How a Speed Demon From a Century Ago Got Hennessy’s Heart Racing

Droga5 introduces millennials to Sir Malcolm Campbell

IDEA: Can an Englishman who died in 1948 convince American millennials to drink cognac in 2013? Hennessy hopes so.

The brand has been urging consumers 21-34 to chase their "Wild Rabbit" (i.e., any deeply held passion) in ads from Droga5—and found a hero for its latest spot in Sir Malcolm Campbell, a racecar driver who set nine land-speed records in the 1920s and '30s. (In Utah in 1935, he became the first person to drive an automobile over 300 mph.)

Hennessy tells Campbell's story in a gorgeous and gripping 90-second period piece called "The Man Who Couldn't Slow Down" (also cut into a :60, but with a radically different voiceover). Whether or not someone known for driving insanely fast should be a liquor spokesman, Campbell does embody everything Hennessy wants its target to believe about themselves.

"This guy had an insatiable inner desire to master something, and it was a death-defying feat each time," said Moët Hennessy svp Rodney Williams. Thus, while obscure to them, he can be a role model for young Americans—who, given the economic times, said Williams, "have their own obstacles they need to scale."

COPYWRITING: The spot is both realistic and dreamlike as it shows Campbell's literal and figurative drives—the feats in his Blue Bird racing car and his psychological compulsion to move ever faster. It begins with him tearing across oceanside beach flats and celebrating a new record—but then brooding on a train, improving the car with his engineers, running through grassy fields at night. It ends with him back in his car, flying toward a raging sandstorm on the horizon.

"It's not a film just about racing. It's also a psychological story," said Droga5 copywriter Felix Richter. "Obviously he never raced into a sandstorm. But what he did was a little bit dark, and certainly dangerous."

On-screen text says: "Malcolm Campell broke the world land speed record 9 times" and then: "What's your Wild Rabbit?" The spot closes with the tagline, "Never stop. Never settle. Since 1765," next to a Hennessy bottle.

The :90 features a recording of Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl talking about humans' unrelenting need to find meaning in life—"a work to do, a job to complete, a task, a meaning, a mission." Richter explained: "The visual storytelling is so self-explanatory that we wanted a voiceover that talked about 'Never stop. Never settle' in a more abstract and bigger way—so Malcolm becomes an example of something that is important for everyone."

ART DIRECTION/FILMING: Martin De Thurah shot for three days on Miami Beach, just down the coast from Daytona Beach, where Campbell raced in 1928, 1932, 1933 and 1935. "It was the rainiest week in the history of Miami. It was very, very stressful," said Droga5 art director Alexander Nowak. "But in the end, it helped us, because the spot has this moody atmosphere, not that shiny Miami Beach look."

The costumes are all vintage, and L.A.-based car builder Ghostlight even custom-made a 26-foot-long working replica of the Blue Bird, complete with a 500-horsepower GM LS3 engine.

TALENT: An actor named Ronnie Walsh plays Campbell. "He has this amazing look—sort of intense but with the right hairstyle for that time and an elegance to him," said Richter.

The hip-hop star Nas is also involved in the campaign. An Emmy winner for an ESPN documentary he narrated in 2010, Nas does the voiceover here for the :60—a more conventional script that focuses on the enigma of Campbell. "What was he chasing? What are you chasing?" Nas asks.

SOUND: Original music by Q Department is "minimal but very elegant, and not too overpowering," said Nowak. The sound design, like the visuals, mixes realism with surreal effects designed to mine the character's psychology.

MEDIA: National broadcast, digital and print.

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CREDITS