Behind the wheel

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Clive owen may do for BMW in "The Hire" what Steve McQueen did for the Ford Mustang in "Bullitt."

The mysterious star of BMW's short made-for-the-Web movies exudes a sense of cool behind the wheel. He's strong, confident, unflappable under pressure, with an unerring sense of right and wrong. He's Dirty Harry without the right-wing baggage, Mad Max sans apocalypse, and man, can this dude drive. He knows when to jam his 3 Series coupe into third, when to slam on the ABS and when to deftly execute one of the loveliest 360s you'll see this side of a Jerry Bruckheimer film.

All these heroics, of course, are performed in the service of a promotional mechanism that's not easy to describe, despite being the center of more media attention than any marketing story since the death of the Sock Puppet.

BMW North America launched the series-a quintet of high-energy movies shot by name directors and featuring unexpected star turns by Madonna, Mickey Rourke and Stellan Skarsgaard-in April, backed by a promotion campaign including TV, print and Web ads, viral marketing efforts and aggressive public relations. Each film has the constant, supporting presence of a different model BMW car, each time put to the test in service of the story.

Since the launch at BMWFilms.com, "The Hire" has been singled out as the first high-profile, big-budget, celebrity-laden Internet marriage of advertising and entertainment. It's been reviewed, scrutinized, deconstructed and cited as evidence of the perilous future for traditional advertising. New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell called the series "a marriage of commerce and creativity, straddling the ever-dwindling line between art and merchandising."

Not prominently mentioned in much of the coverage of "The Hire" was the fact that its core creative concept-along with key strategic thinking, Web development and several of the scripts-came from one source: BMW's agency, Publicis Groupe's Fallon Worldwide in Minneapolis. That's right, Minneapolis-the new crossroads of advertainment convergence.

"I think we're reinventing advertising," says David Lubars, Fallon president and exec creative director, who played a key, if supporting, role in the project. Mr. Lubars adds: "We're not looking to make this a template, as though this is what advertising is [going to be]. I think what technology affords you is that every client can get their own customized media approach. And this was really right for this client."

BMWFilms, from a marketing standpoint, has accomplished several objectives. First off, it has generated tremendous buzz in both the entertainment and business press, much of it effusive in its praise. This is important, since one of the goals was to make BMW look not only cool but likeable, which the brand needs to do to combat negative perceptions some people have based on old associations with '80s-style yuppie arrogance.

On a more brass-tacks level, both the BMW and Fallon people were growing increasingly concerned with their ability to reach their core market of overachieving, hard-working Bimmer buyers via traditional methods such as network TV. Their research indicated that many were tech-savvy and had fast, reliable access to the Web. Most important, 85% of buyers had researched their car purchase on the Web before stepping into a showroom.

On top of this, there was concern about being drowned out in the TV arena. "We had done three different campaigns about responsive performance," says Jim McDowell, VP-marketing at BMW North America. The ads were hard-driving, product-focused efforts designed to show what it's like behind the wheel of a BMW. From both the client and agency's perspectives, their look and feel had begun to be copied by rivals and wannabes, "making it less distinctive than it was before," Mr. McDowell says.

Meanwhile, according to Bruce Bildsten, the soft-spoken associate creative director who runs the BMW creative group at Fallon, the agency had been meeting with consultants and experimenting with ways to reach consumers via the Internet.

In the spring of 2000, these two factors-concern over TV effectiveness and curiosity about how to exploit the popularity of the Web-dovetailed when the agency was asked to come up with a new branding campaign.

A creative team at the shop, writer David Carter and art director Joe Sweet, had recently completed a campaign for Timex working with director Tim Burton. This campaign incorporated an Internet element that featured short video clips shot for the Web.

So the idea emerged to do something for the Web that would be not only entertaining, but also cinematic. Out of this process, Mr. Bildsten says, came a concept for a longer film that would be shot in segments and delivered via the Web as a serial. "It would have product placement, but it would not be heavy handed, and it would be very entertaining," he says.

Best of all, it would allow the marketer to push the envelope of performance, showing what a BMW could do in the most extreme conditions, circumstances you could never hope to convey in a traditional TV spot-indeed, to do so might seem reckless. "You could never put in enough disclaimers," Mr. Bildsten says.

Ah, but being chased by bad guys who are after a courier carrying stolen gems? Now that's another matter.

As the project evolved last summer and fall, it became more complex. The goal, Mr. Bildsten says, was to do a different level of Web film-one that by its very nature would call attention to itself. "We felt this was an opportunity to bring in a higher range of serious filmmakers to the Web. And we knew we wanted to promote them like regular films."

Indeed, that was what brought them to Anonymous Content, the Hollywood production company that boasts director David Fincher as a partner. The hipness factor that Anonymous contributed can't be underestimated. Mr. Fincher, who cut his teeth on music videos and TV commercials, is a highly individualistic filmmaker well-connected with an A-list of independent-leaning Hollywood talents.

Mr. Fincher took the original concept for a longer film and suggested instead a series of stand-alone shorts, each directed by a different marquee name. He also came up with the idea for the character played by Clive Owen, the talented young English actor and star of the 1998 independent hit "Croupier." Mr. Owen's character, The Driver, appears in all the films and more or less represents the ultimate BMW-driving machine.

Once the agency presented the concept for "The Hire," it needed a way to allay the client's concerns about reach and impact. How could BMW compare the effects of a Net-centric campaign with a more traditional print and broadcast onslaught? This is a key challenge facing just about any marketer looking to move aggressively into new media without giving up measurability of its message.

Eventually, Fallon and BMW devised a means of comparing traditional and Web campaigns in terms of consumer participation. According to Mr. McDowell, past media buys were analyzed to determine how much time BMW's core demographic was exposed to the marketer's message via broadcast commercials. Then BMW compared this figure of what it called "BMW minutes" to the amount of time its prospects spent on its Web site. "We were astonished to discover that a major fraction of the total BMW minutes were Internet minutes," Mr. McDowell says.

Armed with the knowledge that the Web provided a cost-efficient way of reaching its core market, the company agreed to a campaign in which the normal spending ratios between media and production were reversed. "In a traditional application, you spend virtually all of your money on the media compared to what it costs to produce something," Mr. McDowell notes. "It's exactly the other way around when you do it on the Web."

The money that BMW spent on this venture has not fazed Mr. McDowell in the least. BMW won't reveal budgets, but veteran production executives estimate the cost of the five short films in the $15 million range. Even when factoring in the agency's costs in developing interactive elements of the project and the expense of media placements and publicity, the cost still does not vary greatly from what a marketer like BMW would have paid for a major branding campaign.

The amount of interactivity inherent in the films is nonexistent: You download them and play them. This was a conscious decision, says Mr. Lubars, as the intended target was thought to be a more mature demographic less caught up with interactive game-play and more interested in the viewing experience.

And what of the target? Mr. McDowell says initially BMW had no real idea whom this would appeal to. "We knew we would have everyone from high-school students to 7 Series owners," he says, referring to BMW's top-of-the-line, aging-boomer flagship. We would have guessed that our central tendency would have been 25-year-olds, but actually from our early measurements we got people older and more affluent than that." Since the site's launch in April, BMW claims the films have been downloaded 6 million times; this figure includes repeat viewings but does not count people who log off before downloading the entire film.

According to Web tracker Jupiter Media Metrix, BMWFilms.com in May drew 787,000 unique visitors who spent an average seven minutes at the site that month, and in June drew 856,000 visitors, who spent an average 16 minutes.

The Web promotion comes at a time when BMW sales are booming. BMW's U.S. sales in June hit 20,250 vehicles, up 32% from a year ago, according to Automotive News.

While most of the players on both the client and agency side are not sure what the next step is, the series is by no means done. While the final short broke July 19, the films have also been shown on cable as paid media buys (they've run on Bravo and the Independent Film Channel) and will be distributed later this year in a compilation DVD, complete with extra footage.

"One of the things we have to see is what is the long-term effect of what we've done," says Mr. McDowell. He says the short-term plan is to keep the films on the Web as long as there are people coming to see them. As for what's next, BMW can either do it all over again, do it again but differently, or move in another direction completely, Mr. McDowell adds. BMW is still trying to figure out which road to take.

The site is still generating buzz, particularly in marketing and film-production circles. But Fallon's public role has come across as far more anonymous than Anonymous'. Agency insiders admit to having to swallow hard as they've seen Anonymous Content get top billing, even sharing a "presents" credit at the start of each short, while Fallon is relegated to a minor mention in the credits that unspool at the conclusion of each film. But according to various viewpoints, this was done as a strategic decision; it made the BMWFilms series appear in the media as an entertainment-oriented endeavor, not a marketing initiative.

Now that BMW is seen by some as playing Frankenstein with the DNA of marketing communications, what does Mr. McDowell see as the future impact of the success of BMWFilms on his industry peers? "I'm positive there will always be traditional advertising," he says, "and new ways of communicating. It's a situation of horses for courses-you pick the one that's best for the task at hand, and you use it in a way that maximizes its strengths."

Contributing: Jean Halliday and Catharine P. Taylor

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