Technically speaking, the best ad of 2014 didn’t exist. Just ask Anna Kendrick.
Last January, millions of viewers watched the Academy Award nominee deliver a two-minute, profanity-laden rant that took Newcastle Brown Ale to task for offering her a role in a Super Bowl commercial—and then flaking out and not making it.
The brewer never actually intended to create one. With a media budget for the whole year equal to about half the $4 million price tag for 30 seconds of airtime on the broadcast, it wasn't even an option.
Instead, Newcastle made something better.
Kendrick’s buzzy, self-deprecating monologue was just a single piece of the brand's sweeping "If We Made It" campaign—Adweek's pick for the No. 1 ad campaign of 2014—which crashed the biggest advertising showcase of the year with refreshingly honest and hilarious online content.
Ambitious and clever, "If We Made It" imagined just that—if the brewer had made a Super Bowl ad, how incredibly epic and stupidly awesome it would have been. The campaign featured more than a dozen video clips—melodramatic teasers, insane storyboards, baffled focus groups, cheeky takedowns of real Super Bowl ads from other brands—as well as bonus bits like an advertorial-skewering, fall-on-its-sword sponsored post on Gawker.
And it all tied together by openly playing on the fact that the brand couldn't actually afford a Super Bowl ad.
The brewer punched well above its weight with the campaign, upstaging the far richer, more legitimate sponsors at the annual football-marketing bonanza. And it did so simply by, to borrow a Britishism, taking the piss out of the industry—with an undeniable swagger that earned a place in some 600 media stories around America’s breathless collective dash toward Super Bowl Sunday.
"The whole concept and the meta wormhole that it went down was just too beautiful not to do," says Quinn Kilbury, who, as Newcastle’s brand director at the time, oversaw the effort. "It just felt very clear—’How could people not talk about this?’ As long as the creative was somewhat reasonable—because the idea is so different and unique and completely contrary to everything else that happens in the Super Bowl."
By "everything else," Kilbury—who joined Newcastle parent Heineken USA in August 2013 from key Super Bowl sponsor Pepsi—means the kinds of over-the-top productions necessary to justify the broadcast’s seven-figure media ante. "Advertisers treat the Super Bowl as a summer blockbuster that’s a $150 million movie, yet these are brands on a 30-second commercial," he says.
Newcastle’s direct "No Bollocks" message has been delightfully mocking the marketing industry and media-saturated culture since 2012. But "If We Made It," the campaign’s heightened form, was born last November after Kilbury tasked agency Droga5 with making Newcastle the most talked about brand in the Super Bowl—without actually being in the Super Bowl.
"It was kind of like the perfect brief in a way, because it was really simple and clear, and also completely terrifying," recalls Scott Bell, the group creative director overseeing the campaign. The agency came back with three concepts, but the rich potential of hyping a phantom ad like it was real made obvious the winner.
"There was already a framework in place, you could immediately see how the whole campaign was going to play out," says Bell. "By talking about the spot we weren’t going to make, we used all the same channels that anybody would who was making a spot. As soon as you said the idea, it sparked 20 other ideas that would fit right into this world."
Largely by design, and partly by luck, Kendrick’s contribution proved the campaign’s centerpiece—the most broadly resonant, and arguably the funniest, racking up some 5 million of the campaign’s 10 million video views across 15 pieces of content.
Initially, Kendrick was just one name among a whole list of candidates that included guys’ guys and beer-commercial-hot women—which Kendrick amusingly admits in her video she is not.
But after digging into Kendrick’s online credentials, including a Twitter feed packed with wry one-liners, Kilbury and the team realized she was the perfect fit for the campaign’s most expensive component.
Because Heineken USA was at the time operating sans chief marketing officer, Kilbury had to get the green light for the irreverent endorsement deal directly from the division’s CEO, Dolf van den Brink. Naturally, Kendrick’s performance took an even saltier turn once the cameras were actually rolling.
"She let a few f-bombs out, she was swearing a bit, and she’s like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry I shouldn’t have done that, I just got caught up.’ We were like, ‘No, go for it.’ It was almost like it opened her up more to be able to talk that way," says Kilbury.
Van den Brink didn’t see her colorful additions—funny, but not Branding 101—until he reviewed the final cut. "It took a really big leap of faith on his part, to be like, ‘All right, you’re telling my brand to suck it, and we’re paying for this,’" says Kilbury. "You could tell he had this puzzled look on his face. But to his credit, he said yes to everything."
That kind of spontaneity was key to the bootstrapped campaign’s success. Newcastle lucked into a second celebrity behind-the-scenes interview with Super Bowl champion Keyshawn Johnson, thanks to a previous relationship with Heineken.
While his appearance, like Kendrick’s, was scripted, he didn’t actually see the storyboard sketch of himself holding wads of cash in a voiceover booth—a scene from the hypothetical ad—until he tried to explain it to viewers during filming, according to Droga5’s Bell. "His reactions are pretty honest there. He genuinely is confused and doesn’t really understand what we’re doing," says Bell.
Likewise, the videos of wide-eyed consumer focus groups trying to parse storyboards packed with over-the-top advertising tropes were also real. The creatives, observing unseen, had a hard time containing themselves. "We were behind the mirror, and there were a couple times we were laughing so hard the focus groups could hear us," says Bell. "We were afraid we were giving away the joke a little bit."
The campaign’s humor wasn’t just inside jokes for ad people, though—consumers are savvier than ever about marketing, especially around the Super Bowl.
"The ‘No Bollocks’ campaign is a perfect insight into the modern millennial dude, right?" says Kilbury, whom Heineken promoted this October to senior brand director on the company’s flagship brand. "That’s ‘Don’t bullshit me. I can see through you, I’m smarter than you, so don’t you try to trick me.’
"That plays out big time in the digital world—it’s where it should be. The millennial space is the digital world, and Gen X space is like the TV, broadcast, old-school advertising world," says Kilbury.
In a break with years past, Newcastle didn’t buy any television time in 2014 (The Johnson spot did run on ESPN the day before the Super Bowl, a bonus to a digital deal the brand cut with the sports network).
Newcastle rolled out the campaign in the weeks running up to Super Bowl—timing that media agency MediaVest helped identify as the brand’s best chance to ambush the general frenzy around the game. Public relations agency Fast Horse helped execute the earned media strategy.
When Super Bowl marketers began releasing their own Big Game ads, Newcastle and Droga5 took the gag even further by creating storyboard parodies offering advice on how to amplify already absurd premises—like Chobani’s yogurt-crazy, grocery-ransacking bear and GoDaddy’s spray-tan-crazy mob of bodybuilders.
"The filter was basically don’t make fun of the brand, make fun of the process, make fun of ourselves" says Kilbury. "It was more of a comment at that point on all of the real-time marketing."
In the end, the clutter around the Super Bowl itself made it impossible to break through during the event itself, says Kilbury. But more importantly, the overall effort generated some 1 billion media impressions, a milestone he says puts Newcastle on par with the kind of advertisers who pony up for Big Game airtime. "That’s what the big Super Bowl advertisers do," says Kilbury. "If you hit a billion you’re happy—like at Pepsi, it means you did your job."
And the campaign’s success is all the more impressive given the relatively low stakes.
"Part of the discussion internally that made it easier for everybody was ‘The worst case scenario here is nobody sees it,’" says Kilbury. "That’s not a huge risk. It’s a much bigger risk if you bought a $4 million spot and everybody hates it."