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Q&A with John Mescall, McCann: branded content and being more viral than Rihanna

Social & Digital

Q&A with John Mescall, McCann: branded content and being more viral than Rihanna


“Money cannot buy exposure online, not real exposure. Money buys banners, money buys pre-rolls that people don’t watch.”

Marketing sat down with McCann executive creative director John Mescall, the writer behind viral success ‘Dumb Ways To Die‘, while conducting interviews for a feature on branded content in the February-March issue. But why not share the parts that didn’t make it into the feature due to word limits? This edited transcript of the interview contains some fascinating viewpoints from Mescall on:

  • Why the microsite is dying,
  • how to be disruptive online, an environment where interruption doesn’t work
  • how to be ‘human’ on social media, and
  • why branded content will eventually stop working.

Marketing: There’s been a lot of discussion around branded content and its recent resurgence. Where do you think it’s headed?

JM: I’m getting the very strong sense that branded content is heading towards less an entertainment model and more… I think the ethos of journalism and storytelling is becoming more prominent. Everything is advertising now, I think, is the starting point for most agencies, which is really interesting. And what we’re finding is there almost is no delineation between branded content and advertising. Everything is broken down. We’re in this weird transitional period of where do ads start and where do they finish?

People want to control the content and they want to view it through their own social media, pages and non-commercial platforms. So branded content I think now has to be way less commercial than it was even two years ago. The expectation, a couple of years ago, was if you make an ad funny enough, interesting enough, people will go to watch it somewhere. Remember the rise of the microsite? Every campaign had a microsite and you had to go to it. People aren’t wanting to do that anymore. They’re refusing to travel to you. So people want to find your content and share it among themselves at not just their own leisure but they want to control it, they want to own it, they want to be seen to as coming to you. They don’t want to go to you anymore.

How do you define the difference between an ad and branded content?

It needs to have worth beyond the marketing message, which is hard to do because most marketing people want clarity of message. They want the message front and centre because the advertising model – people don’t pay attention to it. So you need to be very clear and you need to be disruptive, and you need to hit people. Branded content, it’s a completely different psychology, you’ve got to take the opposite approach. You need to have the confidence that you’re sneaking up on people, and again, it’s people – ultimately they tolerate advertising but generally don’t like it, and branded content, not many people have got it right yet. It’s a difficult thing to do. And I think a lot of advertising people probably are less able to get that right than others. There are really huge content companies right now that employ hundreds of writers who don’t come from an advertising background. Their background is journalism, their background is documentaries, their background is writers, their background is filmmakers. The way we grew up in advertising is almost different. So advertising is reinventing itself, and marketing departments and marketing people have to reinvent themselves as well.

What’s the reason that it’s reinventing itself?  What’s the pressure that’s forcing that to happen?

I think the media model has changed so radically. You only need to see the trouble the TV networks are in. It wasn’t that long ago that TV networks, they controlled the agenda. They were patriarchal, dominating. They decided what we were going to watch, when we were going to watch it and what they said goes. ‘Still the One’ – Channel Nine for years, their psychology was based on control and power: “Everyone watches us. You must be with us. We control what you watch.” And very quickly that changed on them and I think they’re struggling to cope, because their whole psyche needs to change. All of a sudden they’re not in control anymore. All of a sudden people decide what they watch and when they watch it.

There are always three jobs for a marketer: What do we say? How do we say it? But more importantly, where do we say it? How do we get people to engage with that message? It used to be easy and it’s not anymore. You’ve got to work in a world where you do not have control. That’s hard. People like to say: “I control the marketing budget”. Brand custodianship – all the language is around control, and the media model breaking down to one of democratisation means you don’t have that control anymore. So you need to create things that you know will take on a life of their own, yet somehow still hold your brand message. It means your brand has to be stronger than ever to survive. Nike can survive in this world because they have been so strong on brand and they’ve built their brand not through tactical product messages, but [through branding]. Brands that are very clear about what they stand for, and actively allow consumers to participate, survive. Those who want to control the conversation, they can’t operate in this environment. It’s a chaos model. You can exert influence, you cannot exert control.


Does the interruption model work at all anymore?

No. Look, it still does in offline media, but not online. In fact, it has the opposite effect. How many times in your life have you ever clicked on a banner ad, seriously? Interruption doesn’t work online, and right now we’ve got this hybrid model where we’re a bit online and a bit offline, but disruption is clearly only something that works in offline media.

Will there always be a place for it offline?

Of course. I mean not everything is online and we still have to live our lives. And there is probably always going to be outdoor advertising. Until we all live our lives in cubes, I suspect there will always a place for that. And maybe that’s not necessarily disruption but it’s creating a unique voice for yourself. How do you be disruptive in an online world? You really need to stand for something. You really need to own something. It’s not about shocking you or surprising you or stopping you. It’s about having a unique voice. I think people online like to find unique, they like to find things of personality and authenticity, and a lot of brands aren’t authentic. They exist quite well in advertising environments because they just buy pages in a magazine. But when you have to stand on your own two feet and live organically online, you really need to be something. You need to stand for something. Money cannot buy exposure online, not real exposure. Money buys banners, money buys pre-rolls that people don’t watch. It’s a unique voice and a unique way of putting yourself across. You’ve got to be more human online, I think. People react well to personality. The advertisers that have had success have a very unique tone of voice that people cannot just relate to, but it almost helps them define themselves. People forwarded ‘Dumb Ways To Die’ because it made them look clever. “Look what I’ve found. This is funny.” They knew their friends would find it funny so they sent it, so therefore they’re a little bit funnier.  Nike do well because they’re cool. You send something cool on, you will be cool. That’s kind of the way it works. A brand needs to have real human qualities that reflect well on you as a person in order for you to engage with it online and then share it.

What form do you think branded content will take in the future? How large scale will it become?

It makes sense for large global brands to look at things like films. The issue we’re going to have is a lot of brands just do not have the kind of message at the moment that’s going to work with branded content. Washing liquid, that’s tricky. There are probably three ways you can go. You can be just pure entertainment, and that’s the last refuge when your subject matter is of no interest to people. Train safety: no one cares. Laundry powder: no one cares. So entertainment is really all you’ve got because people don’t really want to engage with the actuality of your message.

If you have something that’s of interest, such as automotive… people are really interested in cars, in the performance of cars, what they look like, how they were made. Branded content there can take you inside. You can have very immersive, longer format branded content around things that are of interest already to people. You can give them a deeper experience into it. I think you need to be realistic about what your brand message is because not everything is intrinsically interesting. If it’s intrinsically interesting, you can go long format. If it isn’t, you’ve got to be super entertaining in a way that wraps the core message around something that’s super shareable.

We’ve come from a model where there’s lots of quick interruptive advertisements – short ads, magazine ads, posters… lots of quick messages. Branded content by definition is a slower experience, it’s immersive. So there is only so many you can let into your life in a day. It can’t be for everyone. That’s impossible. It just couldn’t work. There are only so many hours in the day that you can view a marketing message. It’s probably always going to be a tool that you use sparingly. It will eventually stop working. If everyone tried to do it, it couldn’t work. There’s only so many hours in the day.

Dumb Ways to Die

So what’s next after branded content then?

Branded content is just one tool. It’s not the everything. There is always going to be some form of paid interruptive advertising, because the model we’ve still got is: you want it for free, you’ve got to sit through some form of advertising. And it’s quite hard to break that down because ultimately someone has got to pay the bills, someone wants to make money.

Early on there was this notion of the internet being this wonderful free thing… it’s not anymore. Someone always wants to make a buck. Someone has got to pay for this. When YouTube started out, it was awesome and free, and it’s still free, but you see a lot of marketing messages on there – it’s advertiser’s paradise. They’re probably a really good example of how you need to establish credibility first and then you can start to introduce advertising to it.

But YouTube is an interesting hybrid model where it’s not TV – people watch it more than free-to-air TV and pay TV. Kids now, they don’t sit down and watch TV, they just sit down and watch YouTube. That’s just how they  use it. It’s the world’s largest broadcaster, and there is paid advertising on it, there is incidental advertising, there’s branded content, there’s everything. It’s almost perfectly reflective of where we’re at, at the moment. It’s chaotic. It is becoming something. You can only guess at what is becoming. I don’t think anyone knows.

Is one of the directions we’re heading ‘experiences’? You can create online content with entertainment value, but is it as powerful to the consumer as being involved in an experience?

Experiences are really powerful tools. Coke is doing it a lot. Red Bull. Every brand’s dream is to have participants in the brand. If you’re a passive consumer of a brand, it’s kind of a weak relationship. If you’re an active participant, it’s very strong, very powerful. So a lot of brands are looking at ways to get consumers actively participating in either the brand or something the brand has created. And then they use that experience to then publicise. It’s the classic model: you do something that’s intrinsically interesting, you allow people to participate and then you allow them to participate after the fact by creating shareable content from it that they then obviously on-share. That’s kind of the current marketer’s dream model.

Should branded content play a part in every campaign, even if it’s only a supporting role?

Yeah, I think it should. I think you need a very, very good reason not to be bringing your campaign to life online, and the only way to do that is through well-crafted branded content, because we know it’s not an interruptive advertising medium.

Do web audiences just want to watch video?

You’ve got to go to them. Create a really interesting set of GIFs for Tumblr, and they will use that. They won’t go to campaign microsite dot com slash whatever. You go into the places they’re going and they will [interact with it] – because they want to take it, own it, put it on their Facebook page and share it with everyone they know, and say ‘Look at what I did. Look at what I found’.

They want to bastardise it. They want to change it. They want to share it. They don’t want to go to a place. And again, it’s not an age thing, it’s a psychographic. Everyone is different. There are 60 year olds who are living their entire lives online and there are 20 year olds who are closing their Facebook pages now and deliberately moving offline. Everyone is different. But it’s important for brands… if they’re not seriously looking at how to do this now, they need to very soon, because the old ways will be taken off them.


Behind the creation of ‘Dumb Ways To Die‘: Mescall on how Tumblr and Reddit contributed, why North American animals were deliberately chosen for the clip and on beating Rihanna in the viral charts.

Marketing: What was the seeding strategy behind ‘Dumb Ways To Die’?

We went really hard on Tumblr, because that right now is a medium that’s really underutilised by marketers. There’s not a lot of good marketing on Tumblr, and it’s a format that people love to share from. So we made the campaign ridiculously shareable. We put the song on Sound Cloud as well as iTunes, because some people just like to buy from iTunes and some like free. Some people try and push Reddit, they would try and get on the front page of Reddit. We just let it happen organically which is much stronger.

A lot of brands disable comments, which is a crazy thing to do. The more the merrier. We’ve encouraged parodies, we’ve encouraged copies. ‘Shareability’ – you need great content but also you need to set it free and you need to be in the mediums that most people want to share from. If the only place you could view this was at dumbwaystodie.com, it wouldn’t work.

Was the online influencer a part of the strategy?

No. The very first person we leaked it to was a journalist who we knew would understand the thinking behind the campaign from the very first – create a positive impression around it. We didn’t send it to any online influencers at all. We didn’t have to. We knew that once people saw this as graphic designers, as creative people, they would like it enough to share it because we worked really hard on the quality of the content. Pushing onto influencers can work, particularly if the content isn’t good enough to just organically get shared but in this instance, we knew we didn’t need to. And it’s far stronger when you don’t have to.

On that first weekend it was the most shared on Unruly Media’s viral charts. It was shared more than Rhianna’s new film clip.

Beating Rhianna was great. That weekend was just watching it go. It was on the front page of Reddit for eight hours on the Saturday and we thought God… 

This is interesting because it’s a song about rail safety. You can go insane reading YouTube comments – it’s the most inane place on Earth, but a very good percentage of people were understanding the message, which is good. You don’t want ‘shareability’ and exposure for the sake of it. You need your message to be shared. The rail deaths are 40 seconds of the three minutes, “You buried it at the end” [people said] but that’s 40 whole seconds of preaching about rail deaths. If you just bought a 45-second ad there is no way that would have worked with 40 seconds of rail deaths.

It’s been shown in schools all over the world, which is really interesting. It’s becoming a teaching tool, which we didn’t see coming. This was a campaign just aimed at Melbourne, but the interesting thing is you cannot quarantine the internet – it’s global. You can’t do something for Australia, you can’t do something for Melbourne. You have to accept the content you make can and will be viewed by everyone in the world. And it’s funny, the more people from outside Australia view it, the more people from inside Australia will want to view it. People are attracted to success online.

We deliberately put North American animals in there. Deliberately, because we knew if we did that we would get quick numbers, and quick numbers means Australian kids are going to want to watch it more. We’ve been criticised a bit: ‘We don’t have moose in this country’ and ‘why aren’t they kangaroos?’. That is why. But everyone knows what a moose is, everyone knows what a rattlesnake it.

That works for just about any piece of content. It needs to have universal appeal. The story must appeal to everyone. And a good story does. A good story, you forget where it’s based; it’s not about where, it’s about what, it’s about a story.


The message was quite laconic too because you didn’t actually say ‘don’t play on the tracks’. It says it for itself.

It’s interesting, we never actually say don’t do it. Never. We allow people to know that’s a dumb thing to do, and no one wants to be dumb. Again, if we told people don’t do it, it wouldn’t have worked as well. Again, it’s a control model. Advertising is control. Do this, buy this, don’t do that, own this, do this now, call us now… Whereas the content model is all around an experience and the message, but not telling you. It’s involving you and showing you and making you feel something. It’s not telling.


Chris Byrne

Chris Byrne used to be research editor of this publication, but now contributes from various locations. He also contributes to The Fetch and has been published in The Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Tweet him @penseive

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