BA’s Magic of Flying billboard: How it was done

British Airways’ Magic of Flying digital billboard, which saw a child stand up and point when a BA plane flew overhead, has enjoyed a lucrative advertising awards season, capped off last week by the Direct Grand Prix at Cannes Lions. The ad’s charm lies in its portrayal of a simple truth: that planes look magical to children. But it took an awful lot of tech to bring such a simple idea to life: here’s how it was done…

British Airways’ Magic of Flying digital billboard, which saw a child stand up and point when a BA plane flew overhead, has enjoyed a lucrative advertising awards season, capped off last week by the Direct Grand Prix at Cannes Lions. The ad’s charm lies in its portrayal of a simple truth: that planes look magical to children. But it took an awful lot of tech to bring such a simple idea to life: here’s how it was done…

The campaign ran on two billboards in London for a six week period last winter, one in Piccadilly Circus and the other along the M4 route to Heathrow Airport. Both billboards were of course underneath the flight path into Heathrow. As well as featuring the child standing up to point at the plane – impressive enough as it is – the billboard also displayed information on the actual flight, including its number and where it had come from. To do this, the team at OgilvyOne, the agency behind the campaign, mounted a special type of ADS-B antenna on a roof in central London, to read every aircraft’s transponder data within a 200km radius.

The billboards would show other ads for most of the time, only switching to BA’s campaign when a relevant flight flew overhead. “Using data to obtain the planes’ location speed, altitude and call-sign, we created a virtual ‘tripwire’ in the sky, triggering the billboards to display our ads every time a British Airways plane flew overhead,” explains Jon Andrews, concept creator and creative technologist on the project. “Although this sounds relatively easy, what the public saw as magic was actually a carefully orchestrated feat of technology.”

Film of the billboard in action: while relatively few people saw it in the flesh, many more saw the effect online

“Firstly,” he continues, “we needed to create a super low latency, custom-built platform that processed the aircraft data quickly enough – if our ad triggered even a fraction of a second early or too late, the child would be pointing at clear sky instead of a plane and the ad would be a failure!

“Secondly, we needed to know the destination of each aircraft so we could display relevant messaging – something that’s not actually included in the transponder data being broadcast from each plane. We had to build a complex database that pulled in call-sign data from British Airways HQ, something that refreshed on a daily basis, convert it to a flight number and then work out the route. Our billboards also had the ability to know if it was too cloudy to actually see the planes. We linked each billboard to their own cloud height sensor, giving them the functionality to turn themselves off if the base cloud height was too low.”

The campaign even required that the team negotiate a new style of media deal, so that they only paid for each activation of the ad, rather than a full-time booking, which is the typical model. “We worked with the outdoor media company to modify their entire ad serving platform,” says Andrews, “creating a new ‘interrupt’ mechanism for them to use in the future for other innovative campaigns.”

Case study film for the campaign

Most challenging to Andrews was bringing all this tech together to create a seamless execution of the campaign. “I think the biggest challenge we faced was creating something that worked properly,” he says. “There was so much going on technically behind the scenes that everything needed to be perfect. Like a bad magician, if the execution was poor, the effect would have been ruined.

“The reason I think it resonated with people so well was because all the technology was invisible, letting the idea come to the fore,” he concludes.

Credits:
Agency: OgilvyOne
Concept creator/Creative technologist: Jon Andrews
ECDs: Emma De La Fosse, Charlie Wilson
Creative director: Andy Davis
Creative technologist: Lorenzo Spadoni
Production company: Patricia Murphy Films
Director: Patricia Murphy

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