Clear Channel Canada billboard #GEW 1030 is a 61 x 31-foot westbound-facing structure situated alongside the Gardiner Expressway at Sherbourne Street in Toronto’s east end. In industry parlance, it is known as a “Spectacular” because of its vast size.
According to the company’s sales brochure, the horizontal board boasts daily circulation of 91,000 and terrific sightlines for eastbound traffic exiting the downtown core. Clear Channel does not disclose rates, but one industry professional, speaking anonymously, said a four-week campaign on the board should cost between $18,000 and $24,000.
Through its agency MediaCom, Universal Music Canada recently booked a campaign with Clear Channel that consisted of just this one board for 28 days. Despite the billboard’s size and high-profile location, it hardly seemed the type of buy guaranteed to generate mass awareness and exposure.
A crew of five workers began installing the billboard on the afternoon of Nov. 3. Working methodically, they rolled the single sheet of reinforced Flexface vinyl weighing approximately 500 lbs. from top to bottom, affixing it to the board with clips located around the edges.
The message on the billboard wasn’t particularly witty or even visually exciting, especially in a medium renowned for its frequently eye-catching ads. It did, however, possess an air of mystery.
To a large number of Torontonians, its message was impossible to decipher: Three words, the number 6 and a pair of praying hands in the middle of a black background.
To those in the know, however, it quickly became apparent the board was a transmission from the city’s premiere hip-hop emissary, Drake. The number six was a reference to “The 6,” the Drake-coined nickname for his hometown, while the “God” reference acknowledged his status as Toronto’s greatest entertainment export.
The message itself translated as “The 6 God is watching,” and was taken as a signal that a release date for the superstar’s long-anticipated album, Views from the 6, was drawing near.
Fans noticed the board almost immediately, and quickly began congregating on social media to discuss this exciting development. The following day, radio stations and blogs picked up the story. Then, Drake himself Instagrammed a photo of the board, accompanied by the message “Be home soon.”
“We were just starting to monitor social media, and we started to see that Drake fans were voraciously taking to the story,” said Chris Advansun, head of digital technology for Clear Channel in Toronto. “It went from fan chatter to local radio stations, media outlets, and even Drake himself, within 12 hours.”
The story continued to gather steam, with Drake fans and TV news crews flocking to the board throughout the day. At the same time, journalists and bloggers were calling both the Clear Channel Canada and Universal Music Canada offices requesting comment.
The fervour peaked the next day with stories in major media including Pitchfork, Time, GQ, Billboard and CBC, the coverage morphing slightly into how the board had gone viral. By 10 a.m. on Nov. 5, the billboard was generating 700 mentions per hour on Twitter.
According to a report by research firm Sysomos commissioned by Clear Channel, the billboard generated 86.7 million impressions in just seven days – not including broadcast TV and individual conversations on Facebook. The company estimates in total, the board generated more than 100 million impressions.
“It caught us off guard,” admitted Advansun. “There was no way of knowing. To be honest I think a lot of people would have said ‘Is anybody going to understand this? An insider is maybe going to understand it, but there was no reason to think it was going to explode on social media within 24 hours.”
Universal Music declined to comment. “We are excited about the success of the campaign, but [it is] not something we are commenting on or discussing,” marketing director J.P. Boucher wrote in an email to Marketing.
According to Sysomos, the billboard generated 9,005 discrete social media mentions between Nov. 3-10, the vast majority – 8,547 – coming via Twitter, with others including Tumblr (226) and Instagram (113).
A word cloud prepared by Sysomos found “Billboard,” “Drake” and “Toronto” were the most common words associated with the initiative, while the hashtag #vft6 (view from the six) was the most popular with 919 uses. It was followed by #drakebillboard (196), #6god (127), #drake and #the6godiswatching (84 each) and #toronto (68).
While Advansun acknowledged much of the campaign’s success was due to Drake’s immense popularity – “He’s a white-hot global artist with a fan base that cannot get enough of him” – he said it also demonstrated the ability of properly utilized out-of-home to drive consumer engagement.
“I think it would be a mistake to say ‘Any advertiser can repeat this success.’ However, our thesis is that if you remove the celebrity factor, there are principles that any marketer can repeat,” he said. “This was very clever creative that toyed with people and made them want to engage with it in a very public, social way. A clever, on-brand idea trumps all.
“Does that mean that Coca-Cola is going to get 80 million impressions? Maybe not, but Coke can repeat some version of this type of campaign that does generate a lot of earned media. It provokes people to interact and discuss.”
Rosanne Caron, president of the Out-of-home Marketing Association of Canada in Toronto, called the Drake board a “great example” of the role out-of-home could play in the modern media mix.
“If you can have one billboard with that kind of power, imagine the power of a 50 GRP campaign,” she said. “I think it will have an impact in terms of clients looking at it and saying ‘This is interesting. Imagine if we were to do something similar.'”
It also demonstrates what Caron said would become an increasingly prevalent trend in the future: The integration of out-of-home and social media. “Out-of-home is perfectly poised to not only drive to create that conversation on social media, but also communicate back [with consumers]. It can be the instigator, but it can also reflect the conversation that’s out there.”
The Drake billboard is also noteworthy for reinforcing the capabilities of the humble static board at a time when advertisers are increasingly attracted to the flexibility and versatility of digital out-of-home, even though it currently comprises less than 10% of Canadian out-of-home inventory.
“I think sometimes there’s always this rush to move onto the next thing, but it’s more about the message and using the medium to its full potential,” said Caron.
Clear Channel, meanwhile, has incorporated a case study about the board into its sales materials. Sales representatives are standing by, no doubt just waiting for that “Hotline Bling.”