Saturday, February 10, 2007

Ad stunt was a beautiful failure (October 2004)

Depending on who you talk to, Vaughn Whelan has pulled either the bravest or most stupid stunt in the history of advertising.

A native Newfoundlander (born on Bell Island) who has worked around the world, Whelan now runs Vaughn Whelan & Partners, a 12-person advertising agency in Toronto. He likes to create provocative and challenging advertising, and has won numerous national and international awards for his work.

Recently, Whelan set a new standard for pushing the envelope.

He wanted to win the lucrative Molson ad account, but was not on the short list of agencies competing for the work. He wasn’t even on the radar screen.

So Whelan, who says he knows the beer category as well as anyone, launched Project Hijack.

He developed a concept for a TV ad, based on the true story of a bike courier in Toronto who took Revenue Canada to court when they refused to let him write off food expenses as “fuel”. He won the case.

Whelan wrote a light-hearted 60-second TV spot based on this story. But rather than show it to the prospective client, Whelan booked TV airtime, contacted the Molson people and told them when to tune in. And he aired the ad. (You can view the spot by visiting and following the links, but don’t waste any time – it likely won’t be up for much longer.) (2007 Update: the ad is down, of course, but who knows - you may find it on YouTube.)

It is unusual enough to produce a finished ad without discussing creative strategy with the client. But to broadcast the spot without the client’s permission is absolute heresy.

This may not be a bad thing, given the advertising world’s hunger for new and original ideas. And it was an expensive gamble: in all, it cost Whelan less than $10,000 to produce and air the ad (which is actually cheap compared to most big league ad productions.

The real question is, did the ad achieve its objective? No and yes. In a telephone interview, Whelan said he was ordered by Molson’s lawyers to remove the video from his web site. And there have been no calls from the senior executive at Molson.

However, the tactic has been a public relations bonanza for Whelan’s company. Their “rogue ad” story was picked up and followed closely by the National Post, Globe & Mail, New York Post and ROB TV.

Whelan also received close to 150 calls and emails from all over the world. “And only two of those have been negative,” Whelan said in an interview. “They were very flattering actually, and I wasn’t looking for flattery. Secondly, the object of the approach hates it. So it can be seen as a failure, a beautiful failure.”

He says this with tongue firmly in cheek, because Whelan has had calls from other agencies, large corporations and even some breweries. “Labatt loves it and Sleeman loves it and Proctor & Gamble loves it and people in other agencies love it. It’s very intense, and it’s all positive… I’ve had calls from numerous potential clients and have three new business leads as a result of this, who I am going to meet next week.”

However, Whelan emphasized that he is not in a “David and Goliath” battle with Molson. “Molson has not been very positive about my tactics. They haven’t told me what they think about my idea, though they’ve been very negative in how I approached them. But the truth is, being a shareholder in Molson’s, I happen to think they’re a fabulous company so I am always positive about them. All that’s happening here is that I’ve undertaken an extremely unusual way to get a client’s attention, with only positive intentions.”

Note: Vaughn Whelan passed away on March 3 2005, just a few months after this column was written, at age 44.

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