This week we will recognize the five Purdue College of Liberal Arts graduates who were recognized with the 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award on Friday, March 22.
Today’s recipient is Melvin Lenzy (BA 1995, Sociology), a senior global brand director at Nike. Lenzy has helped design global strategic marketing plans for celebrity athletes like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Paul George, and Colin Kaepernick, among others.
Here are some of the thoughts Lenzy shared with THiNK Magazine editor David Ching on his career, his Purdue experience, and why studying liberal arts can make a difference:
Q: How did majoring in liberal arts impact your life?
A: I think it opened me up to possibilities to explore. There were great course offerings that allowed me to sample a few different things and honestly figure out what I was going to be good at. Ultimately it was teamwork and being able to storytell – those types of elements from the degree really helped me overall.
Q: What is the main thing about designing a campaign around someone like LeBron James? Is it identifying what makes him unique and then build something around that?
A: It’s a couple things. There’s obviously the athlete, and they’re at different stages of their careers, and what their personal insight is to their approach to career, performance, sometimes how they view life overall. All those things kind of go into the fold in terms of what stories we’re ultimately going to tell through the shoes that we launch for a signature athlete.
The second part of that is performance. What do they do on the court and what does that mean? Someone who’s like Kobe, super-technical, he talks about the space needed to get a shot off. He’s like, ‘Hey, my foot is sliding off the footbed, so that 0.02 seconds of inefficiency with my foot slipping off the footbed doesn’t allow me to create space. Well, if I don’t create space, that’s maybe seven jump shots that I can’t get in the course of a game and that’s points.’ So it’s like, OK, what we want to say is this shoe is good for dynamic movement because it’s not causing your foot to slip and that’s allowing you to create space and that’s a benefit to you and your game.
So it’s taking the athlete insight, taking the innovation and the product pieces and putting that together, and then also trying to distill it into terms that a consumer can grasp. They’re not going to get the technical storytelling part of it. It’s more trying to make it streamlined for them if you will.
Q: Do you have a favorite campaign that you’ve been part of?
A: I’d probably say Kobe’s retirement was probably my favorite. Either you love Kobe or you hate him. That was the insight: It was love or hate, and you fall on one of two sides. But even if you hated him, there’s this notion that you’re going to miss him because when he played against your team, it brought out the best in your team. So that was the dichotomy of the framework of the story we built. We had athletes say their last word on Kobe, essentially, because that was the story: ‘He’s going to retire. What are you going to say about him?’ So that created kind of a healthy tension to be able to storytell and then we were able to do a lot of different narrative short, long-term content to drive that story overall. So I think that’s probably my favorite that I’ve worked on. We titled it, ‘Mamba Day.’ Essentially it was the last day of his career and he was like, ‘When I’ve finished playing, my career is dead, but Kobe the myth, ‘Mamba,’ will kind of live on.’ So that’s probably my favorite, and that’s kind of how that started.
But my favorite commercial ever was probably ‘Freestyle,’ a late-90s, early-2000s basketball commercial that Nike did. That’s probably my favorite. I wasn’t part of it, but that’s one that inspired me.
Q: Did you find it difficult to deal with people who were so famous on a professional level?
A: I’ve had I think a unique experience because a lot of people didn’t like Kobe. I didn’t like Kobe at first, but then when I worked with him day-to-day and saw his approach and actually how he thinks, then you understand why certain teammates couldn’t play with him. He desires excellence at such a high level, but he goes about it with the details.
One of the things is you love your job, you like what you do. It’s about crafting the story and those details and the notes that you take. That’s what Kobe loves. Other people who just play because they’re skilled and talented, but don’t do that, he can’t stand that. So seeing that, I thought, ‘OK, now I understand who he is.’
And LeBron, when I first started working with him, he was super immature – early. It was like he was rude in a sense, but it was because in his family environment growing up, if you weren’t in that insular circle, he had to have that protective wall. And so he was like that because he didn’t know if someone was going to hurt his family or where his next living situation was going to be, so he was super insular in that regard. I’ve never had a situation where I was so in awe of the athlete that I wasn’t able to move through that and be able to direct it. But those two guys – and I’ve been fortunate to work with those two guys like that – once you have a certain level that you’re going to try to bring out the excellence that they want, then it was totally fine. There was no insecurities at all – even though they’re super insecure.
They’re at the top of their game, but at the end of the day, they have the same types of insecurities that we do as just quote-unquote ‘normal’ people. Knowing that, honestly one of the breakthrough moments that I had with Kobe was when I was like, ‘Everything you’ve done has just been based on your own insecurity.’ And he was like, ‘What do you mean by that?’ I said when he was 7 years old, he was living in Italy and kicked the door down because he was the black American kid in Italy and he was the outsider. And then when he moved back to Philly, he was a kid who lived in Europe and he played a whole summer league and didn’t score a game and was an outsider there because he spoke Italian. And so he built his entire game based on that. He was like, ‘That’s it.’ And so his fear of failure literally drove him to excellence because of his insecurities from different situations. I’d been around him for like 10 years, so I saw different things. But that was really interesting.
Q: What was your favorite course at Purdue and why was that the case?
A: There was a class that was a little bit about the impact of global economies on society. Really the class was pretty small, but the debates and interactions and discussions we had were probably the biggest thing.
My friend Derrick Winston who played on the football team, he sat beside me, and we’re still friends to this day. Chris Moore sat in front. He lives in Chicago and we’re still friends. And then April Conner, she was in my wedding, and she sat to the right of me. So that class, that was the framework around it. It was healthy, very topical – it was of the topics of the day – so it allowed for people to express what you’d learned and apply it to what was happening in the current day. I think it’s super relevant now.
Q: What would you have done professionally if you hadn’t selected the path you chose?
A: I probably would have worked in music. My dad worked in a factory, my mom worked at a utility company. My dad obviously provided for me and my sister and it was great, but he hated getting up at 4:30 and going to the factory at 6. He just hated it, manual labor.
So I just knew that I wanted to work in something that was going to fuel my passion that I liked. Not like, ‘God, I’ve got to go to work because I’ve got to pay the mortgage.’ If it wasn’t going to be sports, it would have been music. I don’t know how. I wouldn’t have created it. It would have been artist management or probably A&R where I would have been, relationships. Probably similar to what I do. But that business is such a grind that I just didn’t want to deal with it.
Q: How has Purdue changed since you were a student?
A: It’s a mini-city now. Before, it was more of a town. Obviously you can’t expand anymore, so you’ve got to go up, so now you have the high rises and whatnot. But also I think that’s a dimension of what college kids want in a sense now. Before, you’d go to college and it’s insular and it’s countryside and it’s beautiful red brick and it’s community. Now, I think kids have evolved to where they want dynamic, city-like environments, so in order to keep up with how students have evolved in terms of that, I think it makes sense. I think that’s probably the biggest thing.