Acknowledging that it’s easier to talk about connecting with Millennial audiences than it is to actually succeed, agency 180 LA set out to promote the new HP Split–part laptop, part tablet–by doing something that hadn’t been done before.
With the goal of building a relationship with tech-savvy 20-somethings, 180 appealed to the way young people behave online by creating a two-day, live online event called 2Days Beat in which rising-star producer Clams Casino (aka Mike Volpe) and hip-hop artist Vic Mensa created a music track based on input from an online audience. Broadcast over YouTube Live on Nov. 18-19, the ambitious project resulted in three original tracks, a music video, and some goodwill toward HP from a young audience.
William Gelner, 180’s chief creative officer, says the idea that sparked the project was the notion of “next generation people that are doing next generation things with next generation tech,” which is why a music concept seemed like the perfect match. “Every generation has their own music and nothing is more binding and the opposite to another generation than music,” he says.
And so the team aimed to create a new experience that tapped into existing behaviors. “We knew that if we were going to make HP relevant to this crowd we needed to behave the way they behave, to do something to prove we weren’t just going to message them.” Co-creating is just about as far away from one-way messaging as you can get.
So how exactly did online audiences help create some hip-hop tracks for HP? From noon until 5 p.m., HP’s YouTube channel was manned by a virtual host that would ask questions of visitors. Meanwhile, Volpe, Mensa, and the 130-strong team (which included a live TV crew, a traditional TV production crew, plus on-set developers, designers and editors) were at the ready in a white-walled studio space. The host would ask questions such as, “We want to create a music bed. What kind of music bed should it be?” Users would then start rattling off musical genres, Volpe would start mixing elements, viewers would share their opinions and progress would be made. Then the host would ask about lyrics and users would start throwing out lines, quips and phrases, which were wrangled with four custom content management systems and fed via live ticker to the artists. Standing in a phone booth recording booth, Vic Mensa would start his lyrical flow. With a full view of the set, captured with seven cameras, viewers could see various instruments lying around, and would make comments such as, “I see that kick drum, get some of that” and the musicians would oblige.
It was through this conversational process that the final track got its name, musical vibe and lyrics. At one point, Gelner says a commenter noted that Volpe’s beats were taking him “to the moon, now take us to ancient Egypt.” The novel idea stuck and Volpe followed that musical thread. As momentum picked up, the virtual host asked for some track name suggestions. The usual suspects like Cleopatra and King Tut rolled in, but then someone wrote “Egyptian Cotton,” which struck a chord. Mensa started rapping about 100,000-thread count (which a commenter predictably fact-checked as being impossible) and the track was born. All of the creating was done completely on the fly. In fact, the plan was to create one track, but Volpe and Mensa were so into it that they ended up with three: “Egyptian Cotton,” “Cloud 9,” and “Think Sleep.”
For those interested in the creative process of making music, watching Volpe and Mensa work would be exciting. To the non-music geek, it’s actually a bit boring, which is why on-set artists were part of the whole affair. As the tracks were being built, user comments and suggestions were being visualized, filling the once white set with artful black text.
“We got very excited about the music aspect of this but where it really started to take off is when we realized it needed to be visually interesting,” says Gelner. “That’s one of the things that the director Greg (Brunkalla) really brought to the party: this notion of visualizing the user comments in a beautiful, artful way. We started with a big, white space and we hired some of the artists from Shepard Fairey’s studio in L.A. and had them painting and creating posters based on user comments.”
Turning user comments into art was one of the many tasks enabled by Stinkdigital, the production force behind the project. “Everything that got posted on the YouTube page got streamed to our live ticker in real time. From there, we built a robust comment management system that 180 used to funnel comments to different visualization stations on set,” says Stinkdigital CEO Mark Pytlik. “Internally we’ve divided the visualizations into smaller buckets, which were things that we could visualize relatively quickly. That included an illustrator who filled a wall with comments and associated artwork with a sharpie, someone who laid out comments as posters in Photoshop, printed them and posted them all over the space, and then a vinyl cutter, who cut out comments in real time and pasted them all over every remaining white surface.”
Then there were the big tricks. Every hour, the crew would plan a high-impact visual stunt–such as dropping a word made of glass letters that they’d film in slow motion with a Phantom camera, or paint-filled 3-D letters mashed with a hammer–which helped keep things interesting for viewers, but also created interesting fodder for the final music video, which was to be cut out of the live event footage. “We did about 10 of those big tricks and we’d take the remnants of it and add them to the set,” says 180’s director of interactive production Chris Neff. “As the hours went by, the set became more and more artful.”
Pytlik says the fact that it was live, and reliant entirely on user feedback meant that there were a lot of things that simply couldn’t be planned in advance. “While we did establish a rough schedule that gave us a framework for the run of play for an aggregate of 10 hours, we still had to do away with a lot of the traditional pre-pro that you do for a regular TV ad. HP and 180 were great about relinquishing that control and embracing the genre of the live event, which freed us up to worry about the ‘what ifs’ just as much as the ‘hows.’”
Like, what if YouTube went down during the process? Which it did. On the first day YouTube’s main site went down during the event for about 20 minutes. “I think we had too many people trying to watch this live event at the same time,” says Gelner, noting that at its peak, there were 4,000 simultaneous commenters. “We just embraced those types of things. There were comments from people going, “OMG, did we break YouTube”? When we went live again, we painted those comments on the walls.”
Still, Neff says the YouTube Live allowed a next level streaming experience. “This is a relatively new thing for them. It was used for Coachella but it wasn’t used in a switchboard way. It’s been previously used to show a bunch of different cameras at once, but when we were given the live player we thought of some cool ways we could use it because it hadn’t been done.” Working with live production company Sweetwater and AEG Digital Media for the streaming, the agency was able to create a multi-cam stream that followed the most interesting action as it happened. “We ended up with that something that performed at a level higher than we expected,” says Neff.
In all, over 214,000 people made their way to the live stream, with an average viewing time of 12 minutes, and over 10,000 comments were made, 151 of which were turned into artwork used in the video for “Egyptian Cotton.”
The final video (which, along with a the YouTube channel, banner ads, pre-roll media buys and a promotional TV spot, cost, according to Gelner “the price of shooting one, big, giant commercial you’d run on the Super Bowl), is an appealing piece with plenty to watch–particularly for those scoping the scene for their comments–set to an understated but catchy hook. Says Pytlik, a self-confessed music geek, “by the end of the project, we weren’t sick of hearing any of the tracks.”