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2007 Creativity Award Winner: Ecko "Still Free"

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Emergency phones must have been ringing off the hook when this viral hit the internet. A lone graffiti artist jumps the fence of Andrews Air Force Base—apparently, the Secret Service was on a donut break—and unleashes his paint can all over the President's 747 to spell out the mysterious tag "Still Free." The grainy video, which pointed viewers to the website stillfree.com, got bloggers and press from ABC News to Wonkette abuzz about whether or not the White House was being Punk'd—earning scads of media time for urban clothier Marc Ecko, the assumed culprit behind the defacing. The viral turned out to be the first public project out of Droga5, in partnership with production company Smuggler and director Randy Krallman. The Ecko-promoting effort brilliantly leveraged word of mouth power and socially lubricated avenues of internet portals and blogs, earning awards galore, including the Cyber Grand Prix, Silver and Bronze Media Lions at Cannes—and a Creativity Award from our judges.

Q&A with Droga5 executive creative director Duncan Marshall

How did you come up with the idea for the viral?

Duncan Marshall: We knew we wanted to create a pop culture moment. We had a very brave client, but we didn't have a huge budget. We were doing our first Droga5 project and wanted it to have some bite. We were also lucky enough to be working with Smuggler from the outset, and having Randy Krallman, Brian Beletic, and Patrick Milling Smith in the room with us from the outset meant we couldn't go far wrong. We figured we should try and show the ultimate in graffiti somehow. And convince people it was real. We kicked about the idea of having The White House tagged, but it seemed too predictable, and anyway, no one would believe it for a second. Air Force One was a bit more of an unknown, and visually more interesting. (I said Air Force One first, by the way, although the others may contest this).

What were the biggest challenges on the project? How did you overcome them?

Marshall: We thought the challenge was going to be Ecko buying it—but he was up for it. In fact he wanted a bit more action than we felt would be believable, and we had to pull him back. Unsurprisingly, the biggest challenge was getting a 747 that we could turn into Air Force One without anyone asking too many questions. And doing it in two weeks. One was found one in Mexico, but the owner wanted it to be left as Air Force One after the shoot, and it all seemed a bit sketchy. Then we found one in Arizona, but it turned out to belong in some way or other to the C.I.A. So we tiptoed away. We also knew we had to get genuine graffiti artists from the outset, otherwise people would have called us on it immediately. Luckily, someone got hold of three guys who knew what they were doing. Randy did an amazing job directing—again, it was crucial to make it look like the taggers had just shot it on the fly—and to show clues that bloggers would pick up on while making it look like the camera was the last thing they were thinking about.

What, if anything, have you learned about advertising/marketing/media from this project?

Marshall:That the mass media are always hungry for content. And that people don't mind being misled for a while as long as they're entertained along the way.

Viral marketing/messaging—what are the keys to making this effective?

Producing something that is self-sustaining and self-propagating—the Ecko project worked well a year ago, but even since then the space has become much more crowded. It was a single piece that stood out very well, but was not designed to live beyond the hoax being discovered. Effective virals today need to stick around if they are to reach everyone.

What do you believe are the characteristics of a great creative idea (in advertising/marketing/ media)?

Marshall:Something that is fresh, based in a core logical truth, and is uniquely relevant to the brand. But that said, it's a bit of an imprecise science, this marketing thing. That "Berries and Cream" spot that Randy just did for Starburst? Genius. Doesn't follow any of my rules but it made me and my daughter walk down Broadway singing it. And more than one person joined in.

If you could do it all over, would you have changed anything about your approach?

Marshall:I would have eaten less at the craft service table.

Anything interesting you can tell us about the client and his involvement in the campaign? How did he contribute to the creative process/the project's success?

Marshall: Ecko was involved all the way through, especially when it came to the taggers and their approach. Obviously this is his area and he knew what he wanted. He was a model client, though, and knew when to delegate and let people be responsible for getting it right. He knew as we did that authenticity was key to the success of the project - and so there was never disagreement at any stage really. However, he did arrange for a limo full of lapdancers to turn up and surprise the taggers at one point as we were filming, but it didn't make the cut.

What were the results—sales, hits, buzz, etc?

Marshall:In the first week it hit 3500+ websites, had over 100 major broadcast news appearances, and was featured in over 17,000 global news outlets. It recorded 23 million unique visits in the first two weeks on www.stillfree.com. The total audience to date, according to Associated Press and Nielsen Ratings is 115 million+.

If anything, what do you have in the works now, for Ecko?

Marshall:There is a little project in the pipeline, but we're having to be a bit cagey for now.
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