Returning for a third season, Rolling with the Rookies presented by Hyundai is a five-episode content series that profiles athletes by bringing them back home to visit the people, places and moments that defined their journeys.
Hyundai partnered with five college football players who were projected to be taken in the first two rounds of the professional football draft – Alabama defensive lineman Quinnen Williams, Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell, Iowa State running back David Montgomery, Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen and Washington free safety Taylor Rapp. Leading up to the draft, Hyundai filmed the prospects in their hometowns and captured their unique stories of personal triumphs that helped make their dreams a reality.
Jared Blitz, former Creative Director at Advantage (IPG), just wrapped up Season Three of Hyundai presents Rolling with the Rookies and is launching his own company, Blitz Creative, this spring. You can check out the rest of his work here.
Brand Storytelling caught up with Blitz and took a look at Rolling with the Rookies from its origins through season 3, asking some questions not only about what makes these stories such good fodder for brand-funded, but what makes them great stories, period:
Going back to before season 1, how was the concept of rolling with the rookies initially conceived? Who was involved in its conception?
The genesis of Rolling with the Rookies actually dates back to the 2016 NFL Draft. My Hyundai partners and I looked around at the brand activations on the ground in Chicago and the branded content that made it online and were pretty underwhelmed. What you saw was a lot of what we started calling 'combine-lite content' coming out of NFL partners; content focused on players working out, college stats, feats of strength, body composition, etc... There was not a lot of great storytelling going on. If it did exist, it was the typical weak branded sports content that feels a lot like wikipedia page regurgitation, lacking depth and emotion.
Coming into 2017, my goal was to create a content program for Hyundai that would cut through the noise (and there is A LOT of noise around the NFL Draft, bear in mind we are competing against all the traditional sports outlets too). With incredible brand partners, Paul Imhoff, Erik Thomas and Aaron Zeuli specifically, everyone got fully bought in on the idea of going back to visit the people, places and moments that truly defined these athletes. Who cares about the 40 times... we wanted to hear about the pain of losing a state championship game.
Most importantly though, we wanted to cut through with storytelling, not storyselling. Anyone can pump a ton of media dollars into a mediocre content piece and scream to the high heavens about view counts. We wanted quality.
What unfolded was honestly a bit of a happy accident in some respects. Scheduling made it so we would go home to film with each athlete right after the NFL combine and their pro-days. In almost every case it was the first time the athlete had been home since Thanksgiving or Christmas, which means their families, coaches and friends are just over the moon to see them. On top of that, it's this weird interstitial moment: the last gasp of calm and simplicity in their lives before the draft... so as you can imagine, the emotional well we have to draw from is really, really deep.
What’s the selection process like when it comes to picking your documented rookies? There are lots of rookies to choose from - how do you find the ones that best align with your vision and brand voice?
This is a great question and it comes up all the time, especially from eager agents, haha. We're only as good as the athletes and their stories, so the selection process and keeping the diversity of athlete stories is so key.
The truth is, my team and I literally go through the projected top 100 guys in the draft one-by-one and we do a deep dive on all of them, with a key focus on any conflict in their lives. We set out with a goal to tackle a range of challenges that fans, and hopefully the children who look up to these guys, can relate to and learn from.
In three years we've already featured incredible stories of athletes overcoming systemic poverty, bullying, learning disabilities, cycles of incarceration, natural disasters, loss of parents, getting passed over, being told you're not good enough, racism... you name it, we've gone there.
Projected draft rank is probably the last thing we look at. It's not unimportant, but I'll tell you this, we have never passed on an athlete because of his projected rank. Story above all. And besides... two of our guys who were projected at the end of the 1st round (even early 2nd), Mitchell Trubisky & Clelin Ferrell, ended up going #2 and #4 respectively in 2017 and 2019, so we don't waste our time trying to only work with "top five talent."
Lastly, and most importantly, Hyundai is truly such an amazing partner in that they believe in telling each athlete's unmitigated truth. We don't sugar coat anything, but we also don't VICE-ify things we don't need to. It's about each athlete and their family, coaches and friends telling their true story. Our greatest joy is when the families call us after watching the final cut to say how much they laughed & cried... these people are going through such an unreal amount of media scrutiny, it's nice to be able to provide them with an honest outlet to tell their stories.
This is Hyundai’s 3rd season of Rolling with the Rookies - what keeps you coming back to this series? What does it take to get to season 3?
The moms and their cooking. We are pretty much guaranteed a home-cooked specialty meal (Mike Williams's mom, aunt, and grandma had a chicken wing competition for our crew in season 1 that still holds top position).
In all seriousness though, Hyundai's CMO, Dean Evans said it best: "These stories align with our brand commitment that “Better Drives Us” — we want to pay homage to those driven to do and contribute better. It’s who we are, and we respect it in others."
We fall in love with these guys and their families each season because they are so much more than just athletes. There is such uniqueness to each family as well, to each hardship they've overcome together, that it brings our whole team joy to tell their stories the right way. It's an incredible challenge to step into their homes, ask for their trust, and then pray we can deliver for them.
When it's done right, you can truly inspire people by telling these stories, and that's what really drives us.
You can look at this year's athletes and on the surface, you may say "what's the difference between Quinnen Williams and Clelin Ferrell?" Quinnen lost his mother to breast cancer as a twelve-year-old, while Clelin lost his father to lung cancer as a fourteen-year-old.
But then we get on set, and we are spending these long days with the athletes, their families, and we learn so much more about managing grief, being resilient and how to press on after losing someone so important to your life. While Quinnen stepped in to help his father by essentially becoming the second parent for his brothers and sisters, Clelin doubled down on school and sports, with his Mom insisting that he would never be the 'man of the house.' Both approaches were so unique & different, so transformational to who they ultimately became as people and athletes, and also, both correct... as you can't argue with two guys going #3 and #4 respectively in the draft.
So we look at stories like those and just say, "wow, these must be so powerful and motivating for children out there going through the same thing right now." That's what motivates us.
Rolling with the Rookies Season 3 once again delivers those heartwarming and emotional personal stories while still featuring Hyundai vehicles. What’s the key to achieving that type of balance, the kind that still fosters genuine emotion without over-selling the brand’s product?
Brand integration, and most importantly, recall, is what drives ROI for this series. In order for us to get it right every season, every episode, the vehicle shots need to match the beauty of the piece visually and they need to progress the story, or at the very least, weave seamlessly into it.
Our athletes are implicitly taking us on a tour of the place that made them who they are today - we never say that explicitly, but you feel it when you watch Taylor Rapp, for example, pulling out of his driveway at daybreak. You know that he had to work twice as hard as the next guy to get noticed, so his early morning departure, to the gym, to the field, to wherever he is going... it makes sense.
David Montgomery, this season, spends a lot of his most defining, 'thinking moments,' in the car as he drives through the dangerous neighborhood he grew up in. In season one we leaned heavily on Haason Reddick's facial expressions as he drove through Camden, NJ. For the guys who are leaving challenging places, there is a pain, a deep thoughtfulness that comes over them as they cruise through a space and time that is quite literally in the rearview mirror. We can use the car here as a metaphor for the journey, for leaving a really difficult, and sometimes painful & dangerous past behind. We want that to be subtle, but it has always played beautifully when we get it right.
This year we had the opportunity to integrate even more brands. IHOP was an incredible partner for the Quinnen Williams episode, and for Josh Allen, BOSE was also thrilled to participate. We knew that Josh's opening had to hit home the attitude, the aggressiveness of the streets of Jersey. We had that heavy bass, almost a BIGGIE inspired track in our minds as we had him run the hill in the opening montage. He just needed to have on headphones on to make it work. Both brands posted and retweeted the episodes, which is very cool, so I'm guessing they felt it hit the right note for them as well.
Some of the interview topics are really challenging - what was the most difficult one you've had to approach and how did you do it?
My directors, Eric Kaufman, Justin Polk, and I conduct all of the interviews, and I'll usually step in for the ones that are going to be the most emotionally taxing. I'd be lying if I told you there weren't tears on set... all the time, haha. Our crew is absolutely incredible at building trust and respect. Every house, every lawn, every bathroom, every driveway is a castle. We treat every location like it's Windsor Palace and we quite literally embrace the athletes and their families; big hugs, goofing around, lots of hands-on-shoulders, anything we can do to build trust, respect and create a comfortable environment.
When the lights come on and the camera rolls, we don't ever say 'action.' The conversation just starts naturally, and in almost every interview, we've had people tell us things they've never said before. Minkah Fitzpatrick's parents come to mind, telling us that the real reason they bought a home is so they would never have to face a racist landlord again. Quinnen Williams this year too, walking us through the final conversation he ever had with his mother.
The most difficult interview I've ever conducted was with Derrius Guice's mother, Beulah Guice. This was the first time she had ever discussed the murder of her husband, not just on camera, she had never actually discussed it before. I interviewed her alone, and I really just listened and did everything in my power not to lose it. Understanding what this woman went through, losing her husband, her provider, the father of her two children (five & six at the time) and just being left with nothing... it was so hard. How did you tell your children? What did you do when they asked where daddy was?
She told one story, it made it into the final episode, about how she broke down in the mall buying her children clothes for their father's funeral because she didn't even know what size shoes her sons wore because her husband bought them everything. Think about the enormity of that situation sinking in... it was just so incredibly brave of her to speak about it on film.
Finding out that she, and Derrius of course too, loved the final video made my year.
About Jared Blitz
Blitz Creative endeavors to be the first premium branded content creative studio that is athlete focused, brand inclusive and publisher agnostic. As lead creative, Jared Blitz is a story-obsessed producer who enables brands to bring the most meaningful stories to life through a collaborative, engaging creative process that builds brand equity & affinity along the journey. Most recently, Jared served as Advantage's (IPG) Creative Director, leading its original branded content efforts while winning multiple awards for his work with Hyundai & Microsoft. His past clients have included Mercedes-Benz, Can-Am Spyder, Movietickets.com, UnWash & Ektio, who, along with Microsoft and Hyundai, have entrusted him to integrate their products, services and brand messaging seamlessly into over $10MM of original branded content campaigns. The content he's created has been viewed by 500 Million people globally, driving tens of millions of audience engagements, leading to multiple year series orders and prestigious awards including 2017 & 2018 Cynopsis Model D awards for Best Multi-Platform Campaign & Best Branded Sports Series, ThinkLA's 2018 Agency Person of the Year & Cynopsis IT List Honoree in 2017 & 2018.