McCann Melbourne Made Up a Word to Sell a Print Dictionary

New Campaign For Macquarie Birthed 'Phubbing'

By Published on .

What does it take to sell a new edition of a national dictionary? In Australia, one publisher is hoping a year-long guerilla marketing campaign and the birth of a word will be enough.

Phubbing -- (v.) a marketing ploy.
Phubbing -- (v.) a marketing ploy.

Over the past year, McCann Melbourne has quietly been seeding a new word across the world-"phubbing." It's a term coined by a group of lexicographers, poets and authors during a consortium convened by the agency at the University of Sydney last May to describe the phenomenon of ignoring people in front of you in favor of paying attention to your phone. After they came up with the word, McCann got to work, creating a website,, a Facebook page, and devising a PR strategy.

When one of the agency's account executives, Alex Haigh, spotted an article on smartphone etiquette in The Herald Sun, he wrote to the writer with details about "Stop Phubbing," prompting the first of many articles about the phenomenon. The word has since spread around the world, with McCann creatives tracking it through Australia, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Latin America and the U.S.

But until now, nobody knew that the Macquarie Dictionary of Australia was behind the whole thing, part of a movement to get people to understand the importance of words to explain social phenomena-and the importance of having an updated dictionary that captures those words. "The campaign needed the word to be legitimized and adopted by people," said John Mescall, executive creative director at McCann Melbourne.

The whole process has been captured in an online film, "A Word is Born," which chronicles the campaign and can be viewed starting Oct. 8 on YouTube.

Making a print dictionary relevant is a tough pitch. Macquarie Publisher and Editor Susan Butler acknowledged her company is part of an industry going through upheaval. While she didn't provide sales numbers for the privately owned brand, looking at other dictionaries provides clues about its health. The Oxford English Dictionary said in 2010 that it will not produce a print version of new editions, while the Macmillan Dictionary ceased printing in 2012. Macquarie, for its part, still sells printed books and has a subscription model for online access.

"Why should someone buy a dictionary in the online age? Lexical information is served up swiftly and promptly in ways that make it harder to see the other role of the dictionary," said Ms. Butler. That other role is that of a "mirror to culture" and as a "cultural document," she said, which was the image McCann needed to communicate.

The PR and YouTube push marks the first large-scale campaign for Macquarie. Even in the U.S., marketing campaigns for dictionaries are rare. Merriam-Webster, which publishes the largest unabridged dictionary in the world, supports new editions with press releases, promotions on, and any paid advertising is usually "very targeted, with a goal of reaching librarians, teachers, book reviewers and publishing professionals," according to Meghan Lunghi, director of marketing. The main revenue generator for Merriam-Webster is the free website, which has ads, and subscription revenue from Merriam-Webster's "premium" offering.

Most Popular
In this article: