had all that, but then I had seven years of youth marketing at Activision. And a lot of that was digital marketing, and all the things that we had to do to connect the game to gamers outside the game. So, a lot of work on one-to-one fan engagement, as well, again, as creating big exciting launches where we would bring in anywhere from 20 to 25 million gamers within two weeks. And then, the rest of the year, we just spend all of our time engaging those gamers, keeping them from churning, serving microtransactions, and extensions of the game, and things like that, of which, at that time when I joined, we weren't doing. So, we almost doubled our revenue in the time that I was there simply by really learning how and building the capabilities to have this year-round gaming experience for all of our biggest games, titles, like Call of Duty, Destiny, Guitar Hero, etc.
Ryan Berman 15:30
You know, we have a lot of curious listeners, which I think courage and curiosity go hand in hand. And I always say, when you're in the interview process, you're interviewing them as much as they're interviewing you. You want to make sure it's a good match. But when it's your dream job, and you're flying 3000 miles, and you're going to meet with Commissioner Goodell, do you just feel like, “Oh, I am interviewing him as well,” or, “I want this job,” or what was that like?
Tim Ellis 15:59
Well, I think I'd heard enough from the people who I'd interviewed before to know that I had a good opportunity to be successful there. All the things that they said that they wanted to do, needed to do, I felt like I had a good grasp on how to do that. And, in fact, sort of the strategy that I laid out during those interviews and to Roger that day is pretty much exactly what we're doing almost five years later today. Obviously, much more robust fashion, and we broadened things out, and there's new things we brought to the program, but, in general, the core strategy and focus of what we needed to do is the same as in those days. I think, yeah, got to be careful, right? Because you're right, when I was sitting in Rogers's office, looking at all the things in his office, which, right there, as a fanboy, I was about to lose my mind. I see him walking down the hall and he’s coming, you know, Rogers a big guy, like John Wayne coming into the room there, you do feel a bit starstruck to see somebody like Roger Goodell walk in because, let's face it, he's a celebrity, he's an iconic figure in sports and entertainment. And so, you have to be careful, you have to watch yourself that you're not sort of hearing the things that you really want to hear, but you're not really carefully interviewing them as well and listening for things of whether you think you can be successful or not, right? Because one of the things, of course, I was concerned about is that I would come into the league and not be able to do the things that I knew that they should do. I thought, “Well, you never know, I might get in here and I might be micromanaged, I might be sort of tied to like what they've done in the past, or they might say that they really wanted to do things they hadn't done before but do they really want to do that?” You always have to ask yourself that question when you're talking to a prospective new employer.
Ryan Berman 17:57
It reminds me of a long time ago for a film company, I wrote this line. It was, “Before Steven Spielberg was Steven Spielberg, he was just Steven Spielberg.” And as Goodell comes into the office, is there something you can share now that, like, he's not Roger Goodell, but your coworker, just Roger Goodell? Is there something you could share about him that the world really doesn't know about him?
Tim Ellis 18:21
Well, here's the thing, Roger is sort of bigger than life. They often put him behind some window sitting with billionaires, owners and things like that. And so, you don't really see the more human, sensitive, complex side of Roger. And he's a very thoughtful, sensitive person. And while, sure, he's a masculine figure in the game of professional football, but he's also a very sensitive, thoughtful person. I think that that, to me, the questions he asked me, the things that he wanted to know about gave me more and more sort of that level of certainty that, no, he wants what I actually think we should do, he wants what I will have to bring here. He wants a more human approach to the league. He wants to really connect with younger audiences, have a more compassionate approach toward the marketing. And that, I thought that was terrific. I had no idea that he would be that way. That surprised me, I have to say.
Ryan Berman 19:31
You try to be as prepared as you can for conversations like this, right? So, I tried to look back at like what's really changed in the NFL over the last five years, and, look, the Superbowl is now in mid-February, free agency kicks off in March, the draft is in the thick of late April. I don't have to tell you, that the NFL, maybe it felt like a five or six months season. The NFL is a year-round calendar. I can't imagine what your marketing plan looks like. Do you actually get a break? Is there an actual slip season for you?
Tim Ellis 20:11
Our breaks are maybe a few days here in a week, maybe one month in a week, two or three months later, that's it. Actually we're busier out of season than we are in season, believe it or not. And I say ‘we,’ I'm talking about the marketing department, but even a lot of my colleagues here in New York. Cearly, Troy Vincent and his drip, and football operations, and some of them, when they’re playing throughout the season, that's a different story. But we prepare to such a degree that, once the season starts, then we're just in execution mode. And so, all the offseason is, you're not only sort of engaging with people on an ongoing basis around their favorite players in their favorite teams, but it's also about all the planning, the strategy, the development of all the assets that you're going to use during the season. And so, there's a tremendous amount of work that goes on. The other thing is too, that we have lots of meetings with our owners where we're planning, and talking about important things, and voting on certain issues. And then, I think we've done this quite well in the marketing area, we've created things that are exciting that weren't there before even a few years ago. Like, for example, the schedule coming out. They usually just put the schedule out there. Well, now we create a big marketing event around the schedule release, which, let's face it, if you're a fan that's really exciting, knowing who’s going to play when, and so forth. And so, then working carefully with the clubs of how we get people excited, and engaged, and then distribute those schedules, that's become a very big marketing moment. And then, we create this marketing moment, again, as an example, of when all the teams start to practice for the first time during the summer, like, back together Saturday, we call it. Not the most creative name in the world, but it’s pretty fun, and we made a fan sort of activation out of it. So now, all the players come back, they start on the same day practicing, we bring all the fans in to watch that, we have broadcast that goes to every team throughout the day to see as the players come back. And we've made a big fun marketing moment out of it. And I like to think that we've created a marketing machine here at the NFL, and we just do everything in our power to create more exciting moments to get fans engaged to talk to them, yes. And all the media we have available to us, the broad media, but we're also getting pretty good at the one-to-one direct media as well in communication. Gathering more data, better data, understanding how to truly meaningfully engage with fans on a one-to-one basis. And then to carry on a conversation with them year-round. I think, again, that was one of the things that, when I first met Roger and some of the other folks here -- I certainly learned that when I was in the gaming industry -- you have to engage with people year-round. I think that there is an advantage to the NFL that our season is relatively short. I think, by the time we come back in end of August, September, people are just dying to see football. Whereas, I think the leagues that have longer seasons, they don't have that benefit of people really… That anticipation, that excitement of coming back the same way. But, at the same time, you have a lot of your fans who want that engagement year-round, I think we've learned how to do that pretty well.
Ryan Berman 23:37
I like this, do actually call them marketing moments? Is that what you call them, or is that just… Okay.
Tim Ellis 23:42
We do, and then we've also mapped out. we've done a lot of research for some of our partners and with our fans for a project we call ‘Moments that matter.’ And so, really, like everything from getting ready to sort of watch the games, and preparing if you’re going to play fantasy, or just watch your favorite teams and players, or like go into the game tickets and everything. Like parking, you name it. We really try to understand the real total fan journey, and then, we've mapped out these moments that matter. And then, we've really sort of shared that across all the different disciplines here at the NFL together with our 32 clubs, which, by the way, I should mention this, I think most people probably don't realize that those 32 clubs are also a huge part of the marketing for the NFL. It's not that they're just out there selling tickets, we work with him very closely, we have a very tight partnership and relationship to where it's a collaborative partnership. And we really coordinate all of our activities throughout the year. And I think that's one of the things that I've also put a huge emphasis on since I've been here.
Ryan Berman 24:50
You know, some organizations, they're not very fluid. They're [Inaudible 24:55], but it takes like 18 months, two years, five years for decisions to be made. And I'm not sure I'm hoping I get a real answer on this one, you guys are meeting with the owners is it twice a year or three times a year?
Tim Ellis 25:09
Several times a year, we have committees that meet throughout the year. And then, we'll meet at least three times a year as big groups.
Ryan Berman 25:16
So, as you think about like spreading out the marketing moments to make this a more year-round magic all year round in the NFL. Take for example the draft moving to late April, is that something that the first moment it's posed after all this data, to the owners, it's like, “Yes, let's go,” or is it something that, “All right, we’ll implement this two years down the line”? I guess this is a long-winded way of asking how fluid and how agile are decisions being made?
Tim Ellis 25:42
Listen, they can be made very quickly. And I think we have a system of working here with committees, and then, the larger bodies. And if, for example, if we need to have a vote before the larger meeting, we can always call a vote, of course, over the phone or on the Zoom. But it's usually much more laid out there in terms of, okay, this is what we want to do this year, this is what we're looking at doing in the next two years. We meet with committees who have specific responsibilities, like I'm together with Peter Riley. I'm the chairman of the fan engagement committee, and so, we have a group of owners who are part of that committee. We have agenda items, we talk those things through, we agree on things, get alignment, and then, we take those to the larger, all 32 other meetings to present, and, if necessary, to get a vote on. And so, things can actually happen quite quickly. I think I have been very impressed with the way that the owners, if they believe that you provided the right rationale, and data points, and justification for a decision, they'll get on board right away. It happens very quickly.
Ryan Berman 26:52
Okay, I got to ask this question. You said you were a fan growing up, are you allowed to have a team anymore?
Tim Ellis 26:59
The answer is yes or no, and I’ll tell you exactly what I mean by that. Of course, we're supposed to support all 32 teams. And we cannot evre favor a team because you're a personal sort of fan of any given team. At the same time, people get into sports, most of the time, because they’re sports fans themselves. They're interested in it because they're fans themselves. So, pretty much, I don't think I know anybody here doesn't have a clear team. And you're allowed to sort of talk about that team, have that team up in your office if you want, things like that. But again, you have to be objective, you have to be careful that doesn't get into your decision-making. But yeah, sure, you're allowed to have a team.
Ryan Berman 27:40
So you're probably not walking into an owner's meeting with like a foam finger on, anything like that.
Tim Ellis 27:45
No, you're not doing that. But I have colleagues that everybody laughs and they know that they're big fans of The Packers, or The Cowboys, or whatever. And there's no secret around that, they make jokes around at some time. But we're all professionals here, we're all supporting all 32 teams.
Ryan Berman 28:03
We kind of talked about how you go on this journey, and you try to design a life, which I think is what marketing is, by the way, it's like design a life, stand for something, and you try to find something that you really love. Is there a part of the job that's absolutely your favorite?
Tim Ellis 28:18
Working with the players, I talked to you a little earlier about the things that I knew immediately, strategically, when I started talking to Roger and some of the people here, the first major thing was like helmets off. So now, we refer to it as the helmet-off strategy, which sounds simple, but if you really think about it, most of the highlights and everything that are out there, players always have their helmets on. And even after they score a touchdown, they don't take their helmets off in the endzone. So, except for like a handful of the players, historically, who were quarterbacks and the most talked about players in the media, nobody knew who these guys were. They didn't even know what they looked like, much less knew who they were as human beings. So, sort of the biggest strategic sort of shift that I made when I came in was like everything's got to be helmets off. Unless it's a highlight reel, it's all helmets off and let's get to know who these players are. Let's get behind the things they care about, and that could be entertainment, it could be gaming fashion, or fitness, or anything else. Or, it could be a cause, it could be philanthropic endeavors that they really believe they want to be involved with and they want to get behind. Let's help them express themselves and let's help them be their voice to the outside world. And so, really, that helped us at the NFL have a more human, more authentic voice. Quite frankly, let's face it, fans care about players and teams, they don't care about a shield. So, having the players be the face of the league and to connect with people on an emotional human level had a very positive impact on the assumptions of the brand, and on how much people really wanted to be a part of the NFL. And so, that's a long way of saying that, yeah, my favorite thing is the thing that I really focus on when I came here, is like, let's get close and intimate with the players. And so, I've gotten to know so many players. Some of them, I even call friends at this point and know quite well. I always am looking for the new recruits to come in for the draft, we've got the draft coming up now in just a couple of weeks. It's just so rewarding and interesting to get to know these guys, and really align with them, and partner with them, earn their trust, and that makes the job all the more rewarding and interesting.
Ryan Berman 30:45
And there's social media. The screens, the amount of screens that are available to us to get to know these real stories, and these real players. Not even players, they’re people. And really know these people what they're all about. It's been a wild five, I don't see it slowing down.
Tim Ellis 31:05
No. Storytelling around players is the secret to continuing to make the league and all the teams and players more relatable, more relevant, continue to find, sort of, modernity within the league. And then, again, that emotional connection. look at look at the Kelce brothers and their mom. It's a phenomenon. Right now, I went to see Travis [Inaudible 31:31] few weeks ago. It was so much fun, his brother was on stage as well. And that's just a great example of you get to know who these guys are, get to know their families, and so forth. And it just makes them so much more interesting, so much more talk-worthy, and really assets for our league and our sport.
Ryan Berman 31:55
Well, you said it earlier, but I think that just makes them human. It's like we're back to primal. And even when you were discussing Commissioner Goodell Rogers, as an outsider who's never met him, he does seem really thoughtful and really intentional and in all the right ways. I'm not here to be pandering, it's called The Courageous Podcast, but you could see his intentionality on the way he goes about how he says what he says, it's been thought out. Again, I tried to do some work for this podcast, and I do, I love the NFL, probably like you felt the same way. And there seemed to be three growth areas, and how is it possible to even think that the NFL could grow any bigger? But connecting, we'll call it a better way of connecting, and one; it felt like with youth, the next generation, and they just watch sports differently. Sports Center was my elevator music, it was always on. So, one; I think youth marketing and making sure you're connecting the right way, and they're going to stick around for a three-hour game and beyond. Two; I think the Super Bowl spot clearly was like, “Hey, can we better connect with women and support women, and their quest to be great athletes?” Then, I think International, just all the places you're going. I'm sure there's more, but am I in the ballpark of these are three core areas of focus?
Tim Ellis 33:24
Absolutely. You mentioned three, and then the jnternational is an obvious four, it's a four. It's obvious that young people have a lot more things to do, a lot more things to get their attention than they did 20 years ago. Certainly, the last 5, 10 years, it's just been an explosion of opportunities for engagement digitally and with entertainment choices. And so, that's the most obvious thing, which makes engaging youth and getting their loyalty very, very challenging today. The other thing is that kids just don't play sports the way they used to. The level of activity, physical activity in sports because of screens, there isn't the same level of sort of… You can't depend on kids necessarily playing, so we put a tremendous amount of focus on youth participation and football participation. You saw a lot of things that we've been doing recently, not only in youth tackle, but in youth flag. It's one of the fastest growing sports in this country, and internationally, youth flag. So, we’re really as a league getting behind that and working together with the 32 clubs to drive the youth programs and flag, girls flag in particular is a huge opportunity. We're getting flags sanctioned in high schools across the country now, we're creating playbooks for all 32 teams, it's like, okay, how much does it cost to get a program started in your local area? What are the things you need to do from an officiating perspective? Equipment? How do you contact people in your local organizations to get it going? All these things have been thought through, we've learned from the teams that have really made a lot of progress in a short amount of time, and we're really making a tremendous effort to sort of grow the game with boys and girls in grade school and in high school throughout the country. And that's all, again, it's because it's just more difficult to sort of engage younger people today when it comes to physical activity and sports, and all sports are experiencing this, which probably won't surprise you. Younger people, put it this way, if you're going to be relevant, you've got to surround yourself with other younger people who just burn for all these emerging platforms and all these things that just continue on a daily basis to emerge. I do my best to bring in the brightest and the most sort of ambitious younger people who understand these platforms, understand how to connect, who are really just hungry to understand what's coming about on a weekly basis. And then, I lead them in the right direction, and I unleash them. I don't tell them what to do on a daily basis, I wouldn't know what to tell them anyway, right? So, I really do my best to sort of allow them to pioneer and to do things that we haven't done here before with the understanding that you have to have that level of trust. And, sort of, this is my mission. And that's the way that we're connecting with these younger audiences, and some of it's done through core influencers, and some of it's done through developing relationships with core partners, like TikTok, and all the major platforms, Instagram, Facebook, you name it, Snapchat. So, it's some of this through that. And then, like I said, some of it is just really through being willing to sort of take your hands off the reins to have the right people just move things forward.
Ryan Berman 36:52
We're bleeding dangerously into a leadership conversation in a good way. And I think, often I remember… Usually, you remember your best boss, and you remember you're not so best boss.
Tim Ellis 37:07
Not so best boss, yeah. (Laughs)
Ryan Berman 37:09
You’re not so best boss, and you learn what to do by watching what not to do. And so, it always comes down to trust, I think it comes down to trust. So, the idea of hiring somebody or people who are really good at things that you're not, and giving them permission to experiment, and play, and learn back. You're the guardrails on this thing, why is that so hard for leaders? Is it just fear?
Tim Ellis 37:35
I think it's fear, and I think they're afraid they might do something which might catch somebody's else's attention, and then, they're going to be blamed, and things like that. And I think you can always pull back. You can always decide that you're going to pull back on something. And I think that, if you really want the best out of people, you let them do things which they can discover, and find, and have a level of recognition for what they're bringing to the company, to own things. And I think that's when teams get excited. I like to learn this stuff. It's not that I'm not interested, I just don't have the time to sort of learn about these things on a day-to-day basis. And I'm not always surrounded by the people that they are. So, I get involved myself, I ask a lot of questions, I learn things all the time. People always say, “You don't know so and so?” “No, I don't. Tell me about them because I want to know.” And so, it's fun for me because I'm constantly exploring. And then, of course, I may have thoughts and ideas on how we can further leverage an opportunity, further leverage or relationship and say, “Hey, that thing that you're doing right now, let's do it times 10.” I'm like, “That's a huge opportunity, that's a big idea. Let's really grow that thing,” which obviously, that also gets individuals and teams excited when, suddenly, something they're doing, you get so excited about that you want to put even more resources into it, and want to make it even bigger program.
Ryan Berman 39:07
This is a Paul Ryan Berman string line, so I'll acknowledge that out of the gate. But I've always said, every single time I've had a team work on a courageous idea, they're happier, they stay later, and the idea, the return is through the roof. And every time it's a safe idea, my office was empty at 4:59, I had a closed-door meeting with somebody, the return was mediocre. We always say courageous ideas are the only ones that matter. And you think about the NFL, is there a brave move? What was the bravest, the most courageous move you've seen the NFL make to date since you've been on this rocket ship? And, by the way, it might have been an unpopular choice, but it was the right choice. I'm curious if there's one that stands out.
Tim Ellis 39:54
Well, there's probably one, but it's connected to a lot of other things or strategy that we've we've been doing over the last few years. So, Carl Nassib, who was the first gay player to come out a couple of years ago, it was a big event. And when I saw that, I felt like, you know what? This this is a moment, this isn't a moment we should just let pass. And so, I talked to our team, I talked to our ad agency, I said, “I want to do something that really is something that people will pay attention to and get excited about, and it fits the incredibly courageous thing that Carl just did.” And so, we didn't have a lot of time because we wanted to launch it really soon after he came out. And the agency came back with an ad that started out with “Football is gay,” and then, continued on, “Football is lesbian, football is…” So, it had all these things, it was all about inclusion. It was all about football is for everyone. And it was very, very powerful. And I knew that it would be controversial to people within our fan base, people within the league, and the clubs, and things like that, and even players. I knew that, but I also knew that we had such a huge impact on those in the LGBTQT plus community, it would be so meaningful. It would also send such a clear signal that the NFL really stood for inclusion and equality, and stood for this community. And I think that by making such a bold statement that it would be crystal clear to people. And there are lots of folks who came to me and said, “Well, okay, but can't we soften it? Do you have to start with that line ‘football is gay? Can you start with ‘football is happy, or for everyone, or things like that?” I’m like, “No, then you kill the entire bold nature and the clear stance that we're taking on this thing.” And I say all that because that was a very, very sort of bold move. And I didn't tell everybody about it, I only told a handful of people who I knew were close, and who this would be very meaningful to, and I just ran it. And then, yeah, sure enough, a lot of people absolutely loved it, it was very much talked about. And there were a lot of people who did not like it at all, and I heard about it. And people asked me, “Well, what are we going to do because there are those who, they don't like this, they don't buy into it.” And I and I thought about it, and I said, “Well, let's just run it again. Let's just keep running it because, the more we run it, the more normalized it will become, and the more people won't be so shocked about it.” And, at the end of the day, that's what we're trying to do here. It's all about equality, and it's all about people feeling comfortable and feeling accepted. And the more that we talk about these things, the better we're all going to be. So, that's exactly what we did. We ran it during kickoff, we ran it during the season, we ran in big moments, and so forth. So, I say all that because, listen, particularly after the pandemic hit, during those early months of the pandemic, there was a string of senseless murders right around George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, and several others that we just realized, “Hey, we got to do more.. We can do more, we have to do more. We have to be clear…” Yes, we have a lot of incredible programs that we're working with all these partners, we're donating half a billion dollars a year to these programs, but we have to put it all together, we have to talk about it, we have to have a clear stance. We cannot be on the fence. We can't sort of say, yes, we have a fan base, which is split between right and left. And yes, some of our fan base thinks this is politics and not football and they don't like us talking about it. But we have to be clear on what we stand for that is in accordance to our values, and we cannot try to please everybody. We got to do the things that we know is right. And so, we began to put together a program around social justice that was much more consistent. We talked about it throughout the year. We were much more clear in the things that we were saying, and all these programs, that actually, we had been going on for several years. People became more… They became more aware of them, they began to connect more with the NFL. And sure enough, I think we've had a pretty significant impact in this space. And, to this day, we're still talking about it. And, for the first time, we decided to talk about mental health, and have players talk about their own struggles, and coaches talk about their own struggles. And so, talking about these very sensitive complex and, to some, controversial subjects, talking about these things in a very clear, consistent way without backing off and without trying to hedge our approach to it to where people wouldn't get upset, I think that, as a long way of answering your question, it's been a very, I would say, a very courageous move by the NFL to sort of not to listen to everybody but to do the things that they thought were right. And frankly, let me just mention one other thing, we made some mistakes as a league, we made some mistakes post-Colin Kaepernick. And things that Commissioner, Roger, said himself, like, “If I could go back with Eric Reid, and with Colin, and all of these, I would do things differently.” And talking about that openly, showing a level of contrition and openness, and I think being humble actually went a long way with a lot of people. And I think that's, again, not every company is willing to do that. Not every company is willing to admit mistakes. And I think those are also things that I see, at least, as having the courage to move ahead.
Ryan Berman 45:51
I don't see any companies, if you don't have humanity at the top, and the leader, then fear really does win. And I think it's very easy for us out here to look at the NFL and think about -- I wish you can see my hands -- 70,000 people in the stadium, [Inaudible 46:14]. But when you just get down and serve the player who is a human, they're not a player, they're human. As you said, just tell the stories of the humans that just happen to wear a uniform, and they happen to be gay, they happen to have a mental health issue, they happen to have something going on in the equality arena. And if you serve the player, it's probably going to… There's enough players now that it's a pretty good melting pot of what's going out there in society. And if we've learned anything, to your point, this isn't about politics but it is about getting things done. And the NFL is its own nation. There are citizens, there's a flag, and I'm glad you're taking a stand. And I agree with you that, you know, better to have a point of view that no point of view.
Tim Ellis 47:02
Ryan Berman 47:03
Take us home, man. I know I've taken up a lot of your time. I appreciate you giving me 45 minutes your time. For anyone who's listening in, you can wrap this up any way you want, but two or three piece of advice for someone that might be, maybe they're stuck, or they're scared, or they're spinning in their job, what advice would you give them?
Tim Ellis 47:24
Listen, I've always trusted my gut on things. You have instincts, if you're in a job which is not going the direction that you want it to, I think you know that it's probably time to sort of do something different or move on. And sure, that can be scary, but, wow, making that decision to sort of go do something different, and create something different, and meet new people, have opportunities to sort of do things you haven't done before, man, it just gets you so energetic and excited, and all these sort of creative juices, and thoughts come into you that you haven't sort of maybe had before for a long time. And I think being willing, like when I decided to leave, which it was a great place to work, by the way, I loved working for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, they were an amazing agency, but decided to move off and then go to this foreign country, and go to some agency where I didn't know anybody, or leave the gaming world after seven years, and then, go work in sports where I didn't know, I had no idea exactly what was going to happen when I got over here, those are like hard decisions to make. But on the other hand, man, if you really trust yourself, trust your instincts and go for it, the chances of you being successful are so much higher. And the other thing I would say is, so many of the people who work in this industry are always try not to get fired, they're always trying… The average tenure of a CMO, for example, is like 18 months or two years, it’s ridiculous. I think one thing one of the reasons for that is that you're just not… You're always working to sort of cover your ass, and make sure that you somehow prove that what you did wasn't a mistake, or things like that, rather than doing what you think is really right and going out there and trying to like break new ground and do things that haven't been done before, or do the things you were paid to do, which is to move the brand forward and move the business forward. And I think I have put a tremendous amount of effort into building great teams and building relationships. So, some of these teams work for me, meaning on the marketing team. And then, in-groups which they don't report it to me, but I have a very strong partnership with these teams, and that could be here I work today, that could be here at the NFL, that could be the 32 teams, or it could be a partnership that I've formed with an influencer, or a media platform, or whatever, but I think I'm pretty damn good at building strong teams, and getting that level of trust and partnership and a common vision. A vision to do great things, a vision of things that hadn't been done before, and then, giving credit to all those people who have done these things. And I think that what happens when you build a strong team like that across organizations, then you build trust. And anytime things maybe aren't going exactly the right way, or whether there's a question, whether there's a mistake made, or whatever, people aren't looking to kill you, they're looking to help you, they're looking to sort of support yo because they trust you and they value you. So, I think building those strong partnerships and coalitions, and, at the same time, not worried about making mistakes, but thinking more about doing the right things and doing the things that you were paid to do. At the end of the day, that's why I've had very long tenures in everywhere I've worked. Anywhere from three to seven years everywhere I've worked, also, I think, why I've had a level of success in my career.
Ryan Berman 51:09
Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to come on the show. Hopefully, you get like a day and a half break before the draft. And stay courageous out there, man. Great to see
Tim Ellis 51:20
Yeah. I appreciate it. Thank you so much.
Ryan Berman 51:25
Thanks for tuning in to this episode of The Courageous Podcast. If you enjoyed the show, don't forget to rate and review us on Apple podcasts so more people can find us. See you again next week.
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