Sam Ewen’s firm is called Interference, and that’s a pretty good way to describe what he does. In a digital age, Ewen’s form of guerrilla marketing manages to break through the media landscape with real-life events. For instance, in 2007, Interference caught the attention of jaded New Yorkers by offering free parking on behalf of Vespa, the scooter company. More recently, Interference set up a window display on behalf of GE Healthcare with terms like “cancer” and “death panels” that lit up whenever someone mentioned those words on Twitter. That effort promoted a “pop-up symposium” in New York last month about healthcare. Ewen is best known to people outside marketing for his 2007 stunt in Boston for Cartoon Network that made national news after police thought that electronic light boards waving middle fingers were actually bombs. Ewen discussed that incident plus the current state of guerrilla marketing.
Brandweek: Do you consider what you do guerrilla marketing?
Sam Ewen: At this point, I consider the term “guerrilla marketing” a little misleading because there are so many people doing so many different types of nontraditional marketing that there’s a sort of blurring. People are looking at alternative media and the stuff you can’t buy via traditional media outlets to create experiences that people talk about. We still talk about guerrilla, and it’s still on my business card, but I think people talk about guerrilla the same way they talk about experiential and the same way they talk about viral.
BW: What are some of the more interesting programs you’ve done recently?
SE: We’ve been focusing on how do you bring interaction into the media space. People are focused on social media; they’re walking around with their smartphones and updating their statuses and tweeting. The more we give people opportunities to do that, the more exciting it is, such as creating art at an event where people can save it to their profiles…The more we can incorporate social technology into real-life events, the more people get excited about it.
BW: Do you find that social media amplifies what you do? Might something that you did in, say, New York, have more of a national impact now?
SE: Yeah, it’s interesting. Two years ago, we did a promotion for Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, and a friend of mine sent me a screen shot with someone else’s Facebook status, which mentioned the promotion, with something like “I’m walking down Broadway and I saw this.” That person may have 1,400 friends, and so 1,400 people have now gotten exposed to it. There’s a real social currency aspect where people want to be the first to tell everyone else about it. If you give them something that’s out of the ordinary to talk about, you’re giving them a reason to post.
BW: How do you go back to your clients and show ROI?
SE: We work on how many people saw it, and how many people did you engage with. And there’s a multiplier effect. That’s another metric. Now with search and blogs, there’s another element — how many people talked about it online.
BW: How is the business right now? Are more marketers going for guerrilla because it’s less expensive than, say, TV?
SE: There have been a lot of great nontraditional shops that have closed down lately, so I think that everyone’s hurting. We saw about a year ago a lot of people afraid to spend money in general. Over the last six months, we’re seeing a lot more interest again. At the beginning of the year, it was all about social media, and that’s all that anyone wanted to talk about.
BW: Is it more difficult now to pull off live events because people have their iPhones on or their iPods? Is it harder to get their attention?
SE: It’s hard to get people’s attention because people — depending on the market — are jaded. You can walk through Times Square in a clown suit, and you wouldn’t get any attention anymore. The benefit we have is people who have iPhones have cameras. So if we get their attention, they can spread it. I still think that a lot of brands focus on top markets like New York or Chicago, for example, without realizing that you can have a lot more success in secondary markets, like Philadelphia, Boston or Cincinnati. People there haven’t seen that stuff as much.
BW: Speaking of secondary markets, did you find that the Boston Cartoon Network incident was good for business since it got your name out there?
SE: When that happened, we literally went from 40,000 Google search results to 5.5 million in a day or so. But it’s not really the way you want to get your name out there. I think for a little while, we were the poster child for alternative media. While that was helpful for a lot of small, challenger brands that said “I want to invest,” we had a challenge with the big Fortune 500 companies that don’t want to get that kind of attention. So that was the challenge for us: How do you make those companies comfortable that they’re not going to get the same treatment? That was the hardest part. I would say six months later, our profile had been lifted, but we weren’t identified as much with the problem. It was more a case of “Oh, you’re the guys who did that.”
BW: What’s the hardest part of your job, coming up with ideas, convincing the client to do it or actually executing it?
SE: The creativity’s never been a challenge for me. I have a slight ADD problem. I’m also looking and embroidering and collecting all this different stuff. I put stuff on my computer — images of stuff I see that tickle something — and I put them in a folder. A lot of it’s based on what’s happening in the art world or what’s happening in fashion or what’s happening in activism — all of these types of things. You look at it, and you start to see trends that influence the creative work. I find that for 95 percent of my time, if you look at who you want to talk to and what you want to talk about, the creative just comes out. It’s difficult in the sense that you always have to be creative and that can be hard, but I like that part. Secondarily, selling clients on doing things that they’re not used to is really dependent on the client. There’s a lot of hurry up and wait. They’ll be like “We’ve got the money and we want to be creative and we’re into this,” and then the market drops 5 percent and it’s like “We don’t have the money now.” There’s a lot of trepidation about whether or not they should convince [their superiors]. In times of comfort, you go with what you know. Print may not be where they want to be anymore, but they’re not going to get fired over it.
BW: What about execution?
SE: Execution is definitely a challenge. It’s hard to do well. I’ve had 15 years of dealing with all the problems that can arise when you’re dealing with a public space. It’s a difficult job that comes with inherent unknowns. You never know what’s going to happen and things like weather you can’t control. We did a job a few years ago where I had to clear something with the Coast Guard. I didn’t even know how to do that. So I had to figure out who to call.
BW: What did you call the Coast Guard about?
SE: We floated a 30-foot shark fin to promote Shark Week. It turned out it was big enough to be a structure that you had to report to the Coast Guard. So that was something I never knew about.
BW: What’s the wildest idea you had that a client didn’t go for?
SE: The one that I remember was for a new Adidas running shoe, and there was a big global launch. I wanted to find a way to put a transparent running track above people’s heads. We looked at the whole process: How are we going to suspend it from buildings? What material would we use? We looked at all that. I remember looking at the idea and thinking it would be such a cool visual. And in the end, we weren’t able to do it.