Touching the culture: UO alumni create an ad campaign with national buzz

Less than a year after leaving the University of Oregon, James Beke and Tyree Harris have created a television ad campaign for Beats by Dre headphones that’s gained national attention.

Harris and Beke got their break while taking part in the NYC Experience, a program coordinated by Deborah Morrison, the Chambers Distinguished Professor of Advertising in the School of Journalism and Communication. Students travel to New York each spring and visit advertising agencies.

Harris and Beke met with representatives of R/GA, an agency based in New York, which led to them getting hired as a team, with Beke working as an art director and Harris as a copy writer.

They initially were hired to work in the New York office, but were persuaded instead to work out of the agency’s new Los Angeles office. The LA office is smaller and has a start-up culture, and the two were able to hit the ground running, Harris said.

“It was just a good fit,” he said.

In addition, working in Los Angeles meant they would have an opportunity to work on the Beats Electronics account. Beats was co-founded by hiphop mogul Andre Young, better known as Dr. Dre.

Soon after they started last summer, their bosses told Beke and Harris to brainstorm ideas for a campaign they’d like to work on. They noticed how many professional athletes used music headphones to tune out distractions and focus on their performance.

Their original script, about soccer players in Europe wearing headphones to block out hooligan culture, was provocative.

“The initial intention was to make it as intense and uncomfortable as possible,” Beke said. “It was just a Hail Mary.”

Beats liked the concept, and asked it be adapted for American sports. Working out of LA meant Harris and Beke got work on the campaign from conception to execution.

“If we were at a bigger agency, the client wouldn’t even know we existed,” Beke said. “For us to work closely with the client and walk the client through the script, that’s experience that’s invaluable to use at this level.”

The first spot, featuring NBA star Kevin Garnett, aired last fall. Another spot, featuring San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, followed.

But it was their third spot in the campaign, featuring Richard Sherman, the Seattle Seahawks’ brash, trash-talking All-Pro cornerback, that caught fire.

In the spot, Sherman is surrounded by a scrum of reporters and cooly answers increasingly hostile questions. Then someone asks, “How do you feel about your reputation as a thug?”

Sherman stops as the room quiets, stares at his inquisitor, and answers quietly, “I don’t have that reputation.” As the barrage of questions continues, Sherman pulls on his headphones and turns away, the sound of Aloe Blacc’s “The Man” in his ears.

The tagline: Hear What You Want.

“It seems simple, but there’s so much meaning to it,” Harris said. “It’s an empowering statement.”

“All you have to do is worry about yourself and tune out the haters,” Beke said. “Focus on yourself and don’t let people to get to you.”

The timing was uncanny. The ad broke just as Sherman delivered a memorable rant after the NFC Championship Game that launched him into the vortex of two weeks of Super Bowl hype. The Sherman ad aired during the pre-game Super Bowl broadcast.

The experience of seeing their original concept go from a spec script to a national ad campaign was “surreal,” Beke said.

“The moment it all came crashing down on how insane this is, is when we saw a parody of it on Leno,” he said. “I literally couldn’t have fathomed it. It doesn’t seem real. … It touched the culture and people are talking about it. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life two years ago, and this is it. This is exactly what I want to do. I can have an impact and have fun doing it.”

Harris said the experience has been “pretty ridiculous to me.”

“If you were to ask me two years ago where I would be, I would have said in the back of some newsroom chasing fire trucks,” said Harris, former editor-in-chief of the Oregon Daily Emerald. “To work on something that touches millions of eyes … it’s a crazy feeling."

Tim Christie