What a Chicago Museum and Agency Learned by Creating One of the World’s Favorite Ads

Art Institute and Leo Burnett reflect on the lessons of Van Gogh BnB

It began, as so many creative ideas do, as “one of several things on the wall.”

Asked to develop a multipronged campaign for an upcoming exhibit about Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom paintings—being assembled for the first time in North America at the Art Institute of Chicago—agency Leo Burnett had begun the traditional process of covering a wall with a cloud of vaguely interconnected ideas.

Most would not survive. One would become a marketing legend.

The idea was simple in theory, though certainly a challenge of craftsmanship: Create a physical version of van Gogh’s famous Bedroom in Arles. As an execution, it felt solid but not quite revolutionary.

The eureka moment—making the room available for rent through booming startup Airbnb—would come along soon enough, but the process to get there was one of consistent conversation and iteration.

“It was one of several things on the wall,” said Leo Burnett CCO Britt Nolan, who, before his promotion, was a creative director on the project at the agency’s Chicago headquarters. “It was something we really believed in, and once we sold it and started collaborating with partners, it just kept getting bigger and more exciting and more impactful. But it wasn’t one of those where at the moment of conception, we think, ‘Oh my god, if we do this it’s going to completely catch fire.'”

On the client side, the feeling of potential within the idea was mutual, said Art Institute director of marketing Katie Rahn (who, like Nolan, has been promoted since working on the campaign as associate director of marketing).

“We saw it as a really early concept, but from the beginning, we thought, ‘That’s really interesting,'” she said.

The campaign would settle on the tagline “Let yourself in,” and Rahn said the idea of physically recreating van Gogh’s bedroom touched on key themes of “being a voyeur, having the ability to look inside.”

Nolan said the idea was originally driven by a craft focus but evolved through conversations with the inclusiveness-focused client into a concept of immersion.

“The first instinct is to just build it and take some pictures of it, and a lot of people would just try to turn a good case study out of it,” Nolan said. “But it pays to be restless. Instead of just making something cool, how can you make everybody want to be a part of it?”

Putting the room on Airbnb was a tipping point in the campaign's success.
Leo Burnett

The questions built on each other. What if people actually slept in the bedroom? A handful of influencers, say. Or what if it could be opened up wider? How would you decide who gets in? How would they be vetted? Would there need to be a custom booking app?

The turning point, all agree, was the idea of partnering with Airbnb, which quickly and enthusiastically agreed to participate. Airbnb had the infrastructure to make room bookings easy, Rahn said, and it brought a coolness factor that made the concept feel truly modern.

“We were so inspired by the idea when it was first presented to us simply because it was a never-been-done-before, creatively significant approach to driving awareness of and engagement with an important cultural institution,” said Jonathan Mildenhall, CMO of Airbnb. “We knew, given Leo Burnett’s powerhouse creative credentials, that the execution would be strong, but they surpassed our expectations.”

When the room went live on Airbnb, it was promoted solely through the Art Institute’s social feeds. The first month of openings sold out in three minutes. Each subsequent flight would similarly disappear in a blink, securing overnight visitors for the room over a span of three months.

The envy of the marketing world

But even such high customer demand couldn’t compare to the avalanche of press coverage, which soon transitioned to major industry awards.

Van Gogh BnB was covered by media in more than 100 countries, Rahn said. In fact, the museum scored a true win-win by racking up global exposure (securing potential visitors for the future) while drumming up intense local interest. A majority of bookings for the room were from residents of the Chicago area.

“People here take a lot of pride in the Art Institute, but that doesn’t always translate into frequent visitation,” Rahn said. “So what we want to show them is that things are always changing here. The museum is a very dynamic place. There’s a lot to see and experience.”

Airbnb, of course, enjoyed seeing the project become an international point of discussion and obsession.

“The end result was so authentic, with exquisite attention to detail, that it captured the imagination of people all over the world,” CMO Mildenhall said. ” The global impact of this local idea is nothing short of incredible.”

On the ad award circuit, Leo Burnett cleaned up, taking home 14 Cannes Lions, six Clios and two golds at the Epica Awards. The campaign’s success throughout 2016 also offered a nice morale boost for the agency, which during the same time lost high-profile client McDonald’s after 35 years.

Lessons learned

But you can only bask in the glow of sparkling trophies for so long. For many brands and agencies, hit campaigns can often feel like one-off successes that can be challenging to learn from and disappointing to duplicate.

The Art Institute and Leo Burnett, however, say the success of Van Gogh BnB—and the process that led them there—have had considerable impact on how they approach other projects (such as the museum’s upcoming summer exhibit, “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist”).

For the museum, Rahn said, one lesson was that the right idea can leverage the museum’s existing space and collections to greatly amplify the reach of a paid ad campaign. As a nonprofit with a modest marketing budget, a PR- and social-fueled campaign like Van Gogh BnB can make a world of difference.

Another lesson, she said, was in “how we think about our relationship with Chicagoans, how we can continue to be approachable and relevant.”

"Keeping it dead simple is so important. Van Gogh BnB did not have a lot of bells and whistles. It was one simple thing, well executed."
Britt Nolan, CCO, Leo Burnett Chicago

For Leo Burnett, the lessons were a bit more practical and tactical. As the agency’s creative chief, Nolan said Van Gogh BnB highlighted the importance of keeping an idea as pure and pointed as possible. It’s a somewhat obvious lesson that veteran creatives often lose sight of until they’re reminded by seeing one clever idea dwarf entire global campaigns.

“The biggest thing you forget and remember again constantly is the power of simplicity,” Nolan said. “Keeping it dead simple is so important. Van Gogh BnB did not have a lot of bells and whistles. It was one simple thing, well executed.”

Another piece of advice he’d offer to marketers: Think about how customers and content creators will interact with your ideas. Don’t waste energy trying to create a behavior when you can simply support ones that already exist, he said.

In this case, Van Gogh BnB offered the chance for “the perfect selfie,” he said.

Van Gogh's bedroom quickly became the ultimate backdrop for social photos.
Leo Burnett

“There are certain needs people are displaying in their social behavior,” Nolan said. “Ask yourself: ‘What’s awesome about this? Why are people going to do it?'”

In the end, Van Gogh BnB was an idea that galvanized Chicago around a museum it often takes for granted, sparked massive turnout for its exhibit, piled up an impressive stack of global awards, helped get a few people promoted and left everyone involved with some good lessons for future work.

But Nolan said he’s proudest of the fact that it achieved the rarest form of success:

“There’s nothing more satisfying than when my mom calls and asks, ‘Did you do this?'”

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