Behind the Work: Welcome to the New Normal

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Event-based marketing may be hot, but it's not for the control-freaks, says 180 Los Angeles ECD William Gelner. "You never have complete control," he says. In the past few years, his agency has come out with some of more buzzworthy event-driven campaigns, like Sony's "Shiphunt," "Rocket Project," and, most recently, Mitsubishi's "Welcome to the New Normal," promoting next month's launch of the brand's new electric vehicle, the "i." The campaign displayed how sleepy little Normal, Ill., a town that has housed a Mitsubishi manufacturing site for decades, was transformed into EVtown, USA, the home of one thousand of the brand's fuel efficient cars and their charging stations.

With this kind of project, research played a big part. Creatives at 180LA found that Mitsubishi had struck this deal with Normal's mayor, Chris Koos, about a year earlier. The amazing story was already there--it was just a matter of presenting it the right way.

Imperfection is Your Friend
"You have to accept imperfection," says Gelner. "Point the camera at the snags and the obstacles, make them transparent and that makes the brand seem authentic." For example, with the Normal work, the campaign's short film opened and closed with a naysayer who was initially skeptical of the idea, the 92-year-old Ruth Steel. Her initial reluctance makes the piece believable and human and was the perfect lead in to the final shot of Ruth, gleefully driving the car, exclaiming how much she likes it. "That was my favorite bit of the whole piece," says Grant Holland, CD on the project.

Pretty much every experiential campaign has created an obstacle that later became part of the story arc, says Gelner. For the Sony Rocket project, in which eight high school students attempted to design, build and launch a rocket using Sony VAIO computers, weather turned out to be one of the biggest roadblocks. The team had worked towards one day, blocking off a cone of space, getting approval and so on. But Mother Nature didn't co-operate. There was so much snow and rain that the dry lakebed that was going to be used became a lake. "You never want to show the bad stuff with a commercial, you want it to be perfect, but in this type of content creation, this situation creates drama," says Gelner. David Emery, the producer on the project, turned it into a story element: "Houston, we have a problem." The Discovery Channel series that documented the project had plenty of emphasis placed on all that could go wrong--and did.

Agency Shift
But while event campaigns may create buzz and lead to potentially more "authentic" communication, they also require agencies to double their efforts in promoting it. The event is only part of the puzzle: The work that comes after, with short films, commercials, full-length movies or television shows about the event is what will actually get the word out to the mass public. The event happens, and then the campaign surrounding it has to happen. This requires some major (mental and procedural) shifts in how an agency operates.

At 180LA, the production department, for example, is undergoing change. Digital producers now get training in broadcast and integrated approaches and vice-versa. Younger staffers will shadow senior veterans on broadcast, and then they will switch. "This kind of stuff really demands a collaborative approach in production," says Emery. Campaigns will have broadcast elements but also major digital features. Michelle McSorley, who works in PR at the shop, also points out that her department is pulled in much earlier. "Getting the word out, PR, social media, becomes extremely important in these projects," she says.

Gavin Milner, CD, says the whole point is to bring people into the process a little bit. There are multiple angles on a story, but agencies aren't getting more time. "So everyone pitches in and we tear down the walls."

The Risks of Event-Based Efforts
But event-based campaigns, successful as they have been for 180LA, also run the danger of becoming too common. Their USP is rarity-- but as more companies and shops shift to get more experiential projects out the door, 180LA wants to step back. "There's no doubt it's working, especially for Mitsubishi," says Holland. 180LA won Mitsubishi in June last year and market share for the brand has almost doubled in the year to date, with monthly sales increases for 13 consecutive months. "This is not easy stuff to do, but it works."

Gelner says he has noticed a "trend" of these types of campaigns coming up. "Maybe I'm just hyper-aware, but for example, YouTube's Space Lab took a cue from our Rocket project," he says. "This may be working in the near term but if other brands follow on, we will step away. We have to keep it fresh. We'll find something else."

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