Behind the Work: Decoded

By Published on .

Earlier this month, Droga5 launched a campaign for Jay-Z as audacious as the performer himself. To promote his upcoming memoir Decoded, the agency defied publishing convention and decided to put every single page of the book out in the real world before it hit the shelves, via traditional�and sometimes very unconventional� out of home placements as well as an online scavenger hunt with Microsoft's Bing.

The campaign made an opening splash at the Delano in Miami�a page was fully reproduced on the bottom of the hotel pool, with footnotes imprinted on towels strewn across the surrounding lounge chairs. While the words appear for real on the street, those who don't have access to the locations can find them via a unique application/game that Droga5 developed using Microsoft's Bing. Visitors to the site get daily clues, research-able via a Bing overlay, which will lead them to where the pages are, albeit virtually in Bing Maps.

Every day, about five to ten of the book's pages are unveiled, both in the real world and online�the result of a massive, 24-7 collaboration between agency staffers and vendors. With about two weeks and several pages to go until the book launches on November 16, the agency remains on a 24-7 schedule keeping players in hot pursuit.

Creativity talked to Droga5 creative director Neil Heymann and senior interactive producer Andrew Allen about how they kicked off the campaign and have maintained its momentum both on and offline.

Can you tell me about the origins of the campaign and how Bing got involved?
Neil Heymann: We had worked with Jay Z before on a commercial (Rhapsody). That had been successful and something he was personally quite fond of, and the opportunity came up with the new book and for us to work on a promotion of it. On a parallel path, we had been talking to Bing for quite some time and they were looking to do an integrated campaign with us. When we found out the name of the book was going to be Decoded, it seemed to fit perfectly, we approached Bing about it and they were very excited about it as well.

Did you decide from the outset that all these elements were going to be involved? How did you arrive at that decision?
NH: As we continued to work with Bing, we obviously needed to make a lot of decisions as to how we make this experience accessible to everybody. The core part of the idea was these real, tactile pages. We wanted every page to actually physically live in the world. Then it became a matter of creating a compelling experience for people who couldn't actually get there. That's where Bing comes in. Through their product, we've been able to build this experience that allowed people to decode Jay-Z's lyrics and actually have the experience of finding the pages on their map. So the location is still at the core of the idea. But whether you're playing in Norway, or passing by it while you catch the bus to work in Brooklyn, you're still interacting with content and actively seeking it out.

Delano Hotel Pool
Delano Hotel Pool

The actual production, with both the outdoor and online components, has no doubt been very involved. What was step one?
NH: As soon as we had the go ahead to start developing this, it really all comes back to the content. Very early on we were getting early versions of the finished book as early as we could. And we were being updated with revised copies as they came to be, working alongside [publisher] Spiegel & Grau. And really, it was a matter of dissecting each page very thoroughly. The creative team, Adam Noel and John Kubik, spent hours and hours reading this book back to front, breaking down every word and starting to assign each of these pages to a location. It really was a very analytical process of analyzing the content and finding a place that makes sense. As we were doingt that. we started to come up with the more innovative placements like the pool [in Miami] or putting it on a roof in New Orleans. On certain key pages, it became clear we could not only use media placement and wild postings, but actually start using some surfaces that have never really been used for advertising before. As we got to design for the book, one of the design aesthetics the book designer put together was that every title page for a chapter had a design that looked like a vinyl record sleeve. We really loved that so we have made actual record covers of each of the chapter headers, placed in record stores throughout New York as the program unfolds.

New Orleans Rooftop
New Orleans Rooftop

Andrew Allen: One of the real keys of that process has been remaining flexible and fluid since we're working with iterative versions of the book, and identifying higher level, top level placements. Also, the two creatives Jon and Adam became the encyclopedia of this book and probably are better revision history than the pdf. Without that absolutely deep and thorough understanding of the content, this would not have been possible.

Can you describe the makeup of the production team on this?
AA: There are about 40 people from our agency who were actively involved, which for an agency the size of Droga5, of about 100 people, is almost critical mass. There were a lot of people who stepped up with skillsets that hadn't necessarily been tapped in the past. In addition to that we had tons of vendors-about ten involved between all the disparate digital pieces and out of home production. There were two main producers and myself Mea [Cole-Tefka]�who was involved in out of home. But we really functioned as one core unit. We took over a whole wing of the building. It became kind of like an agency unto itself in the sense that we were able to collaborate nonstop all day. It wasn't so formalized. It really had to be everybody turning around, everyone hearing everything, changing on the fly. That's the critical piece.

NH: This really was a very integrated team. It was very flexible and there wasn't that divison between digital and out of home. It all had to function as the same process. It's been crucial, given the number of moving parts. The fact that it's happening in real time, even now, it's so important. With regard to outside resources, it's really just a matter of coordinating people across numerous cities. At the moment we have between five to 10 placements going out a day�anything from a bus shelter in Miami to a tube posting in London to a record cover in a used record store in Brooklyn. It requires a lot of attention to detail but also the ability to shift perspective back and make sure the dynamics of the game are still working.

Record Sleeves
Record Sleeves

What's been the most challenging aspect of the project so far?
AA: From a production standpoint, the most difficult element has been the fact that every single thing in this project runs in parallel. When we first started I sat down and looked at the production from an overall standpoint, outlined everything that needed to be done, mapped out all the dependencies and very quickly it was apparent that Gantt charts would not work. There were a lot of dependencies, but nothing that had a finite start and end. So we can't do something and move on to the next thing. It's more like a little bit of this is done, move a little bit that way, move this way. The fact that every single thing literally has to be done in parallel has been the biggest challenge for us.

What were the steps that went into building the website?
AA: One of the first things we knew we needed to do was utilize Microsoft technologies. One of the things our agency has always been great at is going to people who not only have the skillset to create what needs to be produced but also, in a sense, geek out on it. Knowing we were going to use Silverlight, the first challenge we came to was who was the best in the world at using that. We worked very closely with Microsoft to identify some vendors who were pushing the limits with that and ultimately came to a group named Vertigo in Portland, Oregon.

NH: Really they call themselves a software development team. That's really what we've built here, a piece of Microsoft software. The flexibility of the system and the robustness of the system is really cool, just the fact that we can totally control this game from our office in New York to have people playing all over the world.

So what did you actually create?
AA: We created a Silverlight app that pulls in Bing Maps. It utilizes the Bing Maps API. One of the features we obviously wanted to tap into and harness was Streetside view. That's still in the Beta phase for Bing on their end, so Vertigo and all our geeks over here were very excited to get the opportunity to jump into the Bing maps API and see what we could do with it and see what we could build in the time allotted. We built this Silverlight app that allows us to pull in Bing maps and set up our game with a tool in the back end that allows us to place page beacons wherever they exist in the world, all through a visual interface. So we're not going through databases and entering latitude and longitude. Even our admin uses Bing Maps, so we can literally go into Bing maps through our admin, check out the aerial view, the Streetside view and determine physically where we're going to put the page beacon, so when you answer the clues correctly and you find this page beacon, we can ensure that that's where you're going to find it in the real world. So if we have a bus shelter on X&Y corner, we can literally go into our admin and see an image of that bus shelter and get a page right there for you.

So you're putting all this new imagery of the pages into Bing Maps that wasn't there originally?
NH: Yes, if we have a page beacon on a particular street, we can actually place that exactly where that thing is. If it's something low down, for example we have wild postings close to the ground, we can place them that way. We have billboards quite high off the ground, and we can actually place them in that location specifically.

AA: You'll also notice a hot and cold meter in Streetside view that allows users to cruise through the streets and be told they're on the right track. We can adjust things like the distance the user is in meters from the page until it pops up, or the distance before they're told they're cold or hot. We can adjust where the user is dumped out into Streetside view when they enter questions correctly.

What's your average day like in the upkeep of this?
AA: It's definitely not average. We get call sheets together the night before, we split up creative teams, photographers, we identify what placements are going live that day and we all have call times, so to speak, so the game and the photography all start at the same time. We coordinate in the morning and all of our squads go out to the individual placements, which we get up on a schedule�this billboard live at 9 am, this thing live at 11:30 etc. As soon as the placement is up we push it live on the actual site and then our ADs and photographers start taking the photos which will appear on the homepage. We have a whole process for how images get to us rapidly, we have a photo retouchers, the CD going through images, getting those to the game team, who uploads the images on to the site. That's sort of the completion of the process, and then at the same time, the game team is thinking about tomorrow, and we're setting up those journeys for the user�inputting the clues, going into Streetside and plotting the page beacons, where the user lands, going through the journey ourselves to make sure you have the best, most aesthetically pleasing journey that fits the level of difficulty we want for it, won't be confusing, etc. It's pretty much a 24-hour a day operation so far.

Any snags so far?
AA: To that, some of the larger placements were quite difficult to get set up and produced. But often, they're easier for us to get live because we have more control. They're specialized placements so we're literally creating our own rules. What's proven to be more difficult is dealing with the things you take most for granted like bus shelters or billboards that already have an established paradigm and throwing a giant wrench in that. We're calling unions used to having four days to hang a bus shelter saying we'll have a team of guys meet you at 9 am. So trying to work with these large companies with established processes and procedures, to get them to bend the rules, has been one of the larger logistical problems.

Bus shelters, not as easy as you'd think.
Bus shelters, not as easy as you'd think.

How are you monitoring all the social media activity?
AA: We have multiple things in place. The core individuals involved in that are our game team, which includes our community manager, who very actively understands the culture and community online and offline and can go out, strike up a rapport with some of these people, monitor what's being said�are things too easy, are people having problems. She's also monitoring level of excitement, bringing that to the attention of Neil so we can make adjustments on the fly if we need to.

Any plans for a grand finale?
NH: Of course there are. The same way we wanted to kick things off in a big way with the launch at the Delano, we definitely have a few surprises between now and the end of the program. That's our goal now, maintaining that momentum and building it, so when the book comes out it really does pay off.

Check out more images from the campaign below:

Most Popular