Ideas that do

In 2006, Guerrilla Advertising by CR’s own Gavin Lucas documented the arrival of a new crossbreed of advertising and PR. With the publication of the book’s sequel, Lucas discusses such work’s role in creativity today with some leading practitioners

What’s changed in the ad world since the first edition of Guerrilla Advertising came out in 2006? Is the kind of work featured in GA2 still relevant as advertising moves forward?

Rob Wilson: This kind of work will always be relevant because it pays more attention to the way that people live their lives and rightly blurs the line between creative thinking and media thinking. What I love about many of the examples [in GA2] is the sharpness of the idea and the fact that idea and media are indistinguishable – the two are naturally and inextricably joined.
In the last five years we’ve seen an increased focus on developing communications concepts that are designed to create real engagement and participation. In this process the concept must come first but it only truly works when we are creative with media and consider media in its broadest sense because ultimately concepts don’t live in precious boxes, they live in the spaces where people can interact with them. 

Andrzej Moyseowicz
: I think one of the changes is that [this kind of work] has gone into the vernacular of clients. It’s one of those things they like to mention in a meeting – just like they might an iPhone app: ‘Oh, if you come up with a guerrilla idea then let us know’.

So it’s good that it’s in the vernacular, although what makes a good guerrilla idea is not always well understood. The biggest change in the last five years is that the platforms for sharing are way more democratic. And that’s the coolest bit. There’s almost a voting mechanism built into the way we share content and that I think has actually upped the game in terms of what type of creative and strategic thinking you have to do. The really great ideas in here [the book] are the ones where you can sense that it was not just the core idea that was important, but it was the empathetic understanding of why it could be amplified, why it would be shareable in the mediums that now exist – platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. So you could be, I guess, a bit gimmicky or give something a PR spin five years ago, but now you have to think much more about that whole second layer which is ‘where are my first second and third ‘halos’ of people sharing this and why?’

Michael Brown
: Another big change in the last five years is to do with budget allocation. A guerrilla idea was very much at the tail end of a budget – when a campaign had a bit of cash left over.

The other thing is that guerrilla ads also made what the agencies were doing look quite interesting – there was almost a vanity aspect to it. It’s an easy thing to do, a media buy, but nobody really wants to look at a report saying ‘bought a billboard at Oxford Circus’. So the attitude a few years ago was ‘let’s throw this thing in and even though it’s a little gimmicky it may just add some more value to the wider campaign. It may not, but we’ve got this money left over so let’s spend it.’

Of course, lots of work in the book isn’t guerrilla in the true sense of the word in that most of it is done with permission and a big change for me is in increased concerns about health and safety, permissions and licensing, agreements to do with intellectual property. All that stuff takes things away from being truly guerrilla and means that now these campaigns are much better planned and much more part of a brand strategy than ever before. So people might think they can ambush the Olympics with a guerrilla stunt but very few people will be successful because everyone’s aware of it and down on it and now that kind of branded activity needs to be screwed down.

And because everything needs to be planned – budgets have gone up – it’s not just an add-on anymore. Clients want to make sure campaigns are genuinely measurable. They need to know how it will be picked up.

So, for example with the Up Up and Away balloon [left], it wasn’t just a case of flying the balloon around or being at certain events. We built in a load of media partnerships to guarantee measurable coverage. In Turin in Italy, for example, we did a deal with a broadcaster (in which no money changed hands) where we’d get some dedicated programming – turned out to be 23 minutes about the making of the balloon and how the balloon we created compares to the floating house in the film, Up, and in return we’d give their viewers flights in the balloon from Fiat’s famous rooftop test track in Turin. We also got a guaranteed slot on the channel’s news show too.

In France we tied in with France 3 and the Lorraine Mondial Balloon festival, the biggest balloon festival in Europe with 200,000 visitors, a family audience which was perfect. They did a piece about how technology allowed a balloon like ours to be built. All these deals were done up front and a long time in advance – around 18 months before the actual activity – so it was all very strategic.

CR: Is the area of street advertising and experiential brand activity much more tightly regulated now than it was even five years ago?

RW: Actually, I think street advertising and experiential activity has always been relatively well policed because campaigns of this nature operate within public spaces and therefore need to be considered and executed both safely and responsibly. Public spaces are often owned and managed by local government and councils are rightly conscious of brands using their environments for commercial ends. That said, councils are aware of the benefits that street advertising and experiential can bring to public spaces and often the key is to demonstrate the value the activity provides to the local community.

CR: With myriad new media options available to brands and their advertisers, is there a risk that work or activity is done simply for the sake of it?

RW: Of course this does happen and of course we wouldn’t recommend that any brand invest in activity that has no real relevance or clear message. Much of the work in the book is powerful not simply because it uses environments in original and innovative ways, but because the ideas are insightful and the messages are sharp.

AM: There is definitely a danger of doing stuff that isn’t insight-led. What I think is amazing – and a change in the last five years – is that we, the general populous, have redefined what qualifies as compelling content. Any brand can post up a video on YouTube but if you are aware of what has evolved to be compelling content, then you’ll know that it is actually about the unpolished, it is about the reportage. You can have brand communications that sit in a polished space but if you don’t reflect the feel of what people share and like and find compelling then I think there’s a disconnect.

With Saatchi & Saatchi’s Dance campaign, T-Mobile took a massive punt, massive bravery from the brand manager. It was filmed and put on air within 48 hours so it was an incredible feat from a production point of view. But what I really love is what happened later on. You know you’re creating a guerrilla environment (even if the original ad may not be ‘guerrilla’ in the true sense of the word) when people start connecting tangentially with the idea in a guerrilla way. So there’s a YouTube video of a wedding couple who replicated the dance moves for  their first dance. That had nothing to do with us. Then, which was perhaps not in the interests of T-Mobile, a Facebook event was organised that ended up shutting down Liverpool Street when about 70,000 people showed up to create a flash mob…. What I love is that there’s a tangential moment that’s insightful about how people want to touch an idea, how they share stuff and that’s what’s compelling. We don’t mind now if it’s rough around the edges – because that creates a bit of humanity that perhaps wasn’t in the creative before.

CR: Of course, now we have these relatively new means of sharing content and amplifying brand messages like never before, the consumer is also in a position to shoot something down if they don’t feel it’s done well or genuinely. It’s a double-edged sword.

RW Absolutely, but this situation just reinforces the need for greater honesty, integrity and transparency from brands. If brands want to build real relationships and engage communities they need to do what they say and walk the talk. Of course there will always be critics but if the brand has done its homework, understands the needs of its audience and delivers a relevant value exchange, then its advocates will outweigh the naysayers.

AM: This is true and I think the standards have gone up in terms of what viewers’ expectations are. I personally love the turnaround on fake sports virals, for example. There’s a knee-jerk reaction now that is like ‘Oh, come on….’ They make it look rough but you kind of know what’s coming and that it’s not real. People feel like they’re being cheated. It’s not fun like it was in the beginning. Last year when Gillette did the one with Federer, it was shareable in the beginning but then you look at the comments….

CR: There’s more hate than love?

AM: Precisely. I love how this raises the bar. There definitely is no formula. I think you do have to find something relevant that people can clearly get their teeth into. One of the hardest things has always been trying to understand and anticipate the way people participate and why – and also to realise that that’s not always the goal. A good example and a very brave move and very topical was the T-Mobile Royal Wedding viral which has been seen by the mid-20 millions. I love that some Americans thought it was real and also that Prince Harry put it on his Facebook. I think the scary creative space is actually the grey area where it’s as if you’re belittling the intelligence of people who have become accustomed to quickly evaluating content, and perhaps have become a little bit cynical about branded content. People don’t want to be cheated into sharing something – they don’t want to feel manipulated. I like this creative push back and I think it’s important because it sets the standard of what’s fair game and where can you break the rules a bit.

CR: Talking of rules, Dave Trott in his regular Campaign blog suggested that using PR stunts to promote a brand or service isn’t advertising, and that “the same rules don’t apply”. But doesn’t the term ‘advertising’ now cover such activity? Don’t ad agencies want their clients to believe they can do much more than traditional advertising?

RW: I think everyone needs to be able to do much more than they used to because campaigns don’t exist or work like they used to. They might require narrative that can unfold over a significant period of time and this narrative needs to empower and release the potential of all media and channels rather than restrict it. From screens to shelves (and vice versa) campaigns need to be woven – crafted to tell stories that engage and build communities of advocates. This change in how campaigns are created and delivered has forced all agencies to rethink what ‘they do’. Overall, I think we will see a change in agencies defining themselves by media or channel and starting to define themselves by how they change consumer behaviour.

CR:  So ad agencies now have to cover more media bases than ever?

MB:  Agencies have had a struggle with their business model, realising that the landscape has changed so they do want to own all the areas of media, including experiential – which we [Beatwax] do a lot of. We’re often approached by ad agencies who want to know more about what we do, and how to cost or value this kind of work. So that change of advertising agencies and media companies wanting to know more about what have traditionally been separate specialisms like PR and experiential is being driven by ad agencies themselves who feel they must evolve because they can see where advertising is going. But putting a value on this kind of work is tough.

Some experiential agencies are lazy – what they care about is the production value of the experience, or the quantity of experiences as opposed to the measurement of it, so they create a wonderful creative idea and then put it in a music festival or in Westfield shopping centre where there is huge footfall, but is that enough? By tying in media packages independently to the experience, we can create much more value and much more exposure for whatever it is.

For example, we recently worked on an X-Men project…. It was a great and expensive-to-produce experience, but only 40 people took part – competition winners from media partners etc. The whole thing cost an absolute fortune (hiring an aircraft carrier wasn’t cheap!). We had 16 partners all creating their own content about the experience – in print, online and broadcast – one of which was MTV. They made a film about it which was shown in 83 territories. The value of that is huge.

CR: Is this a (the) new goal for brands: to create content so compelling that consumers and media partners create the coverage and distribute it for them free of charge?

MB: That’s the difference, yes, and that’s the threat – because we got all that media coverage for free.

RW: Brand advocates have always been important to brands but they now have a louder voice and therefore rightly deserve more consideration. An important element of engaging and motivating brand advocates, from the individual to the masses, is to ensure that there is a value exchange. This doesn’t have to be financial or promotional; it could simply be providing entertainment, geared towards providing them with unique content first, or putting them in an influential position within the brand’s community.

With regards to media partners, they will continue to play an important role in how we develop campaigns. Of course, they have existing communities that brands can build a relationship with, and finding a common ground and relevant reason to talk with particular communities should be done working with the media owners as they often understand their community better than anyone.

CR: Are what were once standalone, specialist agencies  –  such as PR and experiential agencies and stunt specialists – now working more closely than ever before with big ad agencies?

RW: I think we’ve always worked closely but the key change has been in the working relationship. The emphasis is on developing an idea that has the potential to engage and this is, and should be, open to all agencies to ‘pitch’ ideas and thoughts. Once we have the essence of the idea the agencies must then work collectively to define how the idea will become a narrative that can work and meet its objectives across the media that they will take ownership of. The role of the client is of course integral to both the agency relationships and the process.  The days of simply throwing a brief into a room of agencies and walking away are hopefully behind us and clients are rightly reinvigorating their role at the table as the brand manager and custodian of what the brand says and how the brand behaves.

CR: Are ad agencies also trying to incorporate and bring in-house these previously specialist ways of thinking and working?

RW: Yes and no, some agencies are clearly augmenting their existing offering and working openly with specialists that complement them. Where it is not working, is when an agency is purporting to provide the services but with no substance – simply as a defence mechanism and a land grab for budgets. Clients need and want to work with ‘best-in-class’ and a collaborative team: whilst this may benefit closer working relationships it also ensures that in an age of transparency and authenticity, specialists are playing to their strengths and delivering added value and expertise.

AM: Now you have to have, not so much a creative humility, but more an understanding that you believe in an organising idea and you have to be unafraid to co-create with partners. I think we obviously want to broaden the reach and the way our creativity can deliver value, can impact the world and society broadly, and with the gravitas of being a big agency we have a momentum there. So much of that momentum I see is coming through the fact that the fragmentation of our creative landscape, especially in the UK, creates creative tension. And that creative tension can lead to very powerful co-creation – and that is something that is inherently interesting.

Does that mean that smaller agencies are going to be potential acquisition targets [for large ad agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi]? For sure. We want that expertise. We want to add it to the expertise we already have. So part of the creativity is being unafraid and having the humility to go ‘you know what, we partner up. We don’t hide you. We sit there and say this is how we deliver.’ We have preferred partnerships that have developed through that approach and we’re unafraid of sharing that space with the clients because part of these great ideas come from the fact that you have this wonderful insight from this wonderful idea and you know it deserves a canvas that you may not be able to create or amplify on your own. We nurture an interest and empathy in partnership.

Some of the great work that comes out you can tell that there’s ten amazing people involved  – a media person, an events guy, a PR, an activation specialist, DM … some of that stuff may be in one agency shared with a couple of others, or it could be ten agencies – it doesn’t matter to me.

I think in the past maybe some of the bigger agencies have been afraid of taking that approach. I don’t see another alternative. It may be provocative but, if it makes the idea bigger, better or more compelling, why wouldn’t you do it?

Andrzej Moyseowicz is the media innovation director at Saatchi & Saatchi’s London office.

Michael Brown is MD of Beatwax,  a London-based agency specialising in entertainment marketing, in particular for the film industry.

Rob Wilson is director of strategy at  London-based experiential agency, RPM.

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