Dumb Ways To Die creator John Mescall on his ‘freak week’ in Cannes

John MescallMumbrella was in Cannes today to talk to John Mescall, the creator of Dumb Ways To Die, the viral ad for Metro Trains that has taken the festival by storm.

In this Q&A, the McCann Australia ECD tells Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks about the job offers he’s had during a “freak week”, the best work he’s seen, and why he never gets tired of hearing the Dumb Ways tune.

You must be very bored of being interviewed by now. What’s your media schedule been like this week?

I’ve done four interviews a day. I like what I do, and I enjoy talking about my work, but I have been asked the same questions many times.

But the good thing is that I’ve been forced to really think about the work. It’s rare in advertising that you have the time to reflect on your work. You’re usually rushing to the next thing.

Do you ever get tired of hearing the Dumb Ways song?

Usually you get tired of the music half way through making an ad, you hear it so often. But with this song [Dumb Ways] it was different. Every day we heard it, and no one ever got sick it.

You’re always most interested in the thing you’re currently working on; the brief in your hands. That said, I did get sick of classical music 20 hours into the Impossible Orchestra [CareAware’s 24-hour tribute to carers, which has won lions in Cannes].

But then it was about 4am, the time you’re at your weakest, the time the police always choose to kick in doors during raids. Now every time I hear classical music, I get a shiver up my spine.

How has this week changed you? How have your ambitions changed?

My ambitions remain the same. I just want to make great work. The minute you lose focus on the work and start thinking how big you are, you’re in trouble.

Have you had many job offers this week?

This place is full of recruiters, so yeah. But there are hundreds of job offers flying around this place as we speak.

I’m very happy at McCann. That might be the stock corporate answer, but it’s true. There’s still a lot of work to do to transform the agency. We’re only 18 months into our journey to rebuild the agency, and we’re nowhere near finished.

What’s your favourite piece of work you’ve seen this week?

Bridge of Life [for Samsung Life Insurance by Cheil, which won two gold lions in the promo and activation category]. To tackle the same problem [suicide] in Melbourne, we put up a great big barrier. But these guys took a soft, emphathetic approach and talked people down. It’s a wonderfully human idea.

I’ve seen so much work that’s clearly designed to win awards. Bridge of Life wasn’t. The case study video wasn’t perfect. But that gladdens me. It wasn’t about the awards entry, it was the idea that blew us away.

Leo Burnett ZurichI also liked a press campaign that won gold by Leo Burnett Zurich. It’s classic writer’s press work. You don’t see much of that anymore.

Will you be taking any of the ideas you’ve seen like home?
No, because they’ve already been done. Creatives work reactiviely to a brief rather than try to retrofit an idea to a brand, no matter how good it is.

So how can you repeat this year’s success and stop people thinking this was a one-off?
If we said to our regional bosses two years ago that we’d get four major awards in Cannes they would have said wow, that’s awesome. The pressure is always there to do the best work you can. We’ve got goals for Cannes next year, and they’re not crazy. But we always want to do better. If we can trump this year next year, I’d be happiest man in the world. But you have to be realistic and at the same time have high expectations.

It’s been a freak week this week. It’s showed that famous work can come out of anywhere. I’ve been talking to people from small agencies, and what we’ve done gives them hope that they can do what we’ve done. Of course it’s not easy, but it’s not impossible.

Have you spoken to Emily Lubitz [the singer of Dumb Ways To Die from punk band Tinpan Orange] this week?

Dumb Ways singer Emily Lubitz

Dumb Ways singer Emily Lubitz

No, I haven’t. Oliver McGill, who produced and composed the music, brought her in and I’ve never actually met her before. One of the reasons we were happy she said yes to doing the ad is that she hadn’t done ad work before. Initially, she didn’t want it to be known that it was her voice on the track. But once it got massive, it was difficult to keep quiet.

These days lots of bands leverage advertising to further their careers. Why? Because radio stations don’t play new music. Record stores no longer exist. And iTunes is so huge that it’s hard to stand out. I hope this will do Emily’s real work some good.

What’s the nicest thing you’ve been told this week?
A comment from Rob Schwartz [the global creative president of TBWA]. I met him at the Majestic Hotel, and his daughter was with him. Rob’s daughter told him that she had downloaded the game, and loved the music. People are saying it’s good work because kids like it, and they’re sharing it with each other. That’s really nice.

We can get self congratulatory at events like this. This is a week of back slapping. But when you do something that real peple like, that’s pretty cool.

What does 50m views on YouTube really mean?
Not as much as how much the video has been shared. That’s key. The 3.5m social share figure is more important to me. That tells me that the campaign is having an impact. Also what’s important is that the language used in the song spreads. People are saying ‘that would be a dumb way to die’ on railway station platforms now if someone looks like they’ll do something stupid

The campaign is not going to cut out deaths at train stations altogether. You can’t stop absolute morons from crossing the track when the barrier is down. But then you can’t stop all people from smoking and binge drinking either.


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