My favourite ad campaign of all time: BMW’s ‘The Hire’ from 2001

A series of internet-first films that went viral years before YouTube or Facebook were created – and which presaged the era of the brand as publisher and content creator – left a real impression on Publicis Singapore's chief creative officer (global clients) Ajay Vikram

Picking a ‘favourite ad of all time’ seems a straightforward enough ask. Until you think about it.

Now suddenly there’s a jury hanging out there somewhere in the corner of your mind, arguing the merits of each case over stale coffee and donuts. Well, they returned a verdict as fallible and debatable as any.

BMW’s ‘The Hire’ doesn’t typically fit the profile of what one might consider a great creative idea. It isn’t particularly insightful or emotionally wrenching, and it most certainly didn’t change lives. But for sheer foresight, prescience and deep impact on the future of the advertising business as we knew it, it’s pretty hard to beat.

This was content before the age of content, long format before the age of long format, viral before the age of viral, a million views before a million views was a thing and Clive Owen before he became known worldwide as Clive Owen.

And to think it was made 17 years ago. Four years before YouTube was invented and five years before there was a Facebook wall to share it on. Yet, by the end of its run, it had been seen over a 100 million times. People actually copied and pasted the link to email their friends. Take that, films-with-a-share-button.

The trail-blazing begins right from the get go.

BMWFilms.com presents’ sits boldly, right there on top of the poster, presaging the era of the brand as publisher and content creator. It was also branding strong and proud, at a time when brand placement was all about sneaking products into storylines that were really about something else – and hoping people would notice.

Here was a brand telling stories with its product sitting front and centre, and making no effort to hide it.

Next, was the content itself.  Eight ‘filmlets’ were made during its two year runtime.

With dramatic and suspenseful storylines (a mysterious child monk, a mysterious briefcase, a deal with the devil, molecular genetics gone rogue) and an A-list of directors (name-checking Ang Lee, John Frankenheimer, Wong Kar Wai, Guy Ritchie, Alejandro Innaritu and John Woo among others) directing the world’s finest actors (Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta, Don Cheadle, Dakota Fanning and, er… , Madonna) and produced by David Fincher’s Anonymous Content; and later the Scott brothers Ridley and Tony.

This was talent and collaboration of a stratospheric calibre.

Perhaps it was the lure of a new frontier that brought them all together, and you have to wonder if we will ever see the likes of it again. But the bar had been set extremely high.

Some 15 years later, P&G’s global CMO Marc Pritchard would talk about branded content’s ‘craft versus crap’ problem. Watching the BMW films today is a sobering reminder of our responsibilities towards what we put out in the world: should we make it great or make it just because we can? When the first set of films were released, they drew much acclaim and not a little confusion.

Here was a feature film, a short film, a long-format video, a viral video, a hit website, a media event, a multi-media orchestration, an epic celebrity endorsement, a social phenomenon, a product video, a brand platform, a branded television channel and a DVD series that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival (and not the other Cannes festival).

It was even reviewed in The New York Times. In every which way, it utterly defied categorisation.

It was the end of advertising before the end of advertising (before the end Of advertising).

The story goes that Fallon, the legendary agency behind the series, was asked by BMW USA to come up with ‘something different’ as a way out of a particularly bumpy patch in its sales curve. By the end of the series, sales were up 17%. Necessity may have been the mother of invention, but you’d have to ask the team today if they knew they were inventing the future.

In these days of ever-tightening belts, one of the points often made about the series and where it inevitably ran out of gas was its multi-million dollar budgets. But the agency, it is said, convinced the brand to put 90 per cent of its media budget into the production and 10 per cent on media. A bet on the content made from a simple belief that if you make stuff people want to see, they would come to see it. Pull media versus push.

Or ‘earned versus paid’, we would sagely say now sitting here in 2018.

All those years ago, the bmwfilms.com campaign won the inaugural Titanium Lions at Cannes, which was created to honour work that “causes the industry to stop in its tracks and reconsider the way forward”.

That’s one jury that got it right.

Vikram says the work was pioneering on so many fronts

Ajay Vikram is chief creative officer (global clients) at Publicis Singapore


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