IDEA: Days before the Breaking Bad finale last fall, a curious home for sale popped up on Craigslist. "3BR/2BA Albuquerque ranch is fit for a king," it read. "Great local schools with dedicated teachers who take an interest in students. … First-rate area camping and RV spots."
There it was in the photo, unnamed but unmistakable: Walter White's house, with a Century 21 logo next to it.
A delightfully devious little ad, it was Mullen's first big success doing social creative for the real-estate company. The agency has done quick hits on various themes ever since, including holidays and current events. Now, for summer selling season, it's done three online videos starring lawn ornaments who are scared of being boxed up when their homes get sold.
"We're their little mad scientists. They really let us experiment with tone," group creative director Tim Cawley said. "Maybe it's a song, a film, a tweet, a blog post. Maybe it's some other thing you would never try with a larger media budget."
Three creative teams work in rotation—concepting one week, presenting one week, making work one week. "I say to the teams, 'You have a Facebook feed and a Twitter feed. What do you like to see?'" said Cawley. "That's the brief. Make it watchable."
COPYWRITING: Liz Agans and Michelle Carpenter had the idea for ads with lawn ornaments, which seemed promisingly simple. "It's got no real talent, we can shoot it real tight, we can buy lawn ornaments off the Internet for 50 bucks," said Cawley.
Then, as they were brainstorming, came the twist: "If you're a lawn ornament all cozy and it's the first warm day of spring, Century 21 might not be your friend."
A flamingo, frog fountain and garden gnome narrate the ads over haunting piano notes. "It's every lawn ornament's worst nightmare," says the gnome in a Scottish accent. "You're hanging out enjoying the sunshine. Then, the sign appears. In a blink, you're gone. Happened to my friend Gary. Just a regular gnome, laying low in the mulch. Then, poof."
The ads close with a Century 21 sign swinging slowly in the breeze and a black screen with the tagline in white: "Smarter. Bolder. Faster."
ART DIRECTION/FILMING: A team of five shot the ads on a single day in early May—in Cawley's own yard at first. "We shot everything on a 5D with a slider," he said. "My lawn was not very good for the flamingo. While we were having lunch, I Facebooked my friend who has an oceanfront house. She said, 'Come on over.' We popped over to Donna's house. We used a boogie board from her pool as a light bounce. I'm all for the million-dollar shoot. But I love this flavor, too."
The main art direction choice was getting the right ornaments. "You'd be surprised how many different pink-flamingo faces there are," said Cawley. "We had four or five gnomes on set. We went with the guy with the most grave face."
TALENT: Cawley wanted the voices to sound "legitimately concerned, almost more like a theater actor than a voice actor. For the gnome, we cast a guy from Boston, and at the end he's like, 'You know, I can do a Scottish accent.' I'm like, I don't know. But the guy's got a white bushy beard and a weird hat. That seems international to me."
SOUND: Nick Brecken, who did the cinematography and editing, also composed the music. "He's the ultimate hyphenate," said Cawley. "Without a guy like that, something like this isn't even makeable."
MEDIA: Mullen says traffic to century21.com from the social properties has doubled in the past year.
Client: Century 21
Project: "Lawn Invasion"
Chief Marketing Officer: Bev Thorne
Global Director, Social Media: Matt Gentile
Vice President, Digital Marketing: Mike Callaghan
Chief Creative Officer: Mark Wenneker
Executive Creative Director: Tim Vaccarino
Executive Creative Director: Dave Weist
SVP, Group Creative Director, Copywriter: Tim Cawley
Cinematographer, Editor, Composer: Nick Brecken
Sound Editor: Jess Phearsome
Copywriter: Michelle Carpenter
Art Director: Liz Agans
Executive Director of Integrated Production: Liza Near
Content Producer: Eric Skvirsky
Associate Producer: Ashley Donovan
PR/Social Strategy: Eric Montague, Molly Galler, Erin Healy, Bethany Ciampa, Emily Mahlman