Champion Asks, ‘What Is FedEx?’ And BBDO Scrambles to Answer

Last Friday, readers of USA Today who opened to page 8A were hit with a full-page ad picturing a flummoxed Ken Jennings, all-time Jeopardy! champion and cult personality, gaping into the camera after delivering the Final Jeopardy answer that finally knocked him out: “What is FedEx?”

The ad-a spot for FedEx-was crashed into circulation by BBDO New York, which has handled the Memphis-based delivery juggernaut’s account since 1989. According to Terry Martin, BBDO New York’s senior vice president and account director, they came up with the spot to cash in on Mr. Jennings’ P.R. bonanza, a media paroxysm that included the late-night talk-show circuit as well as a six-figure book deal with Random House.

It was really more of a save: The moment that sealed Mr. Jennings’ compact with the celebrity world was not automatically good publicity for FedEx.

In front of some 18 million viewers tuning in to catch a bit of latter-day game-show history, Mr. Jennings, a steely-eyed software engineer from Salt Lake City, incorrectly responded to this Final Jeopardy answer: “Most of this firm’s 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year.”

The correct response given by Nancy Zerg, a broker from Ventura, Calif.: “What is H. and R. Block?”

“We protect our brand and don’t want misinformation getting out about the company. We wanted our moment to be able to clarify the record-and indeed, that our 250,000 employees work day in and day out,” said Steve Pacheco, FedEx’s director of advertising.

Putting the ad out in under 48 hours, BBDO started to look a bit like a harried accountant on April 15. The spot required a multi-pronged effort to meet USA Today’s publishing deadline; secure approval from Jeopardy! producers at Sony Pictures Television; and get sign-offs from FedEx executives and Mr. Jennings himself, who proved an elusive target during his week-long media blitz.

“The biggest challenge was finding Ken in light of his newfound celebrity,” Mr. Martin said. “He was in New York, but just tracking him down and getting the ad in front of him so he could be comfortable and approve it was a challenge.”

According to Mr. Martin, on the afternoon of Nov. 30-a few hours before the final episode was broadcast showing the end of Mr. Jennings’ $2.5 million run-John Osborn, the president and chief executive of BBDO New York, learned that “What is FedEx?” was the response that would close out the highest-grossing game-show run in television history. Much like a hard-driving editor kicking reporters onto a story, said Mr. Martin, Mr. Osborn sent out a memo to get his troops ready for a spot.

“The news cycle on something like this is one week-two, max. Our criteria was to get it in the paper by Friday or we’d have lost the publicity boost of it,” Mr. Martin said, adding that these kinds of campaigns fill an effective advertising niche: “I think that there is a newsroom mentality that marketers and agencies should take.”

Shows like Jeopardy! are bound to mention brand names. But as brand names increasingly become a part of the pop-culture vernacular, staging last-minute interventions like this one to protect the hard-won (and expensive) image of a company is becoming more and more important. That means cultivating almost a newsroom sensibility at agencies like BBDO.

“This advertisement was a way to capitalize on the publicity when the record-setter ends up losing by calling out one of our clients. We thought there must be a way to turn that around and make that a positive message for FedEx,” Mr. Martin said.

“There’s only one time FedEx has ever been the wrong answer,” the ad’s copy opened in block lettering, set in bold for emphasis. Below that, the ad continued: “Congratulations Ken Jennings on your amazing Jeopardy! winning streak. And thanks for mentioning our name. Even if it was the one time you shouldn’t have.”

Meanwhile, accounting giant H. and R. Block was quick to tap into Mr. Jennings’ marketing capital too, issuing a press release the day of the broadcast offering the fallen champion a “lifetime of free tax and financial services.”