The Breeders’ Cup Forum: The Origins of Kegasus

by | 05.25.2011 | 9:11am

Jimmy Learned is the founder and president of Elevation Ltd., the Washington, D.C.-based advertising agency hired by the Maryland Jockey Club to create the 2010 “Get Your Preak On” and 2011 “Kegasus” campaigns promoting the Preakness InfieldFest. The campaigns were controversial and edgy, which, of course meant they were widely criticized in the stodgy world of Thoroughbred racing. Interestingly, Elevation also created a more traditional image campaign for the Preakness, which Learned said created no buzz whatsoever.

The bottom line is that the 2011 Preakness attendance of 107,398 was the sixth best ever, and the first time since carry-in alcohol was banned in 2008 that it topped 100,000 (it dipped to 77,850 in 2009 and was 95,760 in 2010).

A native of Lima, Peru, who came to the U.S. at the age of 10, Learned graduated from Quincy University in Quincy, Ill. He founded Elevation in 2001, and among its clients are NBC/Universal, Canon, Toyota, Penske, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Border Patrol. (Click here for more information.)

What was the specific “ask” your agency received from the Maryland Jockey Club for this year's Preakness?
Obviously, the primary goal of the InfieldFest outreach was to generate buzz and to sell tickets.  There were many things that we learned from 2010's Get Your Preak On – primarily the type of messaging that would resonate with InfieldFest target demographic and psychographic – and those insights provided the blueprint and roadmap for our 2011 efforts.  Ultimately, we established seven key strategic mandates and goals which we would follow as we began the creative process:

1. The Campaign needs to be appropriate for InfieldFest TARGET

2. Needs to be unique to Preakness and InfieldFest

3. Needs to establish “water cooler” talk and be memorable

4. Needs to bring PR or earned media value – gain additional impressions

5. Needs to have “legs” i.e.: extendable across many different mediums – traditional, social and grassroots

6. Strike the right balance of branding and retail strength that will drive sales

7. Must be created and executed efficiently: within tight budgets and timelines.

In creating this campaign, what market research, if any, did you conduct to determine whether there was any lasting resentment from the change in the MJC's old carry-in alcohol policy?
We felt those had been addressed with our 2010 efforts.  We also knew that there are always going to be some that wanted BYOB back or resented the change, though dwindling in numbers; however, there was nothing we could do about them.  

We were moving forward with our campaigns and speaking directly to those fans that also could move forward.  We believe wholeheartedly that changing the rule was the right thing for the InfieldFest and Preakness brands… and were committed to pushing the many other assets it provides. MUG CLUB simply represents another Tom Chuckas (Maryland Jockey Club president) victory.

When you created “Kegasus,” did you anticipate pushback and criticism from racing and sports marketing traditionalists?
We anticipated pushback and criticism from the very same people that gave it to us last year!  Not so much from “marketing traditionalist,” but, yes, “racing traditionalist” – and some local press. However, we were NOT speaking to them with “Kegasus”. We had a strategic and tactical plan, and we were committed to following it.

Like in 2010, we also created and launched an image campaign this year entitled “The Defining Race” – it spoke directly of the history, pageantry and grace of Preakness and promoted premium seating.  Humbly, I'll tell you – it was beautiful; however, NO ONE said a peep about it … I guess not enough controversy!  In all of our campaigns, we ultimately aim to get people to gauge our efforts by results and strategic thinking vs. subjectivity!

How many on the creative team worked on this, and how long did it take for the Kegasus character to evolve to what he ended up being?
Led by our creative director, Mike Martin, and senior account director, Kat Dodson, ultimately there were five key players that gave Kegasus its heart, soul and personality!  

From the comedic direction to media training to tweets and personal appearances, this was a complex, comprehensive and integrated campaign.  We even studied the myths of Centaurs and at one point considered having several Centaurs … but the myth states that when Centaurs congregate, it can get very ugly!  We presented various campaigns to MJC in early February.

Who actually played this role, and how did you find him?
Local actor/comedian John Bailey.  We held casting sessions in and around the Baltimore-D.C. market.

What were the different types of paid media buys, and how much was spent on that?
They included traditional broadcast and out of home as well as some grassroots and on-line efforts.  We tried to go as regionally as possible within the budgets provided.

What kind of reaction did Kegasus get at public functions, like the Orioles game where he threw out the first pitch?
Unfortunately, he never got to throw out the first pitch – but he was welcomed incredibly well at ALL of the functions he attended, including the Orioles home opener tailgate.  His lighthearted, funny and friendly demeanor was a huge hit.  Completely the antithesis of pundits' statement that “he encourages binge drinking”!

There was almost immediate debate about whether the Kegasus campaign was a good or bad thing. How important was the “free” or “earned” media that carried right to the eve of the Preakness (with ESPN's Outside the Lines discussing it on Friday)?
For us, the greatest danger isn't creating controversy, it is creating vanilla work – particularly when targeting the InfieldFest fan.  As stated in our initial seven points, “free/earned media” was a goal and clearly of HUGE importance.  Considering that, ALL IN, (creative, production, media, grassroots, etc.), this campaign was under $500K in budget – the fact that we received NATIONAL (plus Canada) attention for months speaks for itself.  CNN, New York Times, ESPN, USA Today, Washington Post and many, many more.   Again, it followed the footprint of Get Your Preak On.

Was it a success? How do you measure that?
Honestly, I have the pleasure of speaking with you about it post-Preakness … you tell me.  Even Bob Baffert congratulated me on Kegasus. He loved it – that was a thrill!!  

In all seriousness, yes, it was a tremendous success on many fronts: the execution, response, buzz, turnout, and more.  However, I must stress, the marketing element of Preakness is just one small piece of a huge undertaking.  I cannot tell you the admiration and respect we at Elevation have for the many at MJC that put this amazing event on.  They are as committed and as proud a group of professionals as I have ever had the pleasure of working with.

Will Kegasus be back in 2012?
Stay Tuned.

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