DDB Chicago’s Myra Nussbaum and Rattling Stick’s Ringan Ledwidge talk to Laura Swinton about making a campaign that cuts through the social clutter
“The idea instantly hit home. I equally loathe and am enthralled by our relationship with technology. There’s much that excites me about how technology can improve our lives but I have to say I find the way it’s changing social interaction really worrying. At a time when we need to be coming together, we seem to be moving further apart. Whilst many of us shout loudly into ‘echo chambers’ conversation and being able to discuss opposing views seem to be a thing of the past. A nice pint and bit banter down the pub with your mates is a good tonic to an increasingly emotionally isolated society.”
When director Ringan Ledwidge saw the script for the new Miller Lite campaign that urges people to get off social media and reconnect in person, it immediately resonated – and sparked his creative brain into action. He got to work on a treatment that wowed the team at agency DDB Chicago, packed with ideas and details that would build up into an irresistible piece of storytelling.
The film, which also relaunches the classic ‘It’s Miller Time’ tagline, shows three friends racing to escape hordes of brainless, copycat, phone-obsessed ‘followers’, eventually finding refuge in a bar. It speaks to a compelling idea – that we crave the ability to put the social media whirl and onslaught of email and text on pause in order to connect properly with our close friends. It eschews the tired clichéd shortcuts – floods of emojis, naff 8-bit graphics, bleeps and bloops – for metaphor, implicit communication and classical music. “Timeless and timely is exactly what we were going for,” says Ringan.
While it tackles a contemporary issue, the campaign’s roots go far deeper. The marketing team was keen to relaunch and reclaim the ‘It’s Miller Time’ tagline – a phrase that had saturated the American vernacular to the point that it had become detached from the brand. Myra Nussbaum, group creative director on Miller Lite, says that as they researched it they found that it was rooted in creating a space for working people to get together after a hectic and busy day. Originally coined for Miller High Life in the '70s, after a few years it moved over to Miller Lite – the first light beer.
“We tried to go through the history of it and did advertising research into what it meant. Sometimes when you’re given the opportunity to relaunch a tagline the best thing you can do is to go back and really research what the hell it meant in the first place, how it came to be,” says Myra.
“They were doing this really human work early on in the '70s. It was ground-breaking at the time to show blue collar workers in commercials. They showed that Fred Flintstone – day’s up, go to the bar. The message was that after a hard day’s work you deserve Miller Time. The spots were actually very beautiful – very retro but artfully done.”
Myra notes that the mission to connect people with their close circle of friends has always been the brand's 'North star', but that in intervening decades it lost its tone of voice. Despite being the original light beer, when Bud Light came onto the market and started making successful funny ads, Miller Lite started to try and ape the humour rather than staying true to its own roots.
Strategically, the agency spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what Miller Time really meant at the dawn of the 2020s and how to recapture the heart of the work in the 1970s. They toyed with changing the line to ‘make time for Miller Time’, and what Myra describes as ‘celebrating the hustle of today and celebrating the hang’. None of it quite rang true. Myra, together with CSO Eric Zuncic, DDB’s global CCO Ari Weiss and young creative directors Nick Howard and Nick Stoner, bashed around the concept of Miller Time until they started talking about how much more difficult it seems these days to get that time together, how hanging out at the bar with friends was the original social media.
It’s an idea that appeals to Boomers, Gen Xers and older millennials – but, intriguingly also strikes a surprising chord with a younger audience too. “They know it’s bad and they want to cut down on their social media time and they think it’s cool to be a little anti-social media but it’s so much their life,” muses Myra. “They’ve been on it as long as they can remember – I can clearly remember life before it and this message resonates with me because I need to get back to that, I need to call my friends more, we need the face to face. The younger ones know they need to do it, but they almost don’t know how.”
MillerLite’s social media has ‘gone dark’ in time with the campaign launch – and when they come back online they’ll have a new social playbook that’s less about pumping out messaging as it is about facilitating real life experiences and connections. There will be MIllerLite-sponsored Happy Hours.
When it comes to the craft and production of the campaign, the team also defied the modern conventions of advertising which have been driven by received wisdom of the social platforms. The hero film gives the story time to breathe and intrigue, doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with obvious voiceover and it’s as far from the six-second logo-flash that clutter up online pre-rolls and social ads.
The choices to shoot the film in black and white and to use classical music also help the spot stand out. The decision to go monochrome came from Ringan’s treatment and the musical choice was nurtured by DDB Chicago’s chief production officer Diane Jackson, a classical music buff. She alighted on the playful cat-and-mouse piece, The Thieving Magpie, by Rossini. It proved difficult to cut classical to fit the story, so composer Philip Kay was brought on board to create a bespoke track.
“The choice to go black and white and to have classical music was about allowing the idea to exist in its own kind of parallel universe and to not be defined by time,” explains Ringan. “I wanted a universe that was familiar but allowed me as a film maker to enjoy and have fun with the points being put across. I didn’t want it to be a lecture -and all the questions the audience are asked, I ask myself on a daily basis. There’s an absurdity to our interactions with tech and I think this execution allowed me to explore that further.”
The film was shot over five days in Vancouver and it was a big, ambitious production. Vancouver was chosen as it provides lots of different locations – but there was very little travel time between them. “The biggest challenge? Tired legs!” laughs Ringan. “Our lead, Ben, and our extras we’re putting in the miles every day. So, there was a lot nursing of weary limbs as we progressed through the shoot. Gotta say they were all absolute troopers. I also got lucky in the fact that the agency and client were fantastic on set. They knew what we were up against time wise and without their trust I don’t think we would’ve made the schedule.”
It was a big job – not just in terms of the shoot but cinematic VFX, artfully contributed by the team at Blacksmith. But scale and ambition were just what the client, CMO Michelle St. Jacques was looking for – she joined MillerCoors in January 2019 and Myra describes her as a creative force – and a ‘sister from another mister’.
“She has a lot of ambition. She considers herself a’ creative CMO’. While she places a high value on strategy she really wants to make amazing creative, what she calls ‘idea voltage’. So we were already kind of set up for success on the client side,” says Myra. “She’s great, she works tirelessly, but also really challenging. She is very creative in her own right. She has that tendency to not be happy with it until you’re out of time and we’re like that too so we feed each other.”
That creative ambition and faith in emotionally-driven storytelling paid off when it came to testing. Instead of the old-fashioned focus group or working with members of the public giving feedback semi-anonymously online, they used EEG and biometric measures to track people’s real time, emotional reaction.
“It’s great to have some validation from science. As a creative it’s like: ‘See! Told You!” laughs Myra, who says that the insight into human behaviour and neuroscience also appeals to her nerdy side. It also seems to reaffirm what experienced creatives have always known. “If something is good people will watch it and they will watch it to the end.”
It’s a campaign that really embraces the craft of filmmaking at a time when Ringan says it seems like agencies have a harder time than ever convincing clients about the value and resonance of well-made work and well-told stories. “It seems strange that in a golden era of TV and streaming, which is all about story, we’re not seeing that mirrored in advertising,” he muses. “The power of a great idea or story, well told, will always outstrip a piece of visual wallpaper. Brands want to be culturally relevant. A story people want to share will always be more impactful and have far greater reach than the endless fluff floating around with algorithms. Let’s fuck that shit off and do what we do best. Write and execute great ideas.”