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The stories behind Michael Hill's Super Bowl spots

Stoppress' Damien Venuto finds out about the real stories that gave inspiration to the Michael Hill Super Bowl spots and learns more about how advertising agency Colenso BBDO is building platforms—rather than creating campaigns—for clients active in international markets.

By Damien Venuto | March 30, 2015 | News

In February, Michael Hill waved the Kiwi flag at the Super Bowl via a pair of striking spots that featured the faces of a varied range of ordinary people—with their scars, freckles, wrinkles and blemishes—staring at the camera.

When the ads aired, it was significant that none of the people that featured spoke. Instead, the spot that played in Canada featured the gravelly voice of a narrator reading a poem, while the one created for the Chicago audience had a series of simple phrases super-imposed over the heart-tugging imagery.

The reality, however, was that each of the people in the campaign had a story that was so unique that it was selected out of thousands of possible options.

“We worked with a company called Artifex, which is owned by a woman called Lavanya Radhakrishnan, who has been casting for a long, long time,” says Angela Watson, the group business director at Colenso BBDO. “She had a crew of eight people and the process took more than two months. Lavanya is just this whirlwind of energy. She used a variety of methods, including street casting, flyers and stopping on the street when she sees someone. She alone spoke to 3,500 people on the street and estimated that the rest of the team would’ve spoken to between 250 and 1,000 people each.”

This number was then whittled down to 120 candidates, from which 30 were chosen for extended interviews. Colenso BBDO has through the Michael Hill platform now published five of these stories and plans to periodically publish the other 25 in the near future.

Colenso executive creative director Nick Worthington says that so many of the stories were so moving, but the team had to limit the number to 30 people because of the need to pay those who were used in the rollout of the ads.   

“We have to go into a contract with them, because we need to get the rights to use it globally,” he says.

Last minute decisions

It costs an estimated $4.5 million to run a 30-second Super Bowl ad. And given the cluttered environment that these spots often occupy, it’s generally not easy to persuade a client to invest in such a media placement. So, how did Colenso and Michael Hill end up making the decision to release the new positioning on advertising’s biggest stage?

“In the eleventh hour the amplification came from the client who said ‘Okay, let’s buy a spot in the Super Bowl,’ says Worthington. “It happened super fast. We were keen and we were lobbying them to invest in the work, so that it got really good reach, but the Super Bowl was really an out-of-the-blue stroke of genius from the client.”

Watson says that the belief both Colenso and the client had in the work made the decision slightly easier. “We always knew we wanted to be audacious, and once we had the finished work we had a real belief that it was warranted,” she says.

However, being on the global stage isn’t always a good thing. Appearing at the Super Bowl—especially in a way that tugs at the heart strings—can also provoke ire in the audience.

The Michael Hill spot did not feature puppies, patriotic nostalgia or the quirky gags that often typify the Super Bowl. And while the Michael Hill ad was also a little grittier than many of the other ads on during the Super Bowl, Paul Gunn, the head of activation and PR at Colenso, says that it worked in the company’s favour.

“Most people write ads for the Super Bowl, so they have a Super Bowl feel to them,” says Gunn. “The Super Bowl has become a genre in its own right, while this was completely contrasting.”

Real emotion

Worthington says that when the process kicked off, he wanted the videos to express the emotion that has come to typify love, but he understood all to well that relying on the stories of real people meant that there were no guarantees of this happening.

“I wanted people to be embarrassed, to cry, to laugh. I just wanted all the emotions that you could get. And there was a stage before we started shooting where I just said, ‘What happens if we don’t get tears? What do we do? Should we get some freakin’ onions?’ I said that because I knew how important it was going to be."

However, it didn’t take long for the impact of the stories to start taking hold not only of the people telling them, but also of the team who was documenting each segment.

“Half an hour in, Hy and Myrna were telling their story and the cameraman is crying, I’m crying, Hy’s crying and Murmur is crying,” says Worthington. 

The visceral reality of each of these stories as told by people of various backgrounds and age groups illustrates the universality of love, and Worthington says that this is why the idea served as the perfect platform for an international campaign.

“When we reached the ‘We’re for love’ thought, it just got stronger and stronger. So we took some of the best thinking and tied it together. And at this point we started torealise its stretch. For example, you can do staff comms and redefine people’s jobs to include KPIs such as ‘put more love in the world’ rather than ‘sell this more jewellery’, which is still essentially the same thing.”

Following the release of the first five videos, the team at Michael Hill received numerous requests to publish more stories, but Worthington says that the revelation process isn’t just about getting the content out there (one video was removed due to a request from the person featured in it).

“We’ve got less traditional material in the pipeline. We go from Super Bowl to what could be an exhibition, which goes really deep into it and leaves the Michael Hill brand really as a sponsor or facilitator of stories”.

In much the same way that real people were chosen to appear in the spot, these crowd-sourced stories could serve to further accentuate the association between love and the Michael Hill brand.

The shift away from more traditional jewellery advertising, which is most often typified by chiselled jaws and flawless skin, is in line with some Getty Images’ insights, which have tracked the evolution of branding images from stock types to more authentic alternatives. However, Worthington doesn’t believe that advertisers should simply stop using beautiful people in their advertising on account of their beauty.

“You don’t exclude beautiful people. You don’t exclude using actors and models, but the way you approach them is completely different.”

He says that in much the same way that ordinary people have authentic stories about love, so too do those who identify as models. He says that the difference now is that advertisers should be focusing in on the authenticity that lies beneath the mask and the make-up.

And this approach is evident in the Michael Hill spots, because although the protagonists aren’t caked in make-up and presented in a perfect light they are each still attractive in their own way, regardless of their imperfections. “We were actually really inspired by the People of New York, but we also wanted to do high end beauty—so, not just gritty but also emotional, beautiful storytelling,” says Worthington.

Building platforms

One of the key concepts that Worthington alluded to throughout our discussion was that the work for Michael Hill was a basis for platform rather than a campaign.

“It’s those big platforms that are going to endure for ten to 15 years that are useful for a company across all markets, across all communications and across its entire purpose,” he says. “It is hard to do resonate in all markets and do have a universal truth that you can attach to all markets with reason to the brand. You can’t just grab [a truth]. It has to be fundamental to your purpose. Michael Hill’s purpose wasn’t to put more love in the world six months ago, but it is now. And that is executable.”

In Worthington’s experience, the locally based clients with which Colenso has established an ongoing relationship are more likely to work with the agency on those bigger platforms.

One such company is Fonterra, which Worthington says is now working with Colenso to create a unified platform for its brands that are sold across Asia and the South Pacific.      

 “Fonterra, which I believe is New Zealand’s biggest company by a long shot, is for the first time seeing the power of brands,” he says. “[And] if you go from a commodity model to a brand model, the value you can extract from that same sort of company is extraordinary.”

To assist in developing this brand platform for the Anchor brands in the Fonterra fold, Colenso recently brought in Rachel Morgan as its first international business director.

“She has extensive experience with the likes Procter and Gamble running major multi-national campaigns, and the whole idea is to have her … bring her insights and rigour to the agency and the client,” says Gunn.

Whether the Fonterra platform or the Michael Hill platforms do end up lasting ten to 15 years is yet to be seen, but one thing that is certain is that the efforts of Colenso and other Kiwi agencies are increasingly being noticed abroad. And should this trend continue, we’re likely to enjoy more Kiwi ads during the Super Bowl in the coming years.  

This feature was originally published on Stoppress.

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