Love, Grit and Hypothermia: The Real Story Behind Xbox’s Insane ‘Survival Billboard’

McCann London goes through heaven and hell

Last November, Xbox celebrated the launch of Rise of the Tomb Raider in the U.K. with quite a sadistic stunt in London. It challenged eight Lara Croft fans to stand on a billboard and get pummeled with harsh weather, as voted for by the public watching online.

Last person standing would be the winner.

In the end, the McCann London stunt was a rousing success. And last week at Cannes, the work won 17 Lions, including five golds, becoming one of the most-awarded campaigns of the year.

We wanted to learn a little more about how McCann pulled off the stunt, which of course brought with it myriad logistical and medical concerns. Below, Lolly Thomson, co-president and chief creative officer at McCann London, tells us how it all came together—from the contestant who got hypothermia to two others who found a love connection. 

AdFreak: Tell me how this whole crazy idea came about, and how it fit in the marketing strategy for this particular game.
Lolly Thomson: When we launched Tomb Raider, we were up against the biggest hitters in the gaming world. Call of Duty, Fall Out, Halo and Star Wars Battlefront were all launching games that week, so outdoor—the traditional battleground for big game launches—became a full-on slaughterhouse that week.

So, we had to do something to stand out, which is why we decided to turn the channel on its head and transform a billboard into an entertainment channel. We did this on the eve of the launch so that Tomb Raider was on everyone's lips going into the sales weekend.

We also had to change Lara Croft's image from a pin-up to a female heroine. To get the message, across we created the "Survival Billboard," which demonstrated Lara's resilience and power by inviting the world to see if they could match it.

How did you find your eight victims … sorry, contestants?
We approached it like casting a TV show. We needed a wide range of characters to ensure the campaign was entertaining. It was important to have some die-hard Tomb Raider fans as well as some general gamers, and they all needed to be mentally and physically strong.

To find our eight contestants we used long-form copy ads, posters, social posts and two-minute radio spots outlining the challenge's "terms and horrible, horrible conditions" in gruesome detail. For those brave enough to apply, a very tough online test made sure that only the best got through.

An independent judge then selected 16 winners, who were put through a Skype interview to find our final eight. No one got through without a full medical history and an approval letter from their doctor.

How much prep work was involved?
The live events took a huge amount of prep. We had to find an iconic, recognizable central London location—London is Lara's home town—but it took a lot of negotiating with local councils to make sure we weren't creating a hazard for commuters or drivers. After a lot of recces and tests, we settled on London Bridge.

The billboard itself was challenging. We needed to make sure the ledge the contestants were standing on would be the optimal size—not too easy but not too dangerous—and to make sure the weather inflicted on them was evenly spread, so that no one contestant had an unfair advantage.

Planning the scenarios was an incredibly lengthy process. We had to have everything reviewed and signed off by lawyers, insurers and medical professionals, and to make sure we were covered for every eventuality. This could be everything from a national emergency to what would happen if a contestant caught hypothermia—which did actually happen; we had to pull that contestant from the competition.

The livestream also took a huge amount of prep. We had to make sure the feed was secure and we were delivering the right output for every channel—microsite, Twitch, livestream digital banners and livestream out-of-home sites in key U.K. cities.

Contestants' uniforms were also a tricky component. We needed to make sure the lettering on their outfits matched the billboard exactly—it couldn't be out, even by a millimeter. The night before launch, a team of seamstresses was given just one hour to get this right. We didn't want to keep the contestants out late, because they were due to be up for an unlimited amount of time the next day.

We prepped a leadership team—live event producer, site manager, livestream lead, social lead and safety lead—on site, and they met every 30 minutes to review and react to a combination of elements including contestant welfare, voting data, public commentary and time.

One of the greatest challenges was keeping our audience engaged for what could be a few days. We had a content plan in place but needed to be agile enough to react in real time to public interaction with the project. Data from different online channels helped us decide which were the best camera angles, characters and weather effects to grip the audience, craft the narrative and bring our creative ambition to life.

At one point, the public felt that we were having too many breaks for game previews, so within the hour we swapped previews for live commentary from our two hosts.

How, exactly, did you get the weather conditions to work?
A crew on site was responsible for the snow, wind, rain and heat, in consultation with medics who were brought in every hour to review how harsh we could make the effects.

The devil was in the detailed planning. We spent weeks testing each type of weather, keeping it challenging but not impossible, and making sure it would contribute a cinematic quality to the events. Snow was the worst. If it was too cold, it would freeze and obscure the print branding, so we had to find a product that melted quickly.

We planned everything in meticulous detail. But we also had to be able to respond and adapt to the real winter weather in London, where wind and rain are a constant threat.

The online voting was obviously also a key component to this. How did that work, exactly?
Voting was housed on our microsite, survivalbillboard.com. Every hour, viewers could vote for one of two weather conditions—both sanctioned by our on-site medics—and the winning weather would then be inflicted on our contestants.

Safety must be a big consideration with something like this. What steps did you take to make sure this stunt was grueling but not (too) dangerous?
We worked with medical professionals throughout the entire planning process, and they were also on-site, monitoring contestant welfare. The medics were involved in every decision relating to weather—which two conditions would be selected for the next vote, how fast the wind would be, how much snow to deploy. There was also an ambulance on site in case any contestant needed it.

Take us through the day itself. How quickly were you expecting people to drop off, and did the results match that?
We hoped the experience would last at least 16 hours, but we honestly had no idea. Our contestants had been carefully selected for their competitive natures as well as their mental and physical strength, but they could all have jumped within a few hours—or lasted a few days.

We had a plan for every eventuality, but we were really in unknown territory. It took an incredibly trusting client to embark on this journey with us.

The winner lasted 20 hours 45 minutes, right? What shape was he in at the end? And what would have happened if more than one person had lasted the full 24 hours?
Adam, who was our winner, was in surprisingly good shape at the end of the day. So much so that he even managed to bag himself a date with Eve—the last standing girl, who came in third.

We were all prepared to go for up to 48 hours if the contestants lasted that long, but all our research told us that the longest they would be likely to survive would be 30 hours, when fatigue would take over.

Any other fun anecdotes from the day?
We learned not to use the Portaloo straight after a contestant who had just jumped off the billboard. Not pretty!

What did you learn overall from the campaign that will be useful in future, or would be good for other agencies to think about?
1) Create a scenario for every eventuality.
As with the case of hypothermia, it may come true.

2) Leverage every avenue available.
We could have stuck with just a livestream from the billboard, but the campaign came alive in so many more touch points, like the livestream banners and out-of-home sites.

3) Never drop your standards.
There were times when I thought our seamstress may have a heart attack, but our art director and team were diligent to the core in making sure those letters were right.

4) Using fans as our stars meant that we gained followers all over Europe.

5) Listen to your audience and be prepared to act, and act fast.

6) Twitch. The conversation on there was almost as entertaining as the billboard itself.

7) Empower everyone to be a leader and decision-maker in their own specialty.