Maggie Hardy Magerko (right) plans the Super Bowl ad with 84's marketing team and Brunner
Courtesy 84 Lumber Maggie Hardy Magerko (right) plans the Super Bowl ad with 84's marketing team and Brunner

In 2016, 84 Lumber CEO Maggie Hardy Magerko was disheartened by a survey that showed the firm's brand awareness outside of southwestern Pennsylvania was almost zero. She challenged the company: How do we make everyone in the country know our name?

An audacious and expensive proposal came forth: Buy a 90-second spot on the Super Bowl, the most expensive ad slot of the year. Magerko loved the idea. And today—after nearly $20 million in expenses, 15 million views, and a Bronze Lion award at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity—it’s safe to say the ad made 84 Lumber's name bigger than ever.

Numbers are still coming in, but 84 says it has received over 92,000 applications since Feb. 6. Since July 31, 135,000 people have joined the 84 talent network. Over the first three months, more than 750 new hires joined the company.

According to Steve Radick, director of public relations for the Brunner ad agency, the diversity of Super Bowl viewers translated into diverse applicants. “It’s amazing to see the demographics of trainees: guys out of high school, women, and even people with master’s degrees who simply wanted something away from a cubicle,” he says.

The response to Magerko’s original challenge took flight in November 2016, when 84’s marketing team and the Brunner agency proposed a commercial based on the hot-button issue of President Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Magerko, unafraid of controversy, fell in love with the plan. “There was literally no other idea we looked at,” Radick says. “It immediately hit home for her.”

“As soon as it was presented … the ball started rolling,” says Amy Smiley, 84’s director of marketing.

From there, says Radick, the rest was “a whirlwind.” They immediately began drafting a script in which a mother and daughter sought to immigrate (presumably illegally) to the United States, only to be confronted by a wall. It was to end with them discovering a door in the wall that enables them to enter the U.S.

That was the plan, but the Fox network rejected the ad. “They didn’t want to show the wall,” Smiley says. “They said it would be too controversial.”

The rejection proved to be a double blessing for 84. First, it generated a huge amount of publicity. And second, “it was almost freeing,” Radick says, because “we could then take as long as we wanted with the project.”

“As long as we wanted” turned out to be a six-minute video shot over six weeks in a remote location outside of Puebla, Mexico. Wanting to be as authentic as possible, the project used all local actors, save for the mother and daughter. There was even a real wall constructed, 30 feet high and nearly 200 feet long.

And now, instead of showing the complete journey in just 90 seconds, 84 could show the first part of the video on air as a sort of teaser, and deliver the rest on its YouTube page.

Just before halftime, the commercial was aired. Smiley says the team was confident the ad would do well, but never expected the response it got. The full-length video became the top-trending video on YouTube during Super Bowl week, and the ad itself became the No. 4 trending topic on Twitter in the same time. It went on to become the top-rated Super Bowl ad by AdWeek, and as of mid-November the video had been seen more than 11 million times on YouTube.

The ad garnered significant controversy. People around the country either voiced support for 84’s stance or complained they were advocating for illegal immigration. Some 84 employees got a tongue-lashing. Raul Reyes, a contributor for CNN, said it would have been better for 84 “to focus the commercial on its products, and leave politics out of our lives for one night.” Conversely, Brandy Walker, a contributor to the Huffington Post, said, “By the end of the full length ad/short film, I was in tears. … This was a story about courage and tenacity.” After such a divisive election, it was hard not to have a partisan reaction.

As for Magerko, “Our industry is going through a period of extreme disruption,” she said in a statement. “And I’ve always preferred to be the one doing the disrupting, rather than the one being disrupted.”

Magerko, who says she donated to Trump’s campaign, doesn’t view the ad as controversial. “Even President Trump said there should be a ‘big beautiful door in the wall so that people can come into this country legally,’” she says. “It’s not about the wall. It’s about the door in the wall. If people are willing to work hard and make this country better, that door should be open to them.”

In the ad, the daughter stitches together a makeshift American flag
Courtesy 84 Lumber In the ad, the daughter stitches together a makeshift American flag

Smiley says upper management, and especially Magerko, were key in communicating with everyone in the company about the nature of the ad. “There were town halls. We kept all associates up to date with our progress,” she says. The firm even gave employees talking points should they receive negative responses. But Radick says employee morale was high throughout the process. “People were proud their company was making a Super Bowl ad,” he says. Smiley adds, “We had watch parties across the country: in stores, restaurants, bars. It was a big deal to all associates.”

For 84, the ad wasn’t created to sell more product. Its goal was to promote awareness and to be a launch pad for its national recruitment campaign. It’s no secret the construction industry is struggling to find workers. This ad put out a plea to 111 million people across the country in a way that’s never been done before.

PSEA judges were impressed. Chris Rader likened this to the Apple 1984 ads. He says, “You weren’t sure what you were seeing but you know it’s something you’ll hear more of. … Was there a lot to risk? Yes. Did it work? Yes. Can any dealer duplicate it? No.”

“This transcended the industry," says Rick Davis. “They took a stand, stated an opinion, and the results were dramatic.”

When asked if 84 has anything major on the horizon, Smiley simply says, “Stay tuned for next year.”

84, you have the world's attention. What’s next?