“There’s something wonderfully British about the fact that someone with a lampshade man on their head could be a candidate.”
Abi Pearl is reflecting on the new campaign that her team has created for British mobile network, giffgaff. At a time when the country is faced with unprecedented political uncertainty and the public is feeling more frustrated and lacking control than ever, the brand is one of few that has decided to engage with the Brexit fallout. The campaign, which is about choice and giving consumers a sense of control, is peppered with imagery and vocabulary of the idiosyncratic UK political landscape. It’s a loud and colourful affair that’s rooted in truth. Yes, even lampshade man. He’s a call back to the infamous Lord Buckethead
, who has stood in UK general elections against Margaret Thatcher (1987), John Major (1992) and Theresa May (2017).
The central campaign idea was devised not by an agency, but by Blink director Fred Rowson. Abi, who is head of advertising at giffgaff, had, in her own words, ‘stalked’ Fred’s work and was curious about how his creative brain would interpret the world of giffgaff. He generated four ideas – two of which Abi describes as exceptional – but it was his insight about linking the sense of control and agency associated with giffgaff’s no-contract approach to the concept of choice and democracy that felt like the right choice for right now.
Given the labyrinthine plot twists and unpredictability of the Brexit soap opera, viewership of political and news shows in the UK have hit record numbers. In January the niche BBC channel BBC Parliament beat out MTV
, proving nervy viewers were more interested in Keeping up with the Konservatives. Over at Channel 4 news, viewership is up 21% in the first three months of 2019 compared with the same period last year
. So if a brand wants to be relevant, it’s a tough situation to avoid – but for many marketers delving into such a controversial and changeable arena would be unthinkable.
“It’s interesting to think about that desire to be part of the cultural conversation and speaking to people in the way they feel about living in the world as it is right now,” reflects Fred, who finds that often in commercials, relevance is manufactured through casting or lighting or technique, not the idea. “I think that current ideas are not always compatible with ‘safe advertising’ because current ideas are alive and can change. Obviously, these guys at giffgaff are very brave about what they want to say and that’s what makes it special.”
That’s not to say the campaign takes sides – rather it taps into the frustration and fatigue experienced by those on both sides of the Brexit debate (and indeed those who don’t care but who just want the whole thing to go away). The team was careful to work with the likes of monitoring body Clearcast to ensure the spot did not contravene guidelines about political advertising or that it appeared to push an agenda beyond empathising with beleaguered Brits.
For Abi, leveraging creativity and the current zeitgeist are non-negotiable as the brand has to compete with networks with far deeper pockets. “There are loads of other mobile networks out there and they’ve got loads more money to advertise with. We’re outspent on media 15-to-1 and it’s so competitive out there… so all we’ve got is our creativity and kahunas,” she laughs.
That creative ballsiness also translated to the shoot. It was a three-day shoot in Slovenia, with a cast of 140 people (plus an iguana) and a head-spinning array of formats, from Alexa to 16mm and phone selfie. The fast moving narrative requires set up and after set up, with extras bussed about and marshalled and lots of quick lighting changes – the team is full of praise for the Blink team as well as local production service company BAS Productions.
The key to making sure that the energy and spontaneity didn’t get lost in the logistics was, according to Fred, a great deal of forward planning. It meant on the day he could follow his instinct. During the big set pieces, he ensured that he could get coverage on a range of formats, allowing more spontaneity in the edit, in a move reminiscent of the stories of Tony Kaye’s freeform shooting approach.
“I have a really, really specific plan. I rewrite the script twenty times and I work up big storyboards that are incredibly precise – and I rework that twenty times – and then, when I get to the shoot, it’s like revising for exams and it’s all in my head. I can feel like I’ve got that safety net that allows me to play,” explains Fred.
In order to maximise the reach and impact of the campaign, there’s a carefully thought out cross-platform strategy. Social content was captured by a second unit team during the commercial’s three-day shoot in Slovenia – so characters that we glimpse in the hero film get the chance to shine in funny little micro films. There’s also a contextual element to the social campaign and digital out of home, which will allow the team to incorporate all sorts of local or contemporaneous news, from the weather to the latest goings on in Westminster.
Layla West is head of social at giffgaff – she’s been in the role for a year and this marks her first big hero campaign. “I’m passionate about multiplatform storytelling, so how you tell that story across different channels and platforms. When Fred was responding to the brief he was thinking about what could work on different channels, and I was really excited as I could see it working across different channels and not just as a cut down,” she says.
Running concurrently is a huge OOH campaign designed by Made By Blah, who drew inspiration from the voting form format to tell stories about giffgaff members from around the country. Different executions will run around the UK in order to lionise the various local heroes. The quotes in the campaign come from the members themselves and the members will be tagged in social media to reinforce that authenticity – community is a big part of the giffgaff brand.
The out of home element launched last week and on Saturday the hero spot debuted during the break of Britain’s Got Talent – a media choice was not only about audience, but which taps into the themes of voting and choosing that are integral to the talent show.
So far, response from giffgaff members and the public seems positive. Though they did not focus group the ad, Abi shared storyboards with the community ahead of the shoot. The community is central to the giffgaff brand and she was keen to let them into the process – the response was positive but impressed at the volume of ideas and images populating the busy spot. And even ahead of the TV launch, the OOH seemed to be chiming with its audience. “I track daily our brand consideration - because I’m a psychopath! - and I looked on YouGov and already we’re starting to see positive brand consideration,” says Abi. “It’s so good for a brand that’s so outspent in the market before the TV ad even goes out, it’s really wonderful.”