It took Ben Miller and Spencer LaHaye more than two weeks to finish the action figures. To identify identical body types, positions and stances online. To order them. To receive them. To rip them apart and re-paint them. To replace any trace of an NFL logo with tiny vinyl numbers and UW decals. To match the skin pigments perfectly. To re-glue them. To shoot video and do After Effects for all of them. And, finally, to unveil them to the world.
The final product was 23 personalized video packages — one for every football player who signed with Washington on Dec. 18. After each prospect’s national letter of intent was received, a 13-second video — featuring measurables, photos, sound effects and the aforementioned action figures — was released on social media. For UW football’s creative department, it was another successful signing day.
And, for Miller (UW’s creative director) and LaHaye (assistant creative director), it was all part of the job. Said job also includes designing promotional graphics and animation for UW recruits and social media. It includes all team photography. It includes producing playbook covers and power point slides. It might include redesigning a physical wall or room in the team facility. It occasionally includes creating something as supposedly insignificant as a birthday card for a coach’s wife.
At its core, it includes anything Husky coach Jimmy Lake needs on a given day.
“Since May of 2018, when I started, there’s been however many days until now and there’s been that many different situations,” LaHaye said. “When I walk into work, you never know what’s going to happen, and that’s one of the best parts of it.”
Added Miller: “Really, any ask they have, we have to take a hat off and put a new hat on, pull it out of the closet, no matter if we know how to do it or not, and figure it out.”
Fortunately for Miller and LaHaye, they don’t need to figure it out alone. Their creative team also comprises Chris Mitchell, UW’s director of football video production. Miller, LaHaye and Mitchell each have an intern as well. Shelby Newton, the program’s coordinator of football marketing, “helps distribute and game plan what our calendar looks like and how we’re going to push content out,” according to Miller. UW’s director of recruiting, Justin Glenn, also communicates with the creative team about which prospects the program is targeting and how to cater to each recruit.
Oh, and there’s one other key contributor.
“That’s another unique thing about Washington, too: Coach Lake is super involved with how we get things set up and what he wants to portray,” Miller said. “He asks for what he wants, and then it’s hands off and he leaves it to us. But I think our staff does a really good job of communicating and working together to get the product that we need.”
Primarily, those products are focused in the recruiting realm. Miller estimates that, during the season, he and LaHaye each produce between 50 and 100 graphics each week — to be distributed personally to recruits or on the program’s social media accounts. It can take between 20 minutes and two hours to complete each individual graphic.
Miller said that “our main job is to serve the recruits, sell our brand, really get across what we’re trying to sell as far as culture, the experience here, the facilities, what our coaches preach day in and day out, and get that across in the form of graphics, animations — however we can do that within the parameters of the NCAA.”
OK, so what exactly is UW selling? Miller and LaHaye declined to speak about specific recruiting strategy, but key themes on social media have been easy to identify in recent months. Heading into the NFL combine, the Huskies advertised their extended string of pro success. They’ve produced a series of videos and graphics highlighting the game atmosphere inside Husky Stadium. They’ve promoted the city of Seattle and the state of Washington — and the importance of staying home.
“This 2021 class is known for having a great in-state haul, so you really hammer home playing at home,” 247Sports national recruiting editor Brandon Huffman said. “In future years where the class in the state isn’t great and you’re recruiting a ton of guys from California, you emphasize the California kids that have come up here. You emphasize, ‘This is Husky Stadium.’ Where kids may think it’s all rainy all the time, you promote the sunshine.
“You have to craft and tinker it to what your target recruiting audience is like, and I think they’ve definitely stepped up their game. And you have to.”
Everybody has to … especially now. Miller — who didn’t know this job existed when he originally studied graphic design at the University of Tennessee — said that “even two, three years ago, I feel like the market was so much smaller than it is now. Creative teams are blowing up. Programs are hiring up to 10 people. It’s kind of become the name of the game in recruiting. Who’s got the best creative products out there to inspire and motivate players to go to these places?”
“It’s been incredible,” Huffman added. “It used to be that the athletic department had a guy who was in charge of marketing, had a couple people working for him, and they marketed the whole athletic department. They did ticket sales, radio, whatever it is. Now you see schools hiring a full-time graphic designer just for football social media.
“Whether it’s for game-day social media, recruiting social media, or to promote the program in the offseason, you’re seeing a huge emphasis on the financial support of a graphic design department.”
That emphasis is evident at Washington — and it may be more important now than ever. With spring recruiting visits postponed due to the coronavirus crisis, graphics, edits and promotional videos are playing a part to fill the void. Huffman said recruiting departments are “kind of in that all-hands-on-deck mode. When you can’t bring the kids to your school, you’ve got to do as much as you can to promote the things you would have promoted when a kid’s taking an unofficial visit.”
Miller, LaHaye and Co. are an instrumental (yet relatively anonymous) part of that process. In a statement, Lake said, “We are fortunate to have talented, hard-working people like Ben and Spencer in our program.” When asked about his schedule, Miller said that “we’re not working 24/7, but we’re not far from it.”
“If you’re going to sit still,” LaHaye added, “then someone is going to run past you really fast.”
In the recruiting game, specifically, the race is never over. You must be willing to learn, adapt … and paint an occasional action figure.
“You just have to stay on your toes, and you have to be super passionate in this industry and love learning and be inspired and motivated to try something new every day,” said Miller, who added that the action figures have a permanent home in his office.
“Otherwise, you’re just going to be another one of the creatives, instead of one of the best out there. I’m not saying we’re the best out there, but I like to think we have the best crew.”