By Chris Advansun, Head of Digital Technology at Clear Channel Canada || November 18, 2015
In the out-of-home (OOH) advertising business, acquiring a single billboard for 1 month is considered a modest media buy. In such a scenario, clients certainly expect a higher return on investment than other advertising media like television or radio. But few advertisers would calculate that 1 board times 28-days equals tens of millions of impressions. OOH does tend to outperform other media as a generator of earned media and social engagement. But there are limits, conventional wisdom says, on how much conversation even the highest-performing billboard can yield.
Earlier this month, a hiphop superstar sent conventional wisdom packing. Drake's one-month, one-billboard media buy detonated an explosion of earned media, racking up more than 86 million impressions in a matter of days.
What follows is an account of how and why it happened. We share the inside backstory of the most viral billboard in history, and reveal some data and analysis to help marketers and media professionals better understand the power of OOH advertising as a launchpad for earned media.
When Universal Music Canada executed a media buy on Clear Channel Canada’s out-of-home network on behalf of their client, Toronto rap mogul Drake, they didn’t blanket the city with billboards or dominate a subway station. Universal quietly bought a single billboard for 28-days, and selected a strategic location aside a busy expressway.
As the sun rose over Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway on the morning of Wednesday, November 4th, Universal’s billboard went live. On it were just 3 words, a number, and a simple graphic.
Translation: “The 6 (God) Is Watching.” The billboard didn’t feature a glam shot of the star, or pitch his music or merchandise. Its cryptic message didn’t even mention Drake explicitly. But fans instantly understood that “The 6 God is watching” was a telegraph from Toronto’s biggest entertainment export.
For those unaware, “The 6” is Drake’s affectionate moniker for his beloved hometown, Toronto. Why “6” you ask? Toronto’s main area codes are 416 and 647. If you’re seeing a numerical pattern, so did Drake. Finally, who is “The 6 God,” you ask? That would be Drake himself. Drake, Drizzy, Aubrey, 6 God: He’s a man of many names.
By lunchtime, curious fans started taking notice. A few took their intrigue to Twitter and Instagram, where they shared pixelated photos of the billboard, no doubt taken as they drove by on the Gardiner Expressway. Throughout the day, the chatter simmered. A speculative consensus emerged: This was a signal from Drake himself that release of his anticipated new album, “Views From The 6,” was finally near.
That afternoon, things heated up. Toronto radio stations and blogs started retweeting fan photos of the billboard. At 5:00pm, Drake himself noticed the fan chatter and Instagrammed a photo of the board - a cropped version of an earlier fan photo - with the caption, “Be home soon.” (Drake later removed the photo but swopped out his Instagram profile pic for a higher-quality shot of the billboard with Toronto’s CN Tower in the background.)
That evening, the story went from kids playing with matches to five alarm inferno. Large media outlets published articles on the billboard, speculating about its enigmatic message. Camera crews and photographers were showing up at the billboard as though it were the site of a crashed UFO. Journalists and bloggers were calling the offices of Universal Music and Clear Channel Canada, asking for comment. Headlines like, “What’s The Deal With This Drake Billboard In Toronto?” and “Drake Posts Mysterious '6 God' Billboard in Toronto” hit the homepages of Complex Magazine, MTV, and Billboard Magazine. Canadian television station CityNews covered the story on their primetime news program.
The next morning, roughly 24-hours after the billboard went live, the social media buzz peaked. Pitchfork, Time, GQ, MuchMusic, CBC, Elle, and other outlets published articles on the billboard and weighed in on the social media conversation. In this second wave, the story had taken on a new dimension. Beyond the original “Drake’s mysterious billboard” angle, coverage now included the “Drake billboard goes viral” angle. Now fuelled by mainstream media coverage, a blistering backdraft of photos, tweets, retweets, likes, shares, and comments scorched the web. By 10:00am, Twitter mentions reached more than 700 per hour.
The pinnacle came later that day, when Drake swopped out his Instagram profile photo for a high-quality photo of the billboard. Drake recognized the importance the billboard had taken on for his fans, and he responded in kind.
In the days that followed, the story slowly tapered off. After a sustained explosion of news coverage and social media discussion, the meme had run its course. As the dust settled, we weighed into the data to better understand the scope and causes of what took place.
According to a report commissioned by Clear Channel Canada and carried out by our friends at Sysomos, the billboard ignited a wildfire of earned media, totalling 86.72 million impressions in 7 days. And this conservative tally excludes broadcast television and much of the individual conversation within Facebook, whose recent API changes limit third-party access to data on content consumption within its platform. All tolled, impressions surely count well north of 100 million.
Earned media impressions in 7 days (Nov. 3 to 10): 86.72 million
Unique mentions on Twitter: 8,952
Total impressions on Twitter: 67.8 million
Total impressions on Facebook: 18.8 million
Total impressions on Instagram: 45,000
Story was covered on major news outlets: Time, GQ, MTV, Billboard, Complex, Pitchfork, CBC, MuchMusic
Primetime television coverage: CityNews
To receive a complete breakdown of this campaign’s earned media performance, please fill out the form below.
We also recommend you check out this addional analysis by Mark Young, Chief Marketing Officer at Sysomos, whose technology and team helped us calculate the earned media scope of this campaign. In Mark's words, "This just goes to prove that social media is not in a world of it’s own. It plays a valuable role throughout your marketing and advertising mix."
Skeptics will chalk this up to Drake’s celebrity megaphone. Of course, Drake’s attention added fuel to the fire. But Drake didn’t pick up on this story until its organic virality was already combusting.
Avoid the temptation to attribute this success solely to the celebrity factor. A deeper look reveals more; this event contains best practices that any marketer can apply.
Here’s our analysis.
We have to give credit where credit is due: Drake is as talented a marketer as he is a rapper. This billboard looks like it could have been designed by a panda bear on a 1993 IBM Thinkpad, but that didn’t matter. In fact that may have been the point. This campaign’s simple, mysterious nature compelled people to speculate, share, and discuss. A killer creative idea still trumps all.
Drake fans immediately recognized the rapper’s imprimatur on this billboard. First, as a lyricist, Drake is the master of subtext, hidden meaning, and the double-entendre. “The 6 God Is Watching” flowed seamlessly from his clever, complex style. It was not a blunt-force declaration, but rather a subtle hidden message. Secondly, the number “6” alongside the praying hands graphic had become recurring iconography representing the Drake brand, used by both Drake himself and in fan art. On all accounts, this campaign was perfectly on-brand.
Universal Music Canada handpicked an asset within Clear Channel Canada’s network certain to get noticed by an influential audience. Our “GEW 1030” billboard alongside the Gardiner Expressway captures a minimum daily circulation of 91,000, many of whom are commuting back to the eastern suburbs from the city’s core.
Visuals and Shareability
Drake could have simply tweeted, “The 6 God Is Watching,” and some fans would have no doubt noticed. But the billboard took Drake’s statement to the next level by providing sharable, visual content. This campaign’s most retweeted, shared, and liked posts included photos of the billboard. All the news coverage included photos and in some cases video of the board. Die-hard Drake fans already had the motive and opportunity to share this event on social media. The visuals gave them the means.
“The 6 God Is Watching” provoked a conversation. Those in the know wanted to hypothesize on what it meant, and those not in the know wanted to be in the know. Like a setup awaiting a punchline, the message played with fans, enticing them to respond, inviting them to fill in the blank.
As we mentioned, this campaign was a subtle allusion to Drake’s forthcoming “Views From The 6” album. Drake tapped into pent up anticipation and pre-existing positive sentiment. But instead of satiating the expectancy by announcing the album’s release date, it compounded the anticipation by saying nothing specific at all. This sly acknowledgement kept hungry fans salivating.
Emblazoning this message across a high-profile, 30’ by 60’ billboard implied a statement about its importance. (Cue Marshall McLuhan reference.) Though only 3 words, 1 number, and a simple graphic, hundreds of thousands of people would be confronted by this message as it towered above a busy expressway.
That is to say, public-ness. Imagine Drake had executed this idea on any other advertising medium. A radio or television spot, a huge spread in The New York Times, or online display ads. If executed on almost any other advertising medium, people would have received the message in private. But this campaign was in public, implying that this was something of public concern. This was content for the public to share and discuss and experience together, which is exactly what millions of people and dozens of media outlets did.
I can almost hear marketers saying, “But we’re not Drake! How can we repeat this success!?” If that’s your conclusion, I think you’re missing something. Most brands do not have a following that thrills at their every move and numbers in the tens of millions. But brands do have a following, a fanbase that could cause the same viral spark that Drake provided here.
Removing the celebrity factor for the sake of argument, 100 million earned media impressions may seem out of reach. What would you say to 50 million? Or let’s say 10 million. Or perhaps you feel like 2 million is more realistic. Given that this was a one-month, one-billboard media buy, most advertisers would consider 2 million earned media impressions a superb ROI.
Don’t get distracted by the stratospheric figures. Marketers who focus on the principles behind this success can repeat their own version of it. Even if your campaign’s performance metrics are missing a zero compared to Drake, you’ll have something to be proud of.
As our colleague Andrew Stevens at Clear Channel U.S. recently noted, out-of-home advertising drives a higher percentage of earned media conversations than other media. On a consistent basis, our medium delivers more bang for the buck than television, radio, newspaper, and other traditional media.
Marketers appear to be taking note of this outsized ROI. While other traditional advertising media gradually decline, OOH is growing. Global OOH advertising revenue stood at US$36.32 billion in 2014 and is set to grow at a 4.6% CAGR to reach US$45.37 billion in 2019 (source: Pricewaterhouse Coopers).
We predict budgets will continue to shift to OOH both because of its superior ROI and its natural alignment with digital advertising and social media. As digital budgets swell, marketers will see more opportunities to capitalize on the symbiosis between OOH and online, just as Drake and Universal Music Canada did in this case.
We also predict that mega-viral events like this one will become more common, campaigns where a targeted OOH media buy acts as a trigger for online engagement. This article started with a facetious formula: 1 Rap Mogul + 1 Billboard X 1 Week = 86 Million Impressions. Perhaps a more accurate formula would be:
It doesn’t have the same ring to it, but we expect you’ll see more cases of this formula in action, both originating on Clear Channel’s global network and elsewhere. And if you’re a marketer, we hope you get to be the award-winning genius behind them.
Here's a selection of some of the news coverage of the billboard.
MTV: What’s The Deal With This Drake Billboard In Toronto?
Billboard: Drake Posts Mysterious '6 God' Billboard in Toronto
Time: There’s a Mysterious Drake Billboard in Toronto
GQ: What Could Drake's Mysterious '6 God' Billboard in Toronto Possibly Mean?!??
Pitchfork: Drake Billboard Appears in Toronto
Complex: A New Drake Billboard Just Popped Up In Toronto, Is 'Views From The 6' On The Way?
XXL Mag: Drake Billboard in Toronto Hints ‘Views From the 6′ Is Coming Soon
CBC: Mysterious new Drake billboard surfaces in Toronto
CityNews: Trending: God, a.k.a Drake, is watching 'The 6'
Elle UK: What Does Drake’s Mysterious Toronto Billboard Mean?
BlogTO: Mysterious 6 God billboard spotted in Toronto
Feel free to contact us with questions or comments about this story. Pick your poison; we're reachable by email, phone, or social media. I think we even have a fax number somewhere.
Clear Channel Canada
Office: 416.408.0800 x 273
Clear Channel Canada connects brands with people. Our network, spanning Canada’s six largest markets, comprises the country’s most valuable Out-of-Home environments, such as Pearson and Billy Bishop Airports, the iconic Dundas Square, and leading shopping centres. We help our clients deliver impactful, engaging messages to Canada’s most desirable, hard-to-reach audiences.
Clear Channel Canada
20 Dundas Street West, Suite 1001
Toronto, ON, M5G 2C2
High-resolution JPG of billboard (sunset background)
High-resolution JPG of billboard (cloudy background)
Receive monthly dispatches in your inbox from your friends at Clear Channel Canada. Get a first look at insightful case studies, as well as analysis on out-of-home advertising, digital display technology, mobile engagment, global advertising trends, and other topics of importance to marketing and media professionals.