Contagious content: Don't Panic's Joe Wade on why Jon Snow, GoPro and The LAD Bible hold the secrets to making a video ad go viral

Will Railton
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We aim at a younger audience than the brand intends, because if young people share it, it will eventually pop up on your mum’s newsfeed, says Wade

A number of advertisers have won a Cannes Gold Lion. But few can claim a Bafta on top of it, and say they’ve dug up the lawn of a former frontbench MP.

“We wanted to repackage social and political issues in a different way,” says Joe Wade, film-maker and co-founder of Don’t Panic London, speaking of his earliest videos. He tells me how, after the expenses scandal broke in 2009, he and Heydon Prowse, the then editor of Don’t Panic magazine, went to Alan Duncan’s home in Rutland to protest the Conservative MP’s £5,000 claim for gardening.

They filmed Prowse digging a “£” sign in the turf, and planting flowers in it, before stumbling across a buried chest of “taxpayers’ money”. “Pound Force” was just the first in a string of attention grabbing videos which often made their way into the headlines.

If there’s a secret to making a video viral, Wade seems to know it. He won at Cannes for “Most Shocking Second a Day” for Save The Children, marking the three-year anniversary of the Syrian civil war, and made waves last year with “Everything is Not Awesome” for Greenpeace, which takes fire at Lego’s partnership with Shell. He puts his personal creative frustration into television, with shows like BBC’s The Revolution Will be Televised (RWBT), which won a Bafta in 2014.

He tells City A.M. why creative restraints are good, and how to seed viral content.

Describe the shift from creating videos for the magazine to doing it for clients.

We put the techniques we had been using in our own videos into our work as an agency.

The English National Opera was our first paying client. It was trying to attract a younger audience at the time, so it staged an opera called Two Boys. It took a digital theme – it was about two boys who met online and one tried to kill the other. So we created a video entitled “Can I be your friend?” which invited viewers to think about how odd their online life is.

It saw Jolyon Rubinstein, who wrote and starred in RWBT, going around and asking real people: “What’s your relationship status” and “Can I write on your wall?” It received almost 2m views and garnered a lot of press attention.

Advertising is currently facing a number of issues. So many people are using ad blockers. Media budgets are being wasted because brands have to pay for false impressions. And brands which buy inventory through ad exchanges don’t know where their ads will end up.

Sharing content is a solution because it’s a mark of true engagement. We try to create content and adverts which people really want to watch and recommend. So we think mostly about earned media for clients. Our paid media is quite low relative to other agencies.

How do you make a video shareable?

We have a methodology. First, we ask: would we share it? And what about an audience on Reddit? This is why clients aren’t well placed to come up with their own content – they’re too invested.

We also take a different approach to demographics. We aim at a younger audience than the brand intends, because if young people share it, it will eventually pop up on your mum’s newsfeed.

There’s no separation between our media and creative team either. This allows us to put in as many hooks and layers as the media side needs to ensure it gets shared. In our video for Greenpeace, we put Lego figures from Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and other famous titles in the background, which allowed our media team to seed the content on Thrones fan sites, because they would really respond to the fact that it featured a Jon Snow figure, and would share it.

Read more: Visual marketing and the future of earned content

It is also important to bear the zeitgeist in mind when you consider the form of the content.

We’ve done a video for the National Autistic Society which explores how an autistic child sees the world from a “point of view” (POV) perspective. We tried to get viewers to understand what autism is like, and trigger empathy in them, rather than just informing them about what autism is. Because GoPro cameras are so popular, and because POV has made its way into feature films like Hardcore Henry, it’s something people are interested in and are searching for online. The main video had 90,000 Facebook shares and 10m views within a number of days.

You also have to be right on top of the news agenda. We use tools like Foresight News so that we can know what’s going on and find the media hooks. That helps us with reactive content as well – short videos which can be put out while a particular subject is trending.

Do you have to be selective with the clients you pitch to?

Not really. We have to explain to them that earning media involves taking creative risks. But there are a lot of stakeholders involved with an organisation like the National Autistic Society. We couldn’t portray autism in a sensational way, for example, but creative constraints can often make ideas better. We called the video “Can you make it to the end?” Autism isn’t mentioned until the last few seconds, and the cause isn’t discussed. But there’s a challenge element to the title, which ensured that 80 per cent of people did watch until the end.

Read more: Finding the sweet spot with video advertising

As a film-maker, do you find that a lot of your own style goes into your work for a client?

If we have frustrated ambitions, they can be channelled into our own work for the BBC and Channel 4.

However, having our own creative platform allows us to test out what will work for clients. Our creative team has more of a TV background than other agencies. That’s useful for producing reactive content. Someone who has written for Eight out of Ten Cats can come up with 10 ideas in half an hour. An advertising creative has to go and lie down in a field, or whatever.

It also allows us to be closer to the world we need to connect with. The former editor of our website now edits The LAD Bible. Those sites can help kick-start virals, even if your intended audience is a 50 year-old woman.

A lot of agencies say that they create content. Few can claim they were content creators before they became an agency.

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