Rolling with the Rookies: Q&A with Creative Lead Jared Blitz
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.