Stories around the campfire

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Four of the logicians and creative brains behind such original, award-winning campaigns as Audi's "Art of the Heist" and Sega's "Beta-7" are launching a New York-based company called Campfire.

The founding partners are marketing strategist and ex-agency executive Elizabeth Talerman; filmmakers and marketers Gregg Hale and Mike Monello, best known for Haxan's "Blair Witch Project"; and Steve Wax, a producer and partner in production company Chelsea Pictures.

All have been involved in creating campaigns like "Heist" and Beta-7 work, which have been described as alternate-reality games (ARGs), or integrated interactive theater, and draw consumers into a brand-centric story in which they participate rather than pushing a one-way message via traditional media.

"I think we're going to see a lot of agencies like this emerge," predicted Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer of Intelliseek, a firm that monitors blogs, message boards and other types of consumer-generated media. "Clients have a greater degree of openness to this now."

Campfire will work with either agencies or marketers-its principals were in cahoots with McKinney & Silver on "Art of the Heist," and with Wieden & Kennedy's New York office on the Beta-7 push. Unlike traditional advertising campaigns that communicate a simple message with executions in multiple media, Campfire's tales combine a series of pre-planned events with numerous live elements. These sometimes include conventional newspaper ads or TV spots that are used in tactical ways as part of an unraveling story or game rather than as branding components.

"Art of the Heist," for instance, which began in April with a staged car theft from a New York City Audi dealership and continued through July, involved writers, actors, commercial producers, a music composer and Web designers as the storyline unfolded on Web sites, short films, Webcasts, voicemails, chatrooms and at real-life events like the E3 Convention at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

`New territory'

Campfire begins with several weeks of creative brainstorming to develop a storyline and map out the tale's course, considering not only the necessary elements of compelling drama but also the details required to communicate the marketer's product. The point, said Gregg Hale, creative director at Campfire, is to have "a legitimate entertainment experience so that people will accept-and embrace-the advertising message."

Campfire doesn't claim to replace traditional agencies or their methods, although one of its founders, Mr. Wax, believes Campfire's approach could not be replicated within a traditional agency structure.

"It is new territory," said Kate Davies, VP-management supervisor, McCann Erickson, New York, who worked with Campfire on a project for Levi's. "Campfire has capabilities I've not really seen outside of my group."

Campfire's approach is to take advantage of rapid changes in consumers' media usage and their changing receptivity to marketing messages. That appealed to Audi's Chief Marketing Officer Steve Berkov, who wanted to reach a distinct population-wealthy, tech-savvy 18-to-35 year olds-with an approach he called "narrow and deep." His agency of record, McKinney & Silver, introduced him to Campfire, and in their work he saw "our chance to do a unique thing," he said. "Some parts are unknown-but like a conversation with anyone-you take a chance."

The difficulty with Campfire's approach-and for any marketer relying on a buzz factor to elevate its brand-is that "these programs are extremely difficult to execute," said Mr. Blackshaw. "There is no how-to book."

Campfire monitors the progress of its campaigns throughout by reading blogs, tracking Web-site activity and listening to feedback at live events, and if necessary adjusts its storyline. At one point in "Heist," for instance, reaction on discussion boards showed the audience was unhappy with a turn of events. "They exploded," said Mr. Monello, so the storyline was changed. "We know audiences' limits," he said.

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