John Mescall is executive creative director of McCann Melbourne, the ad agency behind 'Dumb Ways to Die' for Metro Trains - which earlier this week won the PR Grand Prix at the 2013 Cannes Lions.
In an interview with the Holmes Report, Mescall explores the reasons behind the campaign's success, and also discusses why PR firms struggle to come up with big ideas.
What are the secrets behind 'Dumb Ways to Die's' success?
There’s a couple of interesting things at play. Public safety campaigns are usualy advertising-centric. I don’t think they really employ a PR angle because they are not seen as something you share. The fact we subverted the category was quite interesting. We made it, deliberately, very socially shareable.
There were some traditional PR pushes as well. The first thing we did was leak it to journalists as a news story. I think we knew we were going to be lobbing a hand grenade. We knew people would talk about it. For the music video, we created a fictitious group. We gave them the name Tangerine Kitty, just so people can keep talking about it.
The speed of takeup was pretty phenomenal, and that was a talking point. It launched on Friday and by Saturday it was on the frontpage of Reddit.
We knew we could break it up into 21 Tumblr gifs - we knew it would be an awesome site for spreading amoung younger people. And it’s super under-utilised.
You have to have an enormous of distance between advertising and PR. I don’t think they are that common after all. By adopting a purely content model - it gives you a much better chance to create genuine PR.
Why do you feel this campaign is different from an advertising campaign?
It is advertising, but it doesn’t conform to an advertising model. It was nothing like a PSA and it was an entertainment model. We got people engaged before they realised we were trying to get them to do something. Full credit to the guys at Metro - it was about 2m20s in before we mentioned trains.
This is a PR idea that worked because of the quality of the creative idea. That’s within our sphere - I’m comfortable doing that. When it starts to get a bit pointy, that’s when we partner with PR agencies. I actually think they are quite different things. What PR agencies do best is probably not easily summed up in the first 15 seconds of a case study. PR is, by definition, complex.
How hard is it to make that shift?
In many ways, in Australia it’s easier because media is very expensive. In many categories, if you’re not top two you can become invisible. A lot of our clients are compelled to rely on earned and shared. That’s why you see a lot of integrated work.
Could a PR firm in Australia have produced this campaign?
No. They don’t hire the type of people who think up these ideas. They hire people that activate, that expand upon this thinking. The odds are against them. It’s the briefs you get. We work at the very beginning with the client on the problem. I think PR firms get brought in once this bit is done.
The problem was the customer doing silly things. How do we tell them that without blaming them? No one thought what they were doing could harm them. Really what we did was create a framework for a discussion. We created a language. We made something that was invisible, visible.
What's your advice for a PR firm that wants to create this type of work?
I guess the reason you see a lot of crossover between categories - everything starts with a great simple idea that isn’t always intrinsic to your category. You’ve got to move outside your speciality and think of a great idea that will spread. Everything here that wins is because of shareability, not just PR.
PR firms might ask 'why chase the dream?' You can do the most amazing job but if it is a complex solution - and there’s nothing wrong with that in a complex world - you will lose. People want to fall in love with a simple idea, not how professional you are.
PR people are rewarded for solving complex problems. We’ve been rewarded for simplicity. And magic - everything that wins here has an element of magic. Intelligence meeting artistry. PR companies have intelligence in spades, they need more artistry. This is a creative festival - you have to play the game. This is a very specific sort of thing the show is looking for. You have to throw the playbook out to win a Grand Prix - you have to be unconventional.