“‘Suit & Tie’ was recorded pretty late in the proceedings, and as soon as he got it, he was pretty sure that it set the stage for the whole campaign—the visual, the feel, the message, the style.”
——Peter Edge


How Justin Timberlake’s Return to Music Became the Year’s Biggest Debut
By Simon Glickman

First he brought sexy back. Now he’s brought album sales back.

So say Justin Timberlake’s label and management, and given the boffo 980k, #1 bow for his The 20/20 Experience, we can’t disagree. But how’d they get to this happy milestone?

After the artist’s whirlwind recording bout last year with longtime partner Timbaland was complete, RCA co-heads Peter Edge and Tom Corson, Timberlake and his team—manager Johnny Wright, marketer/publicist Sonia Muckle and a few others—sat down to discuss the rollout.

“Justin is super-involved with everything,” Edge reveals. “He’s got the most amazing blend of creativity and understanding of what’s going on in the culture. Not every artist has that kind of keen awareness. He knew he had to get his vision across, and wasn’t afraid to carry it out. He’s pretty exceptional in that way.”

“Justin and Johnny felt less was more,” Corson says. “We all agreed we should focus on big, strategic things, and that it wasn’t necessary to do everything.”

Meanwhile, Timberlake’s schedule for the remainder of 2012 was taken up with, you know, marrying Jessica Biel in Italy and shooting Ben Affleck’s new movie in Puerto Rico and whatnot. “We tried to get a campaign together for the Super Bowl but we couldn’t turn that around in time,” Wright notes. “So we put our energy toward the Grammys. We played the music for Neil Portnow and Ken Ehrlich, and they gave us an opportunity to perform.”

The Announcement
“Justin wanted the fans to find out first” about the album, explains Wright. So Timberlake’s digital team, headed by Trace Ayala, designed an online clock counting down from Jan. 10 to a Jan. 13 message from JT announcing his musical return. When the word came down, Corson says, “We were able to go right away. It was a pristine launch, directly to fans, with no leaks.”
“‘Suit & Tie’ was recorded pretty late in the proceedings,” Edge points out, “and as soon as he got it, he was pretty sure that it set the stage for the whole campaign—the visual, the feel, the message, the style.”

Retail Partners
Prior to the announcement, the team approached partners quietly. “Gary Tobey and his team from Target were the first we talked to, and they got it right away,” says Wright. “We knew iTunes would be important, but selling albums physically as well as digitally was really important to Justin.” Adds Corson of Target, “I can’t emphasize enough what a fantastic partner they are.” A special-edition CD and a series of stylized TV spots created with the retailer would prove crucial as the campaign unfolded.

iTunes, meanwhile, wanted to stream the entire album the week before it went on sale, and despite some initial reluctance, Team Timberlake agreed.

Immediately after JT’s countdown, armed with lead single “Suit & Tie” featuring Jay-Z, RCA GM and promo wizard Joe Riccitelli accompanied Wright to Clear Channel, debuting the song for Tom Poleman, John Ivey and their staff. Then they went to CBS. And then Cumulus. “Our goal was something that hadn’t been done before,” Riccitelli recalls, “because all those chains together would get us an unprecedented first week in spins. Greg Strassell and his team at CBS went in head first, and Jan Jeffries and the Cumulus team really wanted to be involved in the launch.”

The result? “Suit & Tie” became the first song to be added by every Top 40 station in its first week, and marked the biggest one-week audience and spin increase yet for a solo artist, with mad action at Pop (his highest total ever), Rhythm, Urban, Urban AC and Hot AC. The spin total on all formats was in the neighborhood of 5,000. Riccitelli notes that only two other songs (both by Beyoncé) have been inside the Top 10 in as many formats. “When we saw that happening,” he adds, “we saw single sales exploding and decided to drive that record home.”

Clear Channel offered numerous “bells and whistles,” Riccitelli notes, and developed its own partnership with Target separate from the label’s, “so the timing was perfect.” This pact supported two iHeartRadio “roadblock” events hosted by Ryan Seacrest—one with a live JT set and the other letting the artist take over for Seacrest on the air—were featured on 170 or so stations.

Then there’s “Mirrors,” which earned 40 adds at Pop this week but doesn’t impact until mid-April. “It’s blowing up and we haven’t even had a chance to go after it yet,” Corson says.

Single Sales
The radio barrage drove “Suit & Tie” to #1 at iTunes, but not into the stratosphere—at first. “It was a few weeks into the single and it was doing well, but it needed something to galvanize it,” Corson remembers. At that point, with sales settling a bit (though still hovering in the iTunes Top 10) and airplay flattening, some pundits predicted that the track had peaked. Not so much, it turns out.

“We’d all give each other pep talks,” Riccitelli volunteers. “We said, ‘Let’s get into the Grammys and his performance on the show,’ because we really felt that would connect the dots—it was the one thing we were missing. The airplay on ‘Suit & Tie’ was kind of living in the vacuum.”

Timberlake’s dynamic perf (with Jay-Z and a huge band) on the Grammy broadcast, combined with his Target spot announcing pre-orders and the bow of his Bud Light ad, brought it all into focus. “Grammy week kicked in and ‘Suit & Tie’ went through the roof,” says Corson (the track sold 200k+ the week following the show). “It’s now passed 1.5 million singles, and it’s still climbing.” “Pusher Love Girl,” which JT also performed on the show, had a nice digital-sales bow of its own, popping into the Top 15.

Pre-orders for 20/20 coincided with the Grammys, during the day at Target and at iTunes right after the broadcast. The Target pre-order was huge, Corson notes, and the iTunes pre-order “was the biggest ever, bigger than One Direction in less time. And the Amazon pre-order put the album at #1 well ahead of street week. All these drivers,” he adds, “had the desired result.”

The initial lyric video for “Suit & Tie” was instigated by Ayala and the digital team, and the official clip—a lavish black-and-white affair offering JT and Jay-Z as the leaders of a new Rat Pack and directed by David Fincher (who helmed The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Timberlake co-starring vehicle The Social Network)—bowed just after the Grammys and has enjoyed some 20.3 million online views through VEVO alone. “The creative in the video was all Justin,” Corson emphasizes. Total views, between the lyric, official and audio clips, are over 40 million. The video for “Mirrors” has already earned more than 10 million views, with a big international component.

“We focused on big looks,” Corson says. “There wasn’t one print interview, no 60 Minutes or CBS Sunday Morning, all of which we’d love to have, but the strategy was to go directly to the fans and let the music do the talking. Let the performance just excite people. And people missed him; scarcity created demand.” Just as the Grammy perf ignited pre-sales week, Timberlake’s music-plus-comedy turns on SNL and an entire week of Jimmy Fallon blew up street week.

What’s more, every high-profile performance for broadcast was used as an opportunity to create a visual (and viral) look at other tracks for the album. Just as he’d done “Pusher Love Girl” on the Grammys, his appearance at the U.K.’s Brit Awards showcased “Mirrors” (which he also rocked on German TV), and he dropped “Strawberry Bubble Gum” on Fallon.

“That was Johnny’s idea from the beginning,” Riccitelli says. Wright explains that the goal was “beating the leaks. As we get these platforms, we leak these other songs ourselves, but in a visual way.”

Timberlake only played a handful of events prior to release, including an L.A. Grammy-week show, a London appearance, a DirecTV-sponsored Super Bowl gig and a SXSW set (during which he dressed in an Austin-friendly T-shirt tux, rather than his usual Tom Ford tux). These shows provided “proof of concept” for the 20/20 album (and lay the groundwork for future ticket sales). “They also reminded people,” Corson points out, “that Justin is among the best live performers of his generation.”

Tons of video views are great, but Corson also underlines the heavy engagement of Timberlake’s fans online. With 20 million followers on Facebook and 18 million on Twitter, we’re talking a mountain of tweets, shares, likes and comments. Timberlake also happens to own reactivated social site MySpace, which is likely to be a factor later in the campaign. Label and management alike hail Ayala and his digital crew, who hit all the right touchpoints (including blogs and other online destinations) at just the right times to maximize their viral impact.

“Every step of the campaign had a purpose and a focus and a tail,” Corson explains. “It wasn’t just front-loaded, so there was always something to share on the social level.”

Which brings us to the present, with the various factors of this campaign leading to the biggest debut for a solo male act since the 1.006 million bow for Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III in 2008, the fifth-biggest bow of the current decade and the top-selling YTD title, not to mention the #1 album in the U.K. and other international territories. Given that it’s only been out a week and the label hasn’t even begun working its second smash, The 20/20 Experience probably has a few more things to show us. Oh, and we forgot to mention: This album is just part one.