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Ten years ago, one of Johnnie Walker’s best-ever ads was an epic history lesson

In 2009’s award-winning “The Man Who Walked Around the World,” Robert Carlyle delivered a five-minute monologue in a single-shot stroll.

Ten years ago, one of Johnnie Walker’s best-ever ads was an epic history lesson

Unlike film or books, advertising is rarely discussed in historical terms. And rightly so, since, well, most of it is just terrible. But sometimes—sometimes—there is advertising that becomes culture itself, like Nike’s “Dream Crazy” last year, or “Where’s the Beef?” or “Wasssup,” or any other commercial jingle that just happens to stick in your head for years on end.

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Just over a decade ago, in August 2009, Johnnie Walker didn’t make an ad that became an enduring part of pop culture, but it and agency BBH London did create a spot that, at least in advertising and brand circles, should be remembered. At a time when it was assumed all our attention spans had diminished to goldfish levels, particularly when it came to online video, the whisky brand produced a five-minute ad that consisted of one man walking through the Scottish countryside while chronicling the history of the company.

ZZZZzzzzzzzz. But wait! That man was Robert Carlyle, that countryside was actually quite lovely, the company history pretty interesting, and if you want to go Full Nerd about it, director Jamie Rafn shot it all in a single take. Well, specifically, it was the 40th take on the second day of shooting, but it’s a single-shot take, and Carlyle absolutely nails it.

When I spoke to him at the time, Rafn called Carlyle an absolute legend. “He was incredibly easygoing, charming as hell and incredibly professional,” said Rafn, in this AdAge piece. “I often wondered what it is that made someone like him as successful as he is. There are of course all the things you’d expect, like the talent, etc. But the thing that really struck me was just how hardworking he was. The pressure he put on himself to get it right was amazing. The take we ended up using was the last one of the last day—take 40 at 8 p.m. By the time we finished that take there was this collective euphoria in video city. The light was gone, everyone was shattered and desperate to get to the pub. Robert sidles up to me and asks me if I wanted him to go again.”

The experimentation on display here, from the format to how it was shot, was a surprising choice for a major marketer like Diageo. And this was hardly a home run from the start. Rafn told me there was a certain amount of anxiety for the powers that be, and he had to have the usual assurances that they had plenty of Plan Bs in case it didn’t work out. “The problem was I just knew that anything less than the real thing would not be anywhere near as good, so my Plan Bs were somewhat under-developed to say the least,” Rafn said. “After the first day of shooting when we hadn’t managed to get one usable take, I did start to wonder whether my bluff was about to be called in a fairly spectacular way! Thankfully, Robert pulled it out of the bag in the very first take of the second day and went on to give us brilliant take after brilliant take.”

Looking back 10 years later, the lesson a spot like this still teaches is that when it comes to brand marketing and content, it’s about finding the right story and telling it in the best way possible. The key is knowing your brand well enough to know where it fits in that dynamic. Sometimes it’s 30 seconds. Sometimes it’s an Instagram post. And sometimes it’s five minutes of a man walking through the Scottish countryside explaining the history of the company.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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