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Ted Hong - puppet master

Ted Hong
puppet master
by Vivian Manning-Schaffel
May 1, 2006

Thanks in part to Ted Hong, it is nearly impossible to walk out of an American movie theater without having the urge to use Fandango for future visits to the local cinema.

With nearly 15 years of experience marketing small start ups and US$ 200 million global brands, Hong joined LA-based online, phone and mobile ticketing service Fandango as director of marketing in 2003.

Later that year, Hong played a key role in launching the memorable Fandango Bag Puppet advertising campaign, which is seen during movie trailers in nearly 70 percent of US movie theatres with remote ticketing capabilities.


His job responsibilities include overseeing brand strategy, marketing planning and execution, co-marketing, offline and online advertising, market research and new business evaluation.

We recently caught up with Hong, now Fandango’s vice president of marketing and product development, to talk about his professional sojourn from marketing sports with the Grateful Dead to marketing a movie service with bag puppets.

One thing I’ve prided myself on is that I’ve only taken jobs that I’ve felt passionate about, and luckily the rest all fell into place. Marketing is something I almost fell into. I didn’t realize it was natural to my personality, yet it was part of every job I’ve ever had.

I went to undergrad at Berkeley, where I majored in Political Science. I got my MBA at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. I even spent a few years as Marketing Manager for the Golden State Warriors, selling Grateful Dead shirts for Lithuanians!

Lithuania’s best player was part of our team. He took it upon himself to get the Lithuanian team to the Olympics in Barcelona (by using his superior basketball skills), and along the way, we met Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead, who wanted to donate jerseys to the team. And eventually there they were, accepting bronze medals in Barcelona while wearing tie-dye red, green and yellow jerseys with a skeleton on front.

When they got back, we thought, ‘Why don’t we sell the shirts?’ From day one, we received over 3,000 calls, so I set up a sales process through Ticketmaster and these shirts became one of their most popular sports apparel items for 12 months. The money went back into the team, and additional profits were donated to the Lithuanian Children’s Fund.

Next, I applied for a job at Berkeley as Director of Alumni Chapters and Student Outreach, not realizing that it was a marketing job. One of the many positive things about the Berkeley experience is that it gave me the opportunity to talk and connect with phenomenal people—from professors to Nobel-prize winners to key business leaders—and I was only 23-years-old.

For my next step, I decided it would be a good idea to go from a non-traditional environment to one that was very traditional, using the skills I learned from business school.

When I asked my friends in brand management what it was like, they said it wasn’t so much entrepreneurial as ‘interpreneurial’ because it gave them the chance to be entrepreneurial within a company structure. So I started to pursue those opportunities and got positive feedback, which made me feel like I was going in the right direction. During those interviews, I didn’t sound like a textbook. I sounded more like myself.

I got a great offer from Nestlé. Working with chocolate was a lot of fun; it was a very good fit. I helped the Butterfinger brand move away from Bart Simpson and launched five new brands.

Eventually, I went to work in marketing for dotTV, a company that helped companies register .tv domain names. It was actually the domain assigned [to] a small country near Fiji called Tuvalu, so we worked with them to commercialize the domain. This was during the advent of Flash and Shockwave, so the time seemed right to be in the domain business. It is still considered the fastest-selling domain in Internet history.

Eventually we sold the company to Verisign, which was a positive for all involved, from the CEO to receptionist, as well as Tuvalu itself. The government used the money to improve their infrastructure.

Then I came to Fandango, which in 2003 was a branding challenge. It was a time where the business was surviving, but we wanted to take it to the next level, going beyond service to deliver the promise of going to movies in a fun and interesting way.

We worked with Len Fink, who does legendary work out of his own agency in Santa Monica. We got together and, of 10 different ideas he pitched, the bag puppets were one.

We are very cognizant of the media value of movie trailers. The key was for the puppets to be a messenger for us, so when we deliver our message about ease of use and the movie-going experience, people will listen. It’s important to keep viewers engaged, so the guy who does the puppets adds nuances so you see something new each time. And here we are, with the highest brand awareness in our industry. Over 70 percent of US theatres are exclusively with us.

We don’t spend a lot of our budget on promoting our brand outside of movie theatres, so it’s amazing to see how these puppets have taken on a life of their own. People are sending us pictures of their bag puppets all the time. You know you’ve broken though when you get a lot of unsolicited response.

We want to take these puppets to the next level. The new ads will air for the summer movie season, and we’ll have strong use of musical elements that consumers will like, with a jingle that will get stuck in your head.

What I find the most fun about marketing is that it strikes a balance between the creative and the analytical. At the end of the day, it’s about business, but business is even better if you can have fun along the way.

Vivian Manning-Schaffel is a freelance writer who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
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