The Watchers on the Wall (Street): How Droga5 Rallied Fans and Brands Behind Game of Thrones
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Droga5’s Dustin Tomes and Jono Paull talk to LBB’s Laura Swinton about For the Throne, the ambitious campaign to send off the world’s biggest TV show
“I did not see that coming. You know when you think you know your partner…?”
Our interview about Droga5’s extravagant efforts to herald in the new and final season of dragon-bothering epic Game of Thrones has veered way off track. Droga5 creative director Jono Paull has just learned that his partner Dustin Tomes’ favourite character is Hodor. He’s not quite sure what to do with this information and is sitting in the agency’s Wall Street base, gobsmacked.
Jono’s favourite character, by the way, is Bronn. It’s all about ‘the swagger’, apparently.
Jono and Dustin at the Super Clio presentation at Droga5
The Things I Do for Love
It’s surprising that this nugget hasn’t come up between the two of them before. For months they’ve been delving into the Game of Thrones fandom, poring through the lore and immersing themselves in the world of politics, plotting and power. Ahead of the final season of the show, Droga5’s client HBO wanted to whip up excitement and create a legacy that would last long after the curtain falls on the very last episode. And, fortunately for HBO, the agency is home not only to legions of talent but an army of Thrones fans willing to fight harder, to achieve the seemingly impossible. After all, as Cersei is fond of saying, when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die – there would be no half-assing this project.
And, as creative campaigns go, ‘For the Throne’ certainly has a do-or-die spirit driving it. The platform was devised as a platform for the fans, connecting their real-world passion with the fearsome feats that the characters undertake in service of the fabled Iron Throne.
“I think seeing everything that the fans had done for the previous seven seasons for the show, to outwardly show the world how much they loved the show, it was great to build a campaign that put them at the centre,” says Dustin. “It was about them. All the things that they had done and would do for the show and for the throne.”
Structurally, ‘For the Throne’ is something of a three-headed dragon, with a trio of ambitious tent-pole executions and a litany of supporting stunts. There’s ‘Bleed for the Throne’ (a blood drive with the Red Cross that kicked off at SXSW), ‘Quest for the Throne’ (an international treasure hunt for the Iron Throne) and, of course, Joust (the Bud Light X GoT mash-up that was the talk of the Super Bowl). And, like Dany’s combustible critters, none of the projects were easy to tame.
The resulting creative is pure, geeky celebration. But, as one of the most well-known TV shows in the world already, what was the key goal of the project? Even non-fans have heard catchphrases like ‘you know nothing Jon Snow’ as they permeate pop culture, after all.
“It’s a good question,” muses Jono. “Even going into it, we knew this was something that didn’t need advertising. We didn’t have to do much to get people into it. Really, what the challenge was, knowing the show was coming to an end and knowing how important it was to HBO, how could we give it a way to live on once the final curtain fell on that last episode. It wasn’t about raising awareness of the show, it was about raising awareness of the power that the show has. If people would do anything for the show, you could turn it into a long lasting franchise that will last hopefully for a generation. People will want to watch it in 10, 20, or 30 years.”
Ultimately it was all about love – and legacy.
The War Room
To build a legacy, though, you need a legion. Just as Game of Thrones fans come in all sorts of flavours, from the casual show watcher to the Khal Drogo cosplayer, so the team at Droga5 was comprised of enthusiasts from all tiers of the fandom. Everyone one was committed, but the mixture ensured that the work would be credible without disappearing down too many obscure rabbit holes. A perfect blend of ice and fire.
Talking of fire…just some small, in-camera pyrotechnics on set of the GoT x Bud Light Super Bowl commercial
“We had some brains that were close to the source material and ones that weren’t. That fusion of objectivity and subjectivity meant that we would never stray so far that we were just talking to ourselves. But we also stayed authentic, as there was a fan base there ready to call bullshit if we didn’t get it right,” says Jono, a self-professed nerd and book reader.
The project was locked away in a top secret ‘war room’ at Droga5. Jono describes it as ‘a clown car’ as a surprising number of fans from across the agency spilled out of every session – not quite as romantic as the cavernous strategy room of Dragonstone where Stannis Baratheon plotted to take down his rivals. But Droga5 has proven to be more effective than Stannis, so there you go.
“The space was not glamorous but you never missed a meeting, never missed a brainstorm,” recalls Dustin. “You wanted to weigh in and leave your mark on anything and everything that happened. You’d have comms strat weighing in on copy and copywriters weighing in on comm strat plans. Everyone was working seamlessly to make it happen.”
Crackling with what Jono describes as a ‘kinetic energy’, the war room was the setting of many a marathon. Indeed, the hashtag #ForTheThrone became a rallying cry (only semi-ironically) for the team as they’d cheer each other on.
A Clash of (Adland) Kings
At one point, of course, there were two war rooms. Two agencies. Two production companies. Two clients.
Joust, the surprise mashup between Game of Thrones and Bud Light that dominated the post-Super Bowl conversation, was an execution that required the sort of political and diplomatic manoeuvring that only Varys or Littlefinger could muster. Pulling the levers of power were two great creative houses, Wieden+Kennedy and Droga5, come together for a strategic alliance worthy of Westeros.
“That should be a case study in itself!” laughs Jono when I ask him just how the collaboration with Wiedens and their Bud Light client actually worked. “When you propose a collaboration with a competing agency and a client that isn’t yours… and your proposition is to kill their main character… it is not going to be without its challenges.”
Jono photobombing The Mountain’s stunt double on set of the GoT x Bud Light Super Bowl commercial.
The key to making the project work, where a Bud Light commercial unexpectedly twisted into a Game of Thrones dragon attack, was for each party to fastidiously protect the visual world of their client. “Each ‘house’ had its allegiance, I guess,” recalls Dustin. “We kept to the role we needed to play to keep both sides true to what they needed to do.”
The Bud Knight and The Mountain measuring up on set of the GoT x Bud Light Super Bowl commercial
Every step along the way, the team were convinced that the project would meet a grisly demise, but eventually the team found themselves in Spain, working with the likes of Game Thrones director David Nutter and DP Jonathan Freeman. “I got to overhear a conversation between the two of them talking about their preferred lens that they like to shoot with,” says Dustin, with pure, geeky glee.
GoT director, David Nutter, strikes a pose with Alex of HBO, Jono, Dustin and the rest of the Droga5 team on set of the GoT x Bud Light Super Bowl commercial.
The spot got the seal of approval not only from show-runners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, who sent an email saying ‘we deem this awesome’, but also from George RR Martin who spontaneously tweeted his thumbs up.
Blood of My Blood
For Jono, the most personally satisfying element of the project was Bleed for the Throne. The partnership with Red Cross was activated in a gruesome blood drive at SXSW, but impressively the stunt saw an increase in new donor appointments across the US of 40% at the time of launch.
“There’s a saying in advertising that, ‘you’re not saving lives’. Well. If you work at Droga5, it’s not necessarily true. It felt really good to use the power of a show like this and then to hear from the Red Cross that you have saved up to 300,000 lives,” reflects Jono.
And the connection between the Red Cross and the HBO show ran deeper than might be immediately obvious. The horrendously cold winter in North America led to a shortage of blood donations – cold weather keeps potential donors at home.
“Winter actually came for the Red Cross last year,” says Jono. “It knocked out 35,000 pints of blood which can save 15,000 people. There was a correlation that was natural; pairing the bloodiest show on television with people who needed blood in the real world. It was serendipitous, sure, but the thing we were going after was that we were uniting against a common winter enemy.”
Of all aspects of For the Throne, this perhaps provided the highest barrier to entry – while some campaigns hope for a few tweets, this one challenged fans to get over their squeamishness and fear of needles to contribute to an urgent cause.
As well as challenging individual fans to show what they’d do ‘for the throne’, the campaign also ended up challenging brands. With Joust serving as a flashpoint, other brands like Oreo and Mountain Dew and Shake Shack took up arms. Just this week the basketball team Minnesota Timberwolves re-branded as the Minnesota Direwolves.
Over a month ago, during a trip to visit the Droga5 office, CCO Neil Hayman enthusiastically told me about the culinary experiments underway at burger chain Shake Shack as the team toyed with ‘bleeding’ milkshakes and dragon burgers. Now, those with a flair for High Valyrian, the language of the Targaryens, can order a secret menu of Dracarys burger and fries.
Fans can also scarf down Oreos imprinted with Westerosi house sigils and cans of limited edition Mountain Dew. The goal was to hit up as many points of culture as possible.
But while the foodie tie-ins might be mainstream, the climax of the campaign is all about the die-hard fans. Quest for the Thrones is an alternative reality gaming-style treasure hunt that took fans all over the globe on the hunt for the Iron Throne. 360 degree videos of six thrones sitting in a different environment were posted online, dotted around the world from Northern Ireland to Brazil.
The Throne of the North being effortlessly transported to its final location for the Quest for the Throne activation.
And Now His Watch Is Ended
It’s been an intense run for the Game of Thrones team at Droga5, but after months of secrecy they’re able to talk about the project as a whole. Just last week they headed to the premiere of episode one in New York, where they were surrounded by cast and crew. The pair concede it’s been a once in a lifetime experience – it’s not often that creatives get to work on a project that has this level of personal nerd appeal. And it’s gone down well with the toughest of audiences – Jono’s mum messaged him after the Super Bowl with the one-word review ‘gripping…’ (we hope that makes it into the case study).
Dustin taking his rightful seat for House Tomes on The Throne of the Crypt in Queens, New York.
But the most rewarding reaction has come from the fans, who have embraced and engaged in the fight for the throne. “For anything that is user generated or requires participation from the fans, you have to find the lowest barrier to entry just to get someone to engage. What was wonderful about the campaign was that we tried to find ‘what’s the highest barrier for entry’, how far could we get someone to go just because they were a passionate fan base?” explains Dustin.
“This was really special. I think what we found out was that they were willing to go quite a way for it.”