Fifth Estater: HBO Co-President Eric Kessler

The executive behind the slogan "It's Not TV, It's HBO" is ready to “go” into new era
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One of the most famous slogans in television history has quietly been undergoing a change. In the last couple of months, “It's Not TV. It's HBO” has become simply, “It's HBO” in on-air references.

No new campaign surrounded the shift; no fanfare is planned. Rather, it's an evolution emblematic of how the premium network has developed since the slogan debuted in 1996 with an Emmy-winning campaign featuring movie-quoting chimps.

It's also one inextricably linked to the executive responsible for it. The campaign was one of Eric Kessler's first assignments in 1995 after moving over from running HBO's home entertainment business to work in network marketing. Then-HBO topper Jeff Bewkes, who is now Time Warner chairman-CEO, challenged Kessler to create marketing that reflected how HBO aspired to be “different, better, worth paying for.”

Kessler vetted hundreds of pitches before being struck by “It's Not TV. It's HBO.” It fulfilled tenets of marketing he learned at the start of his career, working in packaged goods. “I learned the importance of identifying a unique positioning for your product, then executing marketing plans and tactics that are consistent with that,” says Kessler, who as co-president of HBO oversees marketing and worldwide distribution of the brand and its content across all platforms. “And it had to be true.”

It also had to be more than a saying. “If it was an ad line, it would have lasted a couple of months,” Kessler says. “We took that line and said to ourselves, that needs to be the mantra, the philosophy behind everything we do.”

The philosophy served as foundation for the network's move toward daring series such as The Sopranos, the big-budget event marketing behind them, and HBO's groundbreaking 2001 move to launch HBO On Demand. It also informed the “elegance and quality” in the recent relaunch of HBO.com, the brand's new iPhone application and the imminent HBOGo, the company's authenticated online video service, all of which fall under Kessler's purview. “In the design and architecture of these things, we were going back to that consistency throughout the brand, no matter how it's presented or on what device,” Kessler says. “So people look at it and say, 'That's HBO.'”

The HBOGo rollout arguably represents a step into a new era, and Kessler is pleased that the tagline has adapted with it. He says the phrase has been around long enough that it's part of the vernacular. “Most importantly, we are evolving to 'It's HBO' because it is not just about the television anymore,” he says. “It's the content. As we launch HBOGo, it's time to reflect the fact that we are on multiple devices and always will be going forward.”

In 2007, Kessler was named co-president in the reorganization that followed Chris Albrecht's exit as chairman-CEO. He is a diehard HBO-er, having spent more than two decades at the company. Says Discovery Communications COO Peter Liguori, a longtime friend who worked for Kessler for several years at HBO: “If Eric were to get a tattoo, it would say HBO.”

The two met when Kessler was a product manager at Lever Brothers and Liguori worked for media agency Ogilvy & Mather. Kessler got into packaged goods—first at Gillette, then Lever Brothers—because it was creative and the closest thing he could get to working in the movies. He grew up in Queens, N.Y., loving two things, he says: the movies and the New York Yankees.

Liguori, too, grew up loving movies and baseball (though Liguori is a big Mets fan). They hit it off immediately when Kessler, then at Lever Brothers, became Liguori's client at O&M. “One of the things that Eric's calm demeanor covers up is he's all-in,” Liguori says. “He brings his whole self to the job. He's been at HBO that long because he loves it. And it's infectious; people want to work with him.”

When Liguori, a former Fox and FX exec, is asked whether he thinks he might ever work with Kessler again, he says he does see it someday: “I look forward to running the 'Sunshine Retirement Home' board with him, spending many movie nights at the retirement center. The screenings will be packed and the movies will be good.”

E-mail comments tomelissa.grego@reedbusiness.com, and follow her on Twitter:@melissagrego

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