How an Auckland agency got canines in cars for SPCA and MINI
Move over, Muttley. On Monday night a pack of pooches got behind the wheel to prove that the Wacky Races’ crafty canine is not the only dog with a proclivity for driving. The event was the climax of an eight week project for SPCA New Zealand and their supporters at Mini, who were determined to prove that rescue dogs are smart and trainable. The campaign has proven to be an international hit, with news outlets the world over picking up the story. It begs the question, who would be crazy enough to bring such a deliciously audacious idea to life? LBB caught up with Peter Vegas, senior copywriter who was part of the team at Draftfcb Auckland that sent Monty, Porter and Ginny into top gear.
LBB> Who initially approached you for this project - the SPCA or Mini? What was the original brief and how did you convince them to get behind an idea which must have seemed, on paper, pretty surreal?
PV> MINI were the instigators. They're a valued client and tasked us with coming up with a way to highlight their charity partner of choice, the SPCA , and to help encourage adoptions.
The idea was surreal – but everyone got behind it from the start. We had checked with the trainer as to whether it was feasible before presenting to the client and as soon as we showed it to them they loved it. It was probably the easiest sell of my career!
LBB> Dogs driving cars – it’s certainly ambitious! How did that idea come about and at what point did it go from a crazy idea to something with a realistic chance of happening?
PV> After we researched the shelter, we realised that their biggest obstacle was that people perceived rescue dogs as having behavioural problems, which really isn’t the case. We always left the meetings feeling that people needed to know how smart and deserving of a loving home these animals were. We knew if they could learn something as complex as driving then people might look at them in a new light.
The whole way through the process everyone just said ‘yes’. We asked Mark Vette (NZ’s star animal trainer) whether he could train a dog to drive and he immediately said ‘yes’. Another 20 minutes into the meeting he stopped us and said “Wait, you mean actually drive not just look like they’re driving?!” At that point I thought everything had fallen apart but after a nail-biting pause he said “Yes, I reckon we can do that.” After that it was just a question of getting the budget signed off.
LBB> How certain were you that this would actually work?
PV> Honestly, we were completely terrified at the beginning that we wouldn’t be able to deliver.
When we visited the shelter after the first week of training and saw the dogs on the practice rig we had concerns but by the end of the second week and beginning of the third it started to come together.
Later on we encountered problems with the car modification, for example the steering wheel was too heavy and the accelerator too fast, but at every speed bump the team quickly came together to work out a way round the problem.
Everyone was so committed. Many hours were dedicated to the training and we knew what we were trying to achieve was so important that failure wasn’t really an option.
LBB> I have to ask - is it for real??
PV> It’s pretty unbelievable but yes, it’s 100 per cent true. The dogs drove!
LBB> Who did you work with to train the dogs - what sort of advice did they give you?
PV> Mark Vette from Animals On Cue and his team worked with the dogs. He’s pretty well known in New Zealand, having worked on major productions such as ‘Lord of the Rings’. We had worked with him on a previous campaign for Genesis Energy starring some native Pukeko birds (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dykrPi9P_Ak) so we knew if he said he could do something, he’d do it. He basically told us that a smart animal like a dog can learn anything given enough time, training, love and encouragement.
LBB> What was the most surprising thing you learnt during this project?
PV> That you can train a dog to drive a car. Every time I see them jump on the seat and perform those commands it still blows me away – and I’ve seen it a hundred times. A personal highlight for me was when I saw that it had been picked up by David Letterman.
LBB> How did the dogs respond to the experience?
PV> They absolutely loved it. They were in such a stimulating environment for a couple hours a day; they couldn’t wait to jump in. They lapped up the attention. Porter was a little unruly at first, but once it clicked he settled down – now I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him delivering pizzas!
LBB> The live element of the project on Monday must have been pretty nerve-wracking. What were the biggest challenges you faced on the night and how was the final drive?
PV> We’d fixed all the major bugs by the broadcast day – our biggest challenge was just making sure the dogs were well rested before so they’d be alert on the track. We all held our breath when the cameras started rolling. To see them pull it off was so rewarding.
LBB> The response to the project has been amazing – why do you think it has captured people’s imaginations?
PV> We knew it would go viral but we never imagined it would go so far. The sheer size of media coverage and public support has blown us away. I think it’s been a tough year and people have grabbed onto a positive story. The idea translates really well – whatever language you speak you can appreciate that it shows something truly amazing. We’ve already seen a rise in enquiries about rescue dogs and I hope there’ll be many more adoptions because of our campaign.