Interview / How to Not Make an Advert
If anyone has cracked the code for making content go viral, it’s Don’t Panic. The London-based agency’s recent film for the National Autistic Society, which aims to increase empathy for autism sufferers, has been viewed 56 million times and was mentioned during Prime Minister’s Question Time. The company’s viral for Greenpeace took down a 50-year partnership between Lego and Shell and its Most Shocking Second a Day film for Save The Children has been touted the most popular cause related film ever.
Alongside client work, Don’t Panic continues to make its own original video content for TV and digital. For example, it recently launched a one-off Brexit special for the BBC called Brexageddon, starring the same team behind the company’s Bafta-winning satirical comedy The Revolution Will Be Televised.
We speak to CEO and co-founder Joe Wade about Don’t Panic’s evolution, the secret to viral success and why TV writers make the best creatives.
How did Don’t Panic come to be?
Initially we started off making flyer packs that we used to put into universities and hand out outside clubs. The packs were quite hedonistic, they had flyers for Fabric, Playstation as well as condoms and lighters in them. And then we thought we wanted to give them a bit more purpose and meaning to get younger people thinking about social issues and politics. We used to get posters designed by well-known artists and illustrators with a political theme and we would put them in the packs. Banksy did two actually.
The evolution of that was we started to make political films for our website when YouTube started. Heydon Prowse and I started and then Jolyon Rubinstein joined as well. We had very low budgets but we wanted to make an impact. So we would do stunts. For example, we went to Alan Duncan’s house from the Tory front bench, who had been claiming expenses for his gardening. Hayden went to his garden and dug a big pound shaped flowerbed and we planted flowers. We would film that and distribute it.
We didn’t just want digital views, we wanted headlines as well, so we would send images into newspapers. And I guess that informed the foundation of the agency. We could use the same technique commercially for clients. We were digitally minded but we also knew how to not make an advert. I think bigger agencies have struggled to unlearn how they were doing things for years and work within this new kind of environment. When we’re sense checking ideas, we ask, ‘is this an advert?’ That’s what we’re trying to avoid at all times.
Why do you think people have described your company as what an agency should be next?
We think about ideas in a 360 degree way. We have the creative session and then the second stage of our process is to bring in a media expert, PR expert and a production expert, so we ensure any campaigns we come up with are going to be inherently shareable. We would never come up with an idea in a vacuum like an advertising agency might. We ask ourselves, how this is relevant? How is it part of the zeitgeist? Is there going to be anything that’s trending on the day we launch? All of those factors feed into the creative before anything is produced or designed so they can actually influence the idea. Then when a PR comes to selling an idea, it’s already got lots of different hooks, so it’s going to travel a lot further.
For example, we worked with Greenpeace to break up the partnership between Lego and Shell (which it did). The video had Lego characters in it, including one of Jon Snow from Game of Thrones. This meant we got onto 12 Game of Thrones fan sites and achieved an 87% new supporter outreach. The environmental video reached new audiences and became really viral.
With our work for National Autistic Society, we decided to make a point of view (POV) film because people were talking about it as a technique, alongside Go Pros and VR. Plus, we knew that National Autistic Week was the week that Hardcore Henry was coming out which is the first POV feature film. Feeding those elements into the creative is what makes us different, because it means we create work that feels very relevant.
How do you balance client work with your original content?
With extreme difficulty! The good part of it is that we recruit a lot of creative talent through TV because they are great storytellers. TV writers tend to be funnier and able to come up with funnier advertising concepts, but also they work in a different way. They tend to have more ideas than traditional advertising creatives. If you’re a writer on say, 8 out of 10 Cats, you have to come up with 10 ideas in an hour. So we have people who are used to doing that. They’re also very good at coming up with reactive content.
I think the big positive about making our own original content is it gives us access to this talent. But I also think it gives everybody in the agency a change of gear that is refreshing. It also helps maintain our status as digital natives who are involved in digital culture, which is good because we can apply that to clients.
How did you come up with the idea for Brexageddon?
Haydon and Jolyon were out filming and then Brexit happened. They went down to College Green by Westminster and they just started asking politicians funny questions in character. We thought, why don’t we do a Brexit special? We pitched the idea to the BBC and they agreed. As far as I’m aware, there’s not been much comedy in response to Brexit, because it’s quite depressing obviously. I think it was a good thing to do something funny and help people process it a bit maybe, or begin to laugh at what’s happened.
How do you go about assessing creative ideas?
We have a checklist of five questions, like would we share this? Is this original or is it just an advert? Then we take two or three creative routes to clients and pitch them, safe in the knowledge that all of them fit our initial criteria. Once the client has picked a route, we then do our stage two meeting with someone from PR, media and production add add lots of layers to make the idea as shareable as possible. The final stage is thinking about what media partners we could rope in. This is all before anything has been made, so if we think, ‘Christ, there’s actually no PR hook around this idea’, then we can reconfigure it.
What is the secret to making shareable content?
It’s about giving people as many reasons to share as possible. There has to be a value exchange. When people share, they feel like they’ve got something out of the content and they want their friends to get something too. It’s often about making people laugh or feel sad, feel empathy or amazement. There has to be an emotional response. Beyond that, there are more tactical reasons why like people share, such as the time it’s coming out. But I think the emotional elements are at the top level.