A case study by Erick Worrell, Executive Creative Director, OCCC.
See the whole campaign at:
With 10 days before our fall enrollment campaign was set to debut on TV during the Olympics, we had nothing.
I sat in the center of our agency, with my team, and expressed frustration with the campaign concept. “It’s just not inspiring me,” I said. I’d been trying to write the video scripts for two weeks, and nothing felt right. The campaign concept, “You Are Here,” was an idea my partner and I came up with, that we pitched with enthusiasm, that we road-mapped with incredible detail at first, only to find ourselves stalling when it came time to actually bring the thing to life.
“We have to get something on the air,” I sighed. “It’s too late to start over.” I looked at the desk belonging to our Media Director, Emily Tackett (always a source of inspiring strangeness — the person and the desk), and I noticed a grabber toy with a T-Rex head at the end of it. I took it in my hand and said, “I’m tempted to just take this stupid toy and go stand in front of a green screen and talk.”
“Why don’t you?” our Senior Producer, Bri Ramos, suggested with a chuckle.
“No really. Why not?”
I disappeared for a bit, excited to flesh out a ridiculous new idea. I wrote a few cheesy scripts, envisioning this toy as a back stand-up comic telling jokes about college. I set up a table with some desk props – potted plants, our office fish, a cucumber with googly eyes – and I decorated the T-Rex with a bushy fake eyebrow, a paper necktie and a college pin.
Our designer, Rachele Cromer, helped me dress the tiny set. “He should have some sort of elaborate, old-fashioned name, like a news anchor or something, like Rex—”
“Tomlinson,” I interjected. “Rex Tomlinson.”
“He’s like, the spokesperson for the college or something,” she added.
“Public Information Officer,” I recalled. It’s one of the hats I have to wear sometimes. “No — Offisaur.”
We took a few cheap videos to get a sense of it, and to be frank, I thought we were done. We’d dub over the audio, slap a lower third on it, and call it good. The campiness was supposed to be there. The cheapness was supposed to shine through. I shared a few videos of it with the team over Slack, and went home.
Turning a “Me” Idea Into a Team Idea.
Abbie Sears, the college’s Associate Creative Director, is often the last one to speak, but when she does, she’s almost always right. “If we’re going to do something this ridiculous,” she said, “We need to take the rest of it very seriously. No snark. No cheap costumes. We have to do this as though it’s a real, serious program, that just happens to have a talking dinosaur toy as the lead.”
I wasn’t sure what she had in mind, until a few hours later, she texted me an image. Our T-Rex was no longer sporting the paper necktie. Instead, he had been fitted with a custom- and hand-made felt suit and tie, and had been gifted two oven-baked clay claws. Unbelievable.
We researched broadcast news and sports studios, even visiting another college’s news studio (big thank-you to Dr. Beth Adele at Oklahoma City University) to take some test shots behind their anchor desks. We couldn’t stop laughing. Within a day or so, we’d settled on a green screen approach in our studio, so we could more easily shoot and replicate the formula if we made more than one spot.
Rachele made tiny T-Rex desk decorations, like a miniature coffee cup, individual pencils and flash cards.
Robert Lane, our videographer and photographer, pulled some best practices from his former days shooting broadcast news to help nail the lighting, the camera angles and timing.
I was the puppeteer and the voiceover, recording and mixing audio in my office, then rushing over to the studio to lay on my back and mime a puppet news anchor along to the audio.
Abigail Weddle, our newest designer, took on motion graphics, backgrounds, lower-thirds, and title cards for the end. Rachele added in some great PIP-style news graphics, too.
Building Rex’s Team.
We introduced Terri Dactyl, our “Traffic Sauruspondent”, who was voiced with an especially over-the-top, hilariously unhinged Australian accent by Emily Tackett. Again, Abbie made a miniature anchor suit for Terri, complete with a hysterically swinging arm that holds a wired microphone.
We introduced Dora Thesaurus, our “Field Sauruspondent”, whose skill is coming up with all the adjectives to describe something. Abbie voiced Dora, Abbie made a rain-suit, and Rachele built her a felt umbrella. Then, when we realized there was no way for Dora to hold an umbrella, we thought, “What if a human hand just…casually appears and holds it for her?” Rachele’s hand became arguably the funniest thing in the campaign. Dora needed some screen presence, so the team hand-painted makeup and lipstick on her, and even borrowed someone’s stick-on eyelashes to give Dora that extra pop.
The concept might get us noticed, but the message still has to matter. Once we get someone’s attention, what impression are we leaving them with? What message do they take away from our spots? By taking such an absurd direction with the execution, we were able juxtapose it with a serious message, just as Abbie had suggested. Our spots might’ve been funny, but they made our value propositions very clear:
- You can get a great education at OCCC, without decades of crushing student debt.
- You can still root for the NCAA team of your choice, even if you go here. (And you can save a lot of money while you do it.)
- If you’re trying to get somewhere in your career, there’s a good chance you can accomplish what you’re trying to do here, with us, with fewer (expensive) mistakes and a faster completion time.
- We have 8-week terms, which can help accommodate a busy life or a flexible schedule, and help you complete your education faster.
Our audience learned a lot in just 70 (total) seconds, and they didn’t feel like they were being sold something. The sugar made the medicine go down.
Sometimes, You Have to Try the Wild Idea.
We had about 10 days to put everything together, start to finish (huge thanks to our Project Coordinator, Alara Johnson, for keeping us sane and helping us juggle all our other work, too). We produced four 15-second ads and a 10-second ad, all of which debuted during the Olympics on NBC.
We were nervous. Is this the dumbest thing we’ve ever done? Yes, yes it is. Will it work? We have no earthly idea, but we think so. Will we all be fired for this? “No,” I told them, and myself, mostly believing it. Our Executive Vice President, Danita Rose, the first one who saw the spots outside of our department, reminded us that people shouldn’t get fired for doing their jobs, trying new things and making mistakes, but for not doing their jobs, not trying new things and being too afraid of making mistakes to do anything different. Our job, ultimately, is to get our clients noticed, to do something that disrupts autopilot and insist that folks pay attention to us. It takes something different to create that outcome, and not everything we do will be successful. If it is successful? Fantastic. My boss, OCCC’s Interim President, Jeremy Thomas, has trusted me to do great things with our brand and our team, and that ultimately gave me the confidence and comfort to trust my instincts (though I absolutely had a backup campaign ready to go in case the whole thing bombed).
Rex was — a bit shockingly — an immediate hit. Earning 3,660 clicks on YouTube and 1,775 clicks on Facebook, Rex contributed to a surge of landing page traiffic. Our social media posts were being shared organically by people who saw the commercials and wanted their friends to see them. Our YouTube videos notoriously underperform (because who’s looking up a college to see their commercials?), averaging about 300 hits per video (with some one-offs that drove that average a bit high, honestly), but our Rex campaign surged to exponentially higher numbers in just the first two weeks. Now, instead of Rex being a one-off, he’s the centerpiece of our 2021-2022 campaign. He’s on the first slide of our homepage, he’s playing on our campus TVs, and the characters are on mailers we send out to prospective students. And you’re here, reading a case study about bringing him to life.
There are times where asking for permission is appropriate, and there are times where we just have to do something different, hope it goes well, and ask for forgiveness if it doesn’t. No one’s buying a pitch that starts with,
“We want kids to go to college. You know those $5 grabber toys you get at video arcades for your kids? All right, okay, so, what if one of them leads a nightly news program…”
Nope. That doesn’t get made.
So what’s the point of writing this long story? I’m so glad you asked.
If you’re a creative, I suppose the point is this:
Say the weird thing you’re thinking. It might be terrible. It might be genius. You’ll never know until you put them in front of a team of smart, creative, similarly-weird people.
If you’re in leadership, I suppose the point is this:
Remember that every idea you have is made better by the team. Rex worked not because I had a goofy idea, but because everyone on the team bought in, gave feedback, contributed to the outcome, and added their piece to the puzzle. Rex would’ve been a hacky stand-up comic with a paper tie if I’d held tight to pride of ownership or ego. The team makes it better, every time.
If you’re in management, I suppose the point is this:
You have to create an environment where your team feels safe being weird. If they’re worried about judgment, or ego, or people swatting down their opinions, they’ll never say the stupid thing that leads to your next big success.
And if you’re the client, I suppose the point is this:
Let your creative team challenge your conventions and push you out of your familiar habits. It doesn’t matter how great your product or service is, or how robust your strategy is, or how big (or small) your budget is: If the idea doesn’t get you noticed, you have failed.
In the words of the immortal Rex Tomlinson:
“Even after 65 million years, I never thought I’d live to see the day.”