The Awards Report

How 'Dumb Ways to Die' Won the Internet, Became the No. 1 Campaign of the Year

A Breakdown of the Components That Sent Metro's Train-Safety Campaign to Top of The Charts

By Published on .

How do you create the winningest campaign of the year? Creativity, obviously. But thoughtful integration and a close adherence to strategy help, too.

McCann Melbourne's effort for Metro Trains used that combination to reach the top of our annual most-awarded ad campaigns list, earning best-of-show wins throughout the awards season and a record-breaking five Grands Prix at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. The success of "Dumb Ways to Die" propelled Metro to the No. 3 slot on this year's most-awarded advertisers list and its creators, Exec Creative Director John Mescall, Creative Director Pat Baron and Director Julian Frost, to the top of the people charts.

While most people are familiar with the cutely morbid video that anchored the work, there's a lot more to the campaign. We break down the multiple components and strategic core here, with the help of Mr. Mescall.

Strong content
The Metro clients, General Manager-Corporate Relations Leah Waymark and Marketing Manager Chloe Alsop, didn't want the typical gloom-and-doom public-service ad, which can be a big turn off for people, Mr. Mescall said. "Pretty early on, we decided we'd try to create entertainment rather than advertising," he said. "For the simple reason that we figured if traditional PSAs repel people, then we should really try to create one that attracts them. ... It was the counterintuitive nature of the idea, the weirdness and positivity of the execution, the sheer joy of the song and the video, and the attention to detail across all elements of the work that ensured its success."

The main film launched online featured adorable, amorphous characters and a catchy tune -- key parts of the strategy to promote virality. To maximize sharability, "we gave it universal appeal with grizzly bears, piranha, rattlesnakes and the like," said Mr. Mescall. "The blob people don't have race or sex attached to them. We made it easy to share in bite-size chunks, launched it across many platforms and with a karaoke version to encourage parodies and tributes."

"The video went nuts from Day One, but then had a really long tail: Even 10 months after it launched, it still appears in the top 20 most-shared global ads on the weekly charts," he said. So far, the video has generated 60 million YouTube views.

Sing along with the Karaoke version.
Sing along with the Karaoke version.

Dumb Ways to Die iTunes Album Cover
Dumb Ways to Die iTunes Album Cover

Have a story to tell
The agency wrote the lyrics to the song, and tapped Ollie McGill of Aussie band the Cat Empire to write the music. He then brought in Emily Lubitz from another band, Tinpan Orange, on vocals. Out of necessity, McCann dubbed the whole outfit "Tangerine Kitty." Said Mr. Mescall: "At that stage, Emily wanted her name kept out of the project because she doesn't really do advertising work, so I figured we'd mash the two band names to leave some crumbs for people. Anything you can do to create stories around your ideas, you should." The agency launched the tune as any band would, via iTunes, radio, YouTube, Soundcloud and more. The song charted on iTunes in 28 countries and sold more than 100,000 copies.

Dumb Ways to Die, the Game
Dumb Ways to Die, the Game

In May, McCann launched an app version of the spot, ultimately extending the campaign's longevity."Once the video started to tail off a little, we released the game and it quickly became the No. 2 free app in more than 20 countries, including Australia, the U.S. and the U.K.," said Mr. Mescall. Since its launch, the app has been downloaded 18 million times.

Video wasn't the only viral seed. The agency also brought the characters outdoors with bold posters and ambient displays that were fodder for Instagram and social media. Passers-by could shoot themselves alongside the campaign's characters and press a giant button to take the pledge to be more cautious around trains. "We did a lot of local activation work that only a Metro customer would ever see," said Mr. Mescall. He said that the posters "have become hugely popular items, too."

Teaching tool
The agency turned assets of the campaign into a teaching tool for kids in the form of a book -- extending the reach to classrooms -- and not just in Victoria, but around the world.

The DWTD find a new home on nails.
The DWTD find a new home on nails.

Fan love
The campaign's many elements and platforms made it fertile for sharing and fan riffs. Some parts the campaign dovetailed with other pop-culture phenomena: A recent parody showed the characters of "Grand Theft Auto V" dying idiotic deaths, while a nail-art aficionado turned her fingers into a new platform for Kidney Guy, Piranha Guy and friends.

All told, the campaign earned $60 million in media impressions, reached 46% of the target audience in a month and generated over a million pledges from people to be safer around trains. And there has been a 20% reduction in rail-related accidents year-on-year.

Next up?
"Our plans are to continue developing our game assets and branch out into other entertainment platforms over the course of the coming years," said Mr. Mescall. "What we have is a franchise, rather than just an advertising platform."

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