In 2012, the term “content marketing” entered the lexicon in earnest. While agencies and brands were talking about it, there were a handful of agencies that saw not only its potential but the opportunity for disruption. They also noticed that agility and keeping costs down would be important, too.
Los York, founded that year by Dex Deboree and Seth Epstein after buying a struggling TV ad production company, began to carve out a unique niche blurring the lines between advertising and entertainment. Partnerships with the likes of Nike, Jordan, Motorola, Toyota, Sonos and others bore fruit and set the foundation for success.
Today, Deboree is taking his next step, striking out on his own with Falkon, a creative boutique based in Los Angeles. While brands like Nike and Jordan will continue to play a prominent role in the new endeavor, the company will also expand its offering with a slate of TV, feature films and new media properties with athletes, sports leagues, film studios, media partners and more.
As he did during his time leading Los York with Epstein, Deboree will emphasize premium storytelling but in a way that reflects the current brand and agency environment that he saw in 2012.
“The conversation then was that people weren’t spending money,” he said. “But what was actually happening was that the entire system of advertising was breaking down and about to transform. People weren’t coming in with a million bucks to do big TV spots. Meanwhile, we came in with full-scale soup-to-nuts campaigns, from strategy to delivery, very efficiently without expanding production budgets.”
But it’s Deboree’s intuition about the intersection of advertising and entertainment that has sustained his creative drive and success. Today, movies (like Uncle Drew) may be all about brand marketing, a TV ad (like 2002’s BMW Films) could feel like a film, and a marketing campaign (like Kevin Hart’s “Cold as Balls”) can be an episodic series. In 2009, Deboree produced “Yes, Virginia,” a 30-minute Christmas special funded by Macy’s and still aired by CBS each year since.
“At first, the brand wanted a two-minute ad, but I saw the possibilities,” Deboree said. “It was a risk for everyone, but I had the experience in entertainment and helped them develop something that has proven to be very effective.”
But it’s in sports, specifically Nike and Jordan, that Deboree has carved out a solid niche, especially as it relates to elevating the brand. Desmond Marzette, global director of advertising at Jordan, said that when he started in 2014, the brand still had profound cultural relevance but was continuing to evolve its voice, especially in the digital space.
“Over the years, we’ve done a lot of maturing in both marketing and storytelling,” Marzette said. “There is much deeper, rich storytelling. When I arrived, Dex had been working with the brand, and my experience with him and Los York was always a good one because they always approached the brief thinking about the coolest thing that we could do together. That’s how I love to start conversations. We might not end up there, but not being afraid to start there is [a big positive].”
Getting into the real story of the first Air Jordan
Perhaps signaling Falkon’s intention and ambition, Deboree recently released his feature film debut, Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1. The documentary chronicles the story of not only how Nike and Michael Jordan came together to create one of the most enduring and profitable partnerships in brand history, but the impact both had on world culture and the trajectory of the NBA.
The concept came from a Jordan brainstorming meeting around the Jordan 31 shoe launch.
“I was told that the modern audience doesn’t really know the original story [of the first Air Jordan],” Deboree said. “When they said that, a lightbulb went off in my head because I had always had this deep desire to get behind the truth of what the Jordan zeitgeist was really about. Why is this a religion? It’s not as simple as this is the greatest basketball player of all time. There was something more to it.”
Deboree left the meeting, wrote up an answer to the original brief the brand liked and had one extra piece to share: creating a film. Though the idea didn’t necessarily fit for the brief, Deboree was determined to make the movie—to the point that he financed it himself without any direct investment from the brand.
“All I wanted was permission to do it,” he said. “I wanted access [to the key players in the story] and licenses … and for them to be cool with me doing it. It took many conversations, but we finally got there.”
The film, which is currently on Hulu and will be distributed widely on several transactional video-on-demand platforms, is a master class in honest storytelling. To create even more buzz, Falkon marketed the film through a sneaker raffle called Unbanned Unboxed that offered fans a chance to win an original pair of 1985 Air Jordan 1’s, valued at well over $15,000. The buzz has been palpable, and Deboree is optimistic about what it will bring to the brand.
“It’s extremely entertaining and will surely have an impact on their consumer base,” he said.
Blurring the lines between entertainment and advertising
In addition to this high-profile project and a continued relationship with Jordan and Nike, Falkon will be working on a narrative TV series with NHL star P.K. Subban a two docuseries, one with Anthony Swann on sports and social impact and another with NFL Hall of Famer Michael Strahan. With several years of consistently high-level storytelling, the question is where Falkon sees itself in the advertising, brand and content world—and what its future will look like.
“The issue for brands and entertainment producers is that there is a very inconsistent model in how we share stories with an audience and a never-ending marketplace of choice for consumers to find that stuff,” Deboree said. “I’ve found that I was toggling back and forth between entertainment and advertising. But then, I started realizing that there was no difference … and that it was all storytelling, whether it was about a brand or not.”
According to Marzette, who spent several years at agencies like Zambezi and Wieden + Kennedy in creative and strategy, that self-awareness and willingness to break down barriers will be big plusses for Deboree and Falkon.