In January, however, that campaign burst out of its cage via a series of carefully orchestrated, carefully selected events designed to whip up excitement on a major scale.
"While it feels like he is everywhere, he has been going with less-is-more," said RCA Records president/COO Tom Corson. "The looks he has been getting have either been large events or strategic. He hasn't been doing every TV or print opportunity."
That approach has worked like a charm, highlighting not just his charisma as a performer and personality, but also his entrepreneurial pursuits, flair for corporate synergy, and widespread branding appeal. Here's a timeline outlining each and every meme-tastic stroke of Justin's ongoing "20/20" campaign so far:
October 17, 2008:
Rumors that JT might be taking a hiatus from his solo music career begin to bubble when he claims at a Las Vegas benefit that he is "officially retiring" his signature #1 smash hit "SexyBack."
September 23, 2009:
Timberlake is announced to be starring as infamous Internet entrepreneur/former Facebook president Sean Parker in David Fincher's "The Social Network."
November 25, 2009:
Timberlake says he's not rushing into another album, putting his focus on acting instead. "I just want to do interesting parts that are interesting to me," he tells JustinTimberlake.com.
January 10, 2010:
Tennman releases When Everything Breaks Open, the major-label debut of singer-songwriter Matt Morris (a former castmate of Timberlake’s on The Mickey Mouse Club during the early ‘90s). Co-produced by JT and Charlie Sexton, When Everything Breaks Open eventually rises to #99 on the Billboard 200.
January 22, 2010:
Timberlake and Tennman label artist Matt Morris memorably perform a cover of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah" on George Clooney’s all-star “Hope For Haiti” telethon. The soundtrack from the event, Hope For Haiti Now, enters the Billboard Top 200 at #1 -- the first digital-exclusive album to do so in Billboard history; meanwhile, Morris and Timberlake’s “Hallelujah” shoots from #48 to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 in its second week of release.
May 22, 2010:
Tennman releases Esmée Denters’ debut album "Outta Here" as a digital-only release. Despite being executive produced by Timberlake himself -- and production from hitmakers Stargate, Polow da Don, and Mike Elizondo -- "Outta Here" sells little more than 1,000 units, and Detmers is eventually dropped from the label’s roster.
October 1, 2010:
"The Social Network" opens, garnering critical raves (but, controversially, no Oscar) for Timberlake's portrayal of Parker.
December 12, 2010:
"[My fans are] looking at me like, 'Why aren't you staying with one path?'" Timberlake told the L.A. Times. "They look at me like I'm ungrateful for my music career because I want to do film. I don't necessarily crave to be a movie star. I just want to be an actor."
December 16, 2010:
Prestigious literary magazine The Atlantic publishes a blog post on its website with the headline "Dear Justin Timberlake, Please Return to Music. Now." In the piece, writer Hampton Stevens states, "Congratulations, Justin. You are officially a movie star. We knew you could do it. But before you vanish forever into the world of soundstages and green screens, could you please do one favor for your fans? Could you please sing for us? Could you please make just one more album?"
December 17, 2010:
Timberlake stars (well, his voice does) in the animated feature "Yogi Bear."
May 21, 2011:
Timberlake serves as the host "but not the musical guest" of "Saturday Night Live." In his opening monologue, Timberlake makes a point of the distinction, singing "I know you want me to sing and dance around/But I'm going to let you down/'Cause I'm not going to sing tonight," stoking further chatter that he's winding down his musical career for acting.
June 1, 2011:
Timberlake tells Vanity Fair that he has no plans to release new music in the foreseeable future: "I wouldn't say I'm not going to put out another [album]. I would say that would be a bad bet, if you were betting." He's more specific in an interview with Playboy: "People keep asking me when a new song or album is coming out, and I don't know what to say. Music is not my focus right now."
June 24, 2011:
Timberlake co-stars with Cameron Diaz in the comedy "Bad Teacher."
June 29, 2011:
Putting his entrepreneur fedora on, Timberlake makes an ownership investment in the relaunch of MySpace. He takes a creative role in the site's redesign and later takes part in press conferences promoting its new look.
July 22, 2011:
Timberlake stars alongside Mila Kunis in the romantic comedy "Friends With Benefits."
August 31, 2011:
Following a tweet from his official Twitter account ("NYC!!! Wanna check out some live music tonight?? Meet me and @freesol at 45th & 9th at 11pm."), Timberlake gives an impromptu live performance of his chart-topping 2002 single "What Goes Around... Comes Around," at Southern Hospitality, a New York City restaurant he co-owned during its brief existence. He performs with the group Freesol, signed to his Tennman label. "Thanks for your help," Timberlake said with a smile as the song wound down. "It's been a long time."
September 21, 2011:
Timberlake joins an ensemble cast headed up by Clint Eastwood in the sports drama "Trouble with the Curve."
September 26, 2011:
Timberlake's movie career ramps up further with the announcement that he will put on his boogie shoes and take the lead role in "Spinning Gold," a feature-film biopic of Neil Bogart, the disco-era record mogul behind the Casablanca Records label. Of course, he's producing the thing, too.
October 28, 2011:
Timberlake stars alongside Olivia Wilde in the science-fiction action film "In Time."
Timberlake secretly begins recording new material with longtime producer Timbaland. "I would say probably around the late part of May, first week in June, [Justin and I] went to dinner," manager Johnny Wright recalled to Billboard. "He said, 'Guess where I've been the past couple of nights?' I said, I don't know. 'I've been in the studio with Timbaland.' I said, 'What are you guys working on?' and he said, 'I'm working on my stuff.' I was kind of shocked, because, you know, I wasn't prepared for that."
Darren LeGallo, Justin Timberlake and Timbaland attend Darren LeGallo's 'Nothing You Don't Know' Exhibition in Los Angeles, California.
The album that becomes "The 20/20 Experience" is finished. "It was a fast record," Wright says. "Justin had a short window because he had to actually fly to Puerto Rico and shoot a movie with Ben Affleck; he had like four weeks, him and Timbaland. I mean, he'd been thinking about it for years, but by the time they got the studio he had it inside of him -- a direction he wanted to go. And his and Timbaland's relationship is like a brotherhood: They're just so comfortable with each other -- not only as musical friends but as personal friends... that you can get things done in a short period of time. Had [the Affleck movie] not happened, we might have actually set up and put the album out sooner." Timberlake and Wright, together with M2M Construction, begin formulating plans for how to release the music.
August 7, 2012:
After producer Jim Beanz nearly lets the cat out of the bag by telling the press that Timberlake and Timbaland have been recording a new album -- "It's still in the early stages, but they have a lot of tracks," a rep for JT tells Billboard there are no plans for a third solo album.
Timberlake and Wright meet with RCA heads Peter Edge and Tom Corson to plot release strategies for the album.
October 19, 2012:
Timberlake marries longtime girlfriend Jessica Biel in a secret ceremony in southern Italy.
Wright and RCA begin discussions with Target and others for marketing plans around "The 20/20 Experience."
January 10, 2013:
Timberlake makes a series of abrupt announcements via social media indicating he is, in fact, returning to music. After a cryptic tweet only indicating a date and time ("Thursday, January 10th, 2013 at 9:01 am PST...") arrives from Timberlake's official Twitter account, a teaser video called "I'm Ready" appears on YouTube, showing JT in a recording studio and discussing recent musical activity -- with a countdown clock designed by Timberlake's digital team. Later in the day, reports surface that Timberlake will be releasing a single collaboration with Jay-Z as a precursor to a Timbaland-produced album project.
January 13, 2013:
As rumored, Timberlake unveils "Suit & Tie," a single featuring Jay-Z that quickly dominates social-media conversation, synergistically doing so via the revamped MySpace.
Incredibly, news of the single did not leak. "The people that Justin worked with were people that are his friends and have been a part of his life forever, and they all share in the common goal of 'we don't want this leaking out,'" Wright says. "To be honest with you, though, outside of that group of people -- I'm just as dumbfounded at the fact that the [album] hasn't leaked sooner. The hard part -- and I give a lot of credit to Peter Edge and Tom Corson for this -- was to get a whole international record company engaged and sending marketing plans and talking to them about what platforms might be available, and they couldn't tell them who the artist was."
January 14, 2013:
In a letter directed to his fans on his official website, Timberlake confirms "Suit & Tie" is part of a forthcoming new album entitled "The 20/20 Experience," which he'd been working on since summer of 2012: "Back in June of last year, I quietly started working on what is now my next journey with that thing I love called MUSIC. The inspiration for this really came out of the blue and to be honest, I didn't expect anything out of it. I just went into the studio and started playing around with some sounds and songs. It was probably the best time I've had in my career. Just creating with no rules and/or end goal in mind and really enjoying the process."
"[Usually artists] put the single out then wait three or four months before dropping the album then and promote it all over the world," Wright said. "But we said we really want to do this in a shorter period of time, so let's put the single out and [release the album] seven or eight weeks after that -- make it a short window, and because we have such a short window we have to make a big impact."
January 21, 2013:
"Suit & Tie" makes a record-setting debut on Billboard's Pop Songs chart, which measures mainstream top 40 radio airplay. Soaring in at No. 14, "Suit & Tie" achieves the most first-week total plays, marking the highest bow for a song by a male artist in the chart's two-decade history.
January 24, 2013:
Timberlake posts a "Suit & Tie" lyric video on YouTube, which fleetingly reveals "The 20/20 Experience" release date of March 19, 2013 for the first time.
January 30, 2013:
Timberlake is officially announced as a performer on the 55th Annual Grammy Awards telecast.
February 2, 2013:
JT performs his first solo concert appearance in five years at a DirectTV/AXS TV event in New Orleans during Super Bowl weekend, debuting two additional songs from "The 20/20 Experience," "Pusher Love Girl" and "That Girl," alongside a selection of his greatest hits.
February 6, 2013:
Timberlake puts "The 20/20 Experience" official artwork and tracklist on the Internet.
February 8, 2013:
Bud Light Platinum names Timberlake the brand's "creative director," announcing as well a Team Timberlake-conceived commercial called "Platinum Night" to air during the Grammy Awards telecast. "He's more than somebody starring in our advertisements," claims Rob McCarthy, vice president of the Bud Light brand. "Justin and his team were very much a part of writing and creating the commercial that's dovetailed with the Grammys. He's going to help us evolve: it's about bringing him into the process and building a brand with the consumers he knows so well."
February 10, 2013:
Justin Timberlake furthers his musical comeback with a bravura Grammy Awards performance featuring Jay-Z on "Suit & Tie" as well as "Pusher Love Girl"; during the commercial breaks, his "Platinum Night" spot for Bud Light Platinum airs. Further heightening anticipation, Timberlake sends out a teaser tweet claiming "a special surprise" will follow his Grammy Awards appearance: on schedule, immediately following Timberlake's performance, a new song, "Mirrors," gets released on YouTube and is made available for download. Following the Grammys telecast, Timberlake performed a star-studded, Bud Light Platinum-sponsored concert for fans at the legendary Hollywood venue the Palladium, joined by Jay-Z yet again for "Suit & Tie" and, for the encore, Timbaland for the return from retirement of "SexyBack."
"This is really day one of our partnership with Justin," explains Bud Light's McCarthy. "The Grammys is the Super Bowl of music, making this the perfect night to do something like this. For Justin to play with Jay-Z, then release a song right after... to be a part of that is incredible. As consumers and lovers of music, you just want to experience it."
As well, JT appears in a commercial for Target that highlights the March 19th release date of "The 20/20 Experience," tying in with the chain's launch of a deluxe edition of the album featuring two bonus tracks exclusive to Target retail. "I have a history with Target, so when I wanted to offer my fans two exclusive tracks, it was only fitting to partner with them," says Timberlake. "We're also planning a few other surprises. Stay tuned!"
February 12, 2013:
Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z announce a joint stadium summer tour. Plans call for a solo Timberlake tour to follow.
February 14, 2013:
The sexy, black-and-white, Rat Pack-styled official video for "Suit & Tie" -- directed, naturally, by "Social Network" auteur David Fincher -- is released.
February 20, 2013:
Ramping up the international launch of "20/20," Timberlake performs "Mirrors" at the U.K.'s 2013 Brit Awards -- then performs a surprise solo concert at London's Forum venue the same night.
February 23, 2013:
JT gives an exclusive, in-depth interview on the prestigious English chat program "The Jonathan Ross Show."
February 24, 2013:
Justin's European invasion continues with a performance on the popular German entertainment TV show "Wetten, dass... ?"
February 26, 2013:
It's announced that Timberlake will collaborate with Marcus Mumford on the soundtrack for the Coen Brothers' film "Inside Llewyn Davis," in which Timberlake also stars.
March 9, 2013:
Justin hosts "Saturday Night Live" for the fifth time, joining the hallowed ranks of Steve Martin, Paul Simon, Chevy Chase, Candice Bergen, Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks, and Martin Short, all of whom deigned to appear in a skit with Timberlake. JT's mojo also blesses the show with its best ratings in 14 months. Performing "Suit and Tie" with Jay-Z, Timberlake changes a lyric to "My hit's so sick/Got rappers acting dramatic," which the blogosphere interprets as a dis to Kanye West after the rapper criticized the song in February at a London concert; speculation on the potential superstar beef goes viral. JT later calms the situation by telling Jimmy Fallon, "I love Kanye!"
"As the [television] plan started to come together, it was like, instead of doing the single on every one of these performances, why don't we perform a different song?" Wright says. "We figured at some point the album would in some way get out, but we kind of wanted to deliver it to them first in visual way. So [between] the Grammys, the Brit Awards, 'Wetten, dass... ?,' 'SNL' and 'Fallon,' it was like, let's deliver a bunch of new records. The theory was that by the time we got to the release of the album, at least half of it would have been performed on major TV platforms."
March 10, 2013:
A mysterious set of surprisingly edgy -- but official -- dance remixes of "Suit & Tie" set electronic-music blogs agog, showing Timberlake can cause a stir in both the mainstream and underground simultaneously.
March 11, 2013:
"The 20/20 Experience" begins streaming in full online via iTunes. Reports circulate that the album might move at least 500,000 copies in its first week, probably securing Timberlake his second No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart (and an instant Gold certification). Leaving no opportunity to make sure every single human being know he's releasing a new album, Timberlake also commences an entire week of appearances on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," playing "Mirrors," "Pusher Love Girl," and yes, even "SexyBack" again (albeit in a barbershop quartet performance).
March 16, 2013:
Proof SXSW isn't just a launch pad for indie rock bands you've never heard of anymore: JT will play a Myspace "secret" show to close out the essential Austin, Texas music conference. As well, Timberlake hasn't forgotten ye olde traditional media, either: as such, CBS Radio kicks off their new "Amplify" music umbrella on this day with promo saturation and unique programming around "The 20/20 Experience," which is projected to move between 500,000-600,000 units in its first week.
March 18, 2013:
Clear Channel and Target partner on an album release party at Los Angeles' intimate El Rey Theater, broadcasting the event live on 175 Clear Channel stations as well as streaming simultaneously on Yahoo! To kick it off, 850 Clear Channel stations will simultaneous broadcast a two-minute live roadblock highlighting "The 20/20 Experience" songs and launch festivities; as well, hundreds of Clear Channel digital billboards in markets across the country will feature a clock counting down to the album release party. The event will be taped for a TV special to air day after. (See below)
March 19, 2013:
The date "The 20/20 Experience" finally will be released. But is that the end of JT's epic promo/marketing blitz? #NoFrigginWay. Starting on the day "20/20" officially drops and continuing for three weeks, Timberlake will take over all format-appropriate Clear Channel radio stations, websites and iHeartRadio.com to play tracks from his new album, along with recurring short segments with about the album's creation, all the while reminding listeners that the exclusive deluxe edition of the album is only available at Target. Taking a page from the Beyonce's playbook, on this day the CW network will broadcast "Target Presents The IHeartRadio Album Release Party With Justin Timberlake," an hour-long TV special capturing performances and other up close-and-personal moments with the superstar. And did we mention it's sponsored by Target?
"We were very strategic," Wright says. "We have a lot of great partners and everybody came to the table and presented an opportunity for us to get a lot done in a short period of time. And it's been a fun experience."
When it comes to ramping up awareness that JT is back and badder then ever, well, this is only the beginning.