'It just turned into something pretty phenomenal': Squarespace's CCO David Lee talks creating the brand's Super Bowl ad

John Malkovich is the star of Squarespace's Super Bowl 51 ad

Squarespace is returning to the Super Bowl for the fourth year in a row with an ad starring actor-turned-fashion-designer John Malkovich.

Since it debuted its first Super Bowl ad in 2014, the website building service has become known for its off the wall, if not over the top, game day ads. Last year, comedy duo Key & Peele not only starred in the brand’s Super Bowl ad but also provided real-time commentary on the game via a Squarespace live video blog. The year prior, Squarespace promoted Jeff Bridges’ ‘Sleeping Tapes’ album – which can be downloaded at the Squarespace-powered website DreamingWithJeff.com - in a spot that featured the actor lulling a couple to sleep with his music.

This year, the brand is going big once again for the Super Bowl with a campaign starring actor John Malkovich that includes both a pre-game spot and a yet-to-be-released in-game ad. The actor has been collaborating with Squarespace over the past year on two other campaigns - one for the David Lynch Foundation and another for Malkovich’s eponymous clothing line - and he’ll now take center stage as the brand’s spokesperson this Sunday, February 5 in a campaign that cleverly pokes fun at what exactly it means to “be John Malkovich.”

The Drum spoke with Squarespace’s chief creative officer David Lee ahead of the game to find out more about the brand’s partnership with Malkovich and why the website building platform has decided to return to the big game once again this year. See what he had to say below.

In Squarespace’s pre-game Super Bowl ad, Malkovich becomes frustrated and angry when he realizes that his domain name has already been taken by someone else, a scenario that is loosely based on what happened to the actor in real life when he tried to secure his domain. Why did this feel like the right story to tell in Squarespace’s Super Bowl ad?

While the ad is based off of a true story and it’s something that he had to fight for in real life, I think the main insight was drawn more from this notion that your domain is the epitome of your online identity. When you search for your name, what do you want people to see?

Over the past year, you’ve partnered with Malkovich on two other campaigns. Can you explain how he ended up becoming the star of your Super Bowl campaign too?

We’ve had the luxury of working with John on three different creative projects. I met John on the set of our Playing Lynch collaboration, where we collaborated with the David Lynch Foundation. It was after I’d gotten to know him on set that we got into a conversation about his desire to launch his menswear collection, which was news for me. He wanted to plan a platform to get it out to the world. So that’s where we spent a lot of time and in the summer we were basically going in there trying to complete this campaign that’s actually live right now.

There was always this one idea that we had on the table when we were working with our creative partners at John X Hannes that really didn’t fit exactly into the narrative of what we were trying to do with the overarching campaign, but it was something really simple and was based on a conversation that we actually had with John. It was something that didn’t really fit in perfectly with what we were trying to do with the ‘Make Your Next Move’ campaign but we just set off to get it.

When we carved off that additional day to shoot this and when we gave John Malkovich the script, he kind of made it his own and did his own ad lib on it. It just turned into something pretty phenomenal.

Squarespace is airing a pre-game ad and an in-game ad this year. Why the two-pronged approach?

We basically looked at all the footage that we had, and we had what we felt were two really great spots; two ads that worked from a narrative standpoint in terms of one passing on the baton to the other. The creative that you’re seeing right now is our pre-game ad, which will air I believe one hour before kickoff. But then it hands over to our in-game ad, which will run in the first half.

Ultimately, the two ads work independently from each other as well. I think because of the simplicity and purity of the idea, it was really easy for us to make the decision to do two different versions of the spot because we had the material. We didn’t go in there wanting to do two, but when we looked at everything that we captured, we felt that we had two really phenomenal, standout pieces of film.

Each year, Squarespace seems to take a markedly different approach to its Super Bowl campaign. Why have you decided to change it up each year instead of rallying around one central tagline or theme?

The things that people make with Squarespace are so broad. We tailor to so many different personas and different customers that we really use these moments to really showcase something different and a different use case of our product. In the case of Jeff Bridges, it was a very random passion project that Jeff Bridges had, and we wanted to effectively show that you can take a very weird idea and make it beautiful and actually sell a product through an ecommerce site.

I think this year’s was pretty simple. We launched Squarespace Domains last spring and we felt that we had a really strong idea [for the Super Bowl] early on. We were lucky enough to have a relationship with John Malkovich already, doing two different campaigns prior [with him]. So it was this magical moment where [our idea] was based on a real insight and a real event that happened in John Malkovich’s life when he was actually looking for his domain. We thought that was the right insight to build this idea off of and we’re really happy with it.

Two other web domain services, GoDaddy and Wix.com, will also be airing Super Bowl ads this year. How will Squarespace stand out from the competition?

I get this question a lot and I think for us, we’re not so concerned over what our competitors are doing. We’re really just focused on what we’re trying to do and just come up with the best creative idea that we can. Every year, we try to choose something really simple to kind of rally around. This year, we were lucky enough to land on something really early in late summer. So we’re not so concerned that GoDaddy is in the Super Bowl. We really just have our blinders on our creative output.

With Super Bowl ad prices being at an all-time high, why does Squarespace continue to invest in airing an ad during the game?

This will be our fourth year in the Super Bowl, so we obviously wouldn’t do this if it didn’t work or if we didn’t see some great results from it. Part of the reason why we do this is that we want to be up on the biggest stage and we want everyone in the world to know who we are, what we stand for and what our products have to offer. There’s no better opportunity to do that than the Super Bowl, where people are actually looking at and inquiring about the ads as much as the game itself.

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