Jobriath in the 1970s; Sigue Sigue Sputnik in the 1980s; both Fischerspooner and Sandi Thom in the early 2000s.

The music industry has occasionally dabbled in monumental hype-building exercises to break a new act by throwing around colossal amounts of cash and controversy. Most of the time, it turns out to be a huge failure (Jobriath) or a flash in the pan (Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Fischerspooner, Sandi Thom).

The music industry runs on hyperbole but perhaps wills anything that is explicit in its hyping to fail. Into this bear pit step Broken Witt Rebels, a band that media agency MEC decided to see if they could break in a non-traditional way.

As the dust settles, we speak to MEC about what they did, why they did it and what they think the impact will be. We also speak to an independent marketing expert about what they felt worked and what didn’t.

Broken Witt Rebels

When billboards went up all over the UK this spring advertising unsigned band Broken Witt Rebels, the music industry rumour mill went into overdrive. Was it some kind of joke? The work of very rich and supportive parents? Or a manager with deep pockets and bags of enthusiasm? None of the above, as it turns out.

The Broken Witt Rebels campaign was, in fact, the work of media agency MEC, run through its Wavemaker content division, which had set itself the challenge of “breaking” the band in 10 weeks before the Cannes Lions advertising conference at the end of June.

For MEC, the campaign was a success: the band ended up with two label offers and three festival slots. Among the music industry, however, the response was more cynical, with accusations on social media of money wasting, ineffectiveness and being out of date.

The truth, of course, is never that black and white. Sandbox spoke to the MEC Wavemaker executives behind the initiative – group strategy content director Mark Knight and content planning director Sophie Neville – to find out the logic behind the campaign, the strategy involved and how they called in favours to deliver on minimal budget.

Why did you decide to launch this campaign?

Mark Knight: We ran MEC Music Week for a couple of years. Sophie and I are both musical obsessives and we created this week-long conference to try and get our clients excited by music. On the back of that, they said to us, “Can we take an element of MEC Music Week over to Cannes, for Cannes Entertainment?”

Sophie Neville: Something we have always spoken about is this: if you took some of the smarts and the talent in this building as well as the knowledge that we have – in terms of things like digital and programmatics, things that we as a media agency are quite far ahead of [compared to] a lot of other entities that might start to look at marketing solutions and music – and applied the same process that we would to a brand to an artist, that would be a really interesting proposition.

MK: The reason MEC got excited by it [is that] typically when we work with clients we can’t talk about the results. This was an opportunity to really showcase the
things we do in the business; the things we would do typically for a brand but done for a band. And in this case we can share all the results.

SN: It is also [about] leveraging. Obviously as a media agency we have significant power with all the media owners that we work with on a daily basis. So, for all of the partners that we had on this project, which ended up being approximately 30, we have all those contacts and we have all those relationships; and, as a business, we work with them a lot.

So they were also keen to help us out and demonstrate how we can work with them and use their formats and their products to push great content forward.”

What was your specific goal? It has been said you wanted “to break a band”, but that can mean many things.

MK: In order to sell these things in, you always need a nice tidy press release and a headline goal. The 10-week thing came about because if you are pushing a single to the radio, it normally takes eight-to-10 weeks.

So that was where it originally came from and we decided that, as a media agency, we don’t plug to radio, so the task became breaking a band rather than breaking a single in eight-to-10 weeks. The project was 10 weeks but we had quite a lot of pre-prep in terms of getting all the partners on board.

You selected Broken Witt Rebels from a list you had of 200 new bands, after pitching your idea to Cannes in December 2015. When you approached the band, how did they react? How did you explain what you were doing?

MK: We told them a story, the story we told you: this is about music passion, forget all the marketing stuff. One thing which probably surprised the band was that there were no rights handed over; we weren’t saying we want a percent of your catalogue or we want your publishing. Essentially we will give you all this for free.

At the start I don’t think they really understood quite what was going to happen. But there was a degree of trust. We met them, talked them through what we were hoping to do and hoping to achieve. And they bought into it quite quickly. Probably the most interesting thing for us was when, after the first week or so, they told us they were giving up their jobs. That focused the mind a little bit.

I assumed you had a management contract with them. But there is literally nothing?

MK: The only contract we had in place was a very simple agreement. We basically said, “We are going to work very hard for you; you need to work really hard for us. You need to play for us in Cannes and during a period of this campaign you can’t be signed.”

Now the campaign has ended, if you want to be signed then that’s great. But what we didn’t want is to have a signed band taking part in an unsigned band challenge. That was the only stipulation.

What was the first official thing you did in the 10 weeks after the prep period?

MK: We met with the band and we had this immersion session and audit phase, which is something we would do for our clients. We would look through their social media and all of their communications to say, “What is going on? What do you do well? What don’t you do well? What can we learn?”

We had our Research and A&I  [Analytics & Insight] teams looking into their Facebook, their Instagram, their Twitter, all their social media and their website.

We audited it and then we started to put a plan in place to optimise it. How do we get all the SEO working? All the search working? All the links working. Make sure everything’s tagged? Then we had a day with the band where we got to know them and found out what made them tick.

On the back of that we went off to Birmingham for two days and shot over 1,000 photographs and about 50 videos. The idea was to balance the hygiene content [the basic day-to-day posts that tell the story of the band over the campaign period] which would sit on their social channels between now and Cannes, that 10-week period.

One of the things we discovered quite early on about this band is the live element, so a lot of the video content we shared on their Facebook page was live performance. The first piece of video we put up was a live performance of ‘Low’, the first single from their new EP. I think it racked up 139,000 likes in 24 hours and 110 shares. That really kick-started things.

The second bit of insight around them was the relationship with their fans. Every band will say they like their fans, but these guys go the extra mile. So we discovered that when they play hometown shows they often hand-deliver tickets themselves. The fan-centric thing was really important.

So we went with this fans-first thing, which worked well because what we said at the start was, “You can’t get on radio. We have no influence over radio. So let’s make it about the fans.” Hence why Spotify was so important because fans can listen on Spotify. So we have the band making playlists, the fans making playlists, the fans sharing the bands’ playlists. Without really any promotion, we saw quite a dramatic increase straight away.

What was the role of the billboards in the campaign?

SN: With all of our media channels and everything we did on this, each thing had a role. With outdoor for a client, what we would usually do is mass awareness. We work with Kinetic here [a specialist in out-of-home advertising], who work with all out outdoor contractors to put together our planning strategy for all our outdoor campaigns. We worked with them on this. They were really excited to showcase their platforms with great new exciting content, using a band.

MK: At the start of this there was also a plan to do a live stream from the Shepherd’s Bush Empire [in London] into an out-of-home ad. Sadly that didn’t happen because the live show got cancelled at the last minute.

But one of the things that was really compelling for all of the partners, if you are [outdoor advertising company] JCDecaux and you are trying to sell a new technology to Coca-Cola, is that the level of complexity is so high. But for us, it’s just “Do you want to do it?”and we say yes. It was great for them as well. As part of the outdoor stuff we got the first Bluetooth Beacon trials in Kingston and [shopping centre] Bluewater. Outdoor advertisers have been keen to get that going for some time, but haven’t had a brand brave enough just to give it a go.

BWR Outdoor

At the start of this project we didn’t really ever think we were going to get a nationwide out-of-home ad campaign. But because we work in a media agency, ifyou speak to one partner you need to speak to all of them, so the guys at Kinetic broached that conversation. We said, “JCDecaux have been to support them [the band], all you other guys can support them as well.”

So what we ended up with was pretty much all the out-of-home contractors in the UK saying, “Well, we’ll support that too.” Before we knew it we had this campaign that reached 23m people. Now, without going into too much detail, that is value only a media agency can unlock. That’s not paid-for media; that’s traded media. We were never going to say no to it.

You didn’t have to pay anything for the billboards?

SN: All the media partners that we had was like a value-in-kind situation. If we are doing a special project that is going to be used as a case study across the industry, those partners can use that case study to demonstrate to clients who would pay for that media – ‘this is what we can do and here’s an example of how that would work’.

What we did with the Metro [free morning paper for London commuters] and Shazam is one of the best examples of that working well. The Metro had wanted for a very long time to have a Shazamable front-page ad, but they hadn’t been able to get it away because clients worried it might not work.

It takes months and months to sign something like that off in our industry. With us, it was a phone call to Mark and myself, we said, “Yes, let’s do it” and we had a Shazamable front-page Metro ad nationwide with the guys on the front page and the chance to win tickets to the Isle Of Wight and Latitude.

Metro BWR

What were the other key promotional points in the 10 weeks?

MK: We got the band on the front page of YouTube for 24 hours, which is pretty hard to do; but if you work in a media agency and you understand how media works, then that can be achieved and that is probably one of the most valuable pieces of media online. We drove half a million plays in 24 hours – which, for an unsigned band, is pretty spectacular.

With Spotify, what we were trying to get to – and to be fair we were never going to achieve it in 10 weeks – was to generate enough Spotify plays. At the start of this we said, “If we can get to 2m streams a month, that would give the band about £4,000 – which is £1,000 a member.

Regardless of anything else, if you have an income of £1,000 a month that stops you from going back to your crappy bar job.”That was the big goal. In 10 weeks, we were never going to achieve that. But that is what the band are still working towards. What we did achieve is that we tripled their Spotify plays.

We have created this interactive Spotify playlister which sits on their website. People can make their own playlists featuring the band’s three EPs, they can follow the band’s own playlists, they can interact and, when they do, every now and again it spits out a winner and people win some merchandise from the band.

SN: We wanted to make sure they were culturally relevant and reaching new audiences, so we worked with BuzzFeed quite a lot. We did a live stream via their UK Facebook page, which has 1.3m people attached to it. And we worked with [digital publisher] Joe Media, who shot some content of the guys playing FIFA and singing at the same time, which amassed something like 80,000 views in 24 hours.


You said you wanted the band to be “sustainable” after this campaign. What is your relationship with the band now? Are you still working with them?

MK: We had lots of conversations in Cannes about what could be next. One of our hopes at the start of this project was that we were going to make this truly international. We were going to get all of the MEC network offices – New York, Melbourne, Paris, Shanghai – all working behind the same single project.

We had a bit of that, but physically – in terms of time – it wasn’t possible. But there is still an appetite for markets to do that. One possible iteration of this could be that we now hand over all the assets we created and say, “You go and have the same conversation with your local market and media owners to see if we can basically do the same project in Paris or in New York or in Melbourne.”

The band have got two label offers, right?

MK: One is from Universal and the other is from an independent. There is a third conversation going on as we speak. There’s no offer yet, but a third conversation with a major label, which I’m quite hopeful for. I think that could be a really exciting one.

You mention in the press release that you “don’t need a huge budget” to break a band. Can you say what the budget was that went into this?

MK: Really minimal. With every partner, it was a VIK [value in kind] partnership. The only cost really attached to it was bits of production and getting us to Cannes. Tiny. We approached every conversation from the perspective that we had no budget.

What have you learned from this that could apply to any up-and-coming band?

MK: The model of this was inspired by the work I do for the band I manage, The Daydream Club. So what we came to the conclusion a year ago is that every time they release an EP or single, they were spending about £5,000 – ranging from recording and production to artwork and video production as well as PR to radio plugging.

What we said was, “What do we get back from that? What is our return from all that investment?” Especially if you think about that PR and radio plugging piece, that is £2,000 right there and an unsigned band or an independent artist just doesn’t get much radio play.

The industry tells you, “To break a band you go and get radio play, you get press and you play live.” And all three of those things weren’t working for my band. So we were like, “Let’s try and reconfigure the model.” We started about a year ago, saying, “We’re not going to spend a penny on radio plugging and we’re not going to spend a penny on PR. We’re going to do it all ourselves and we’re going to focus purely on Spotify.” And that is what we have been doing ever since.

The impact of that was we got up to 1m plays totally organically. We spent £3-a-go on Facebook promoted posts, but not much more. We saved a huge amount of money so the band are now solvent – just by not spending all that money on PR and radio plugging.

When we hit 1m plays in total on Spotify we did a big PR mailing from a database we had created ourselves and got the attention of Spotify, who then started putting the band on playlists. And it spiralled from there. Now they are on over 10m [plays] in total, getting over 1m plays a month. Some of their playlists have 500k listeners. So it quickly jumps up when you get that base level of support.

VITAL STATISTICS (as of 12th July 2016)


Darren Hemmings, founder of Motive Unknown, outlines his doubts about the Broken Witt Rebels campaign:

“For me the biggest issue here is the claim that there is an alternative means to break a band, when in truth what happened here is that MEC secured a lot of free placement via partners. That’s great for this case study and BWR as a band, but I feel it is wrong to claim that any success here sets an example of any kind, purely because so much free inventory is involved and that inventory would cost a vast sum to anyone else.

Even things like a YouTube front-page placement feels like a misleading aspect here, because this would have been granted in the context of this being one big experiment. Had MEC pitched the band like any other, I feel the result would have been significantly different.

I also question whether all of this has led to lasting traction for the band. Their video [‘Guns’] may have been front-paged on YouTube, but I can see via VidIQ that it received 426k plays in the opening 24hrs of going live, but has since only received another 19k plays in the 30 days since then, which does not indicate huge momentum.

Over on Facebook, the band only has 10k fans and a current engagement level of just over 1k. It is growing at a rate of about 10 new fans per day, which again does not indicate that things are growing – particularly given all of the advertising and paid, albeit gratis, placement this has had.

As an exercise in driving visibility and demonstrating influence among key stakeholders – be it Metro, JCDecaux etc. – there’s no question MEC have done a fine job. I’m afraid I’m just not so convinced that the marketing has actually resulted in breaking the band themselves, sorry.”

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1 Comment

  1. I think you are totally missing the point Darren. The new approach is not the media it’s the focus on Spotify, and moving away from the costs associated with radio and pr plugging. The media is just a bonus, which we were able to leverage for free. The example of The Daydream Club, (the band I manage) is the proof point for the new model. Broken Witt Rebels now have a plan to move towards financial sustainability. It’s about time people questioned the logic of shelving out £1,000 to a radio plugger or £1,000 for PR expert to get no returns, and generate no momentum. Breaking a band is a PR headline, but we put them on path and allowed more people to hear their music. I’d love to know what number of Facebook fans constitutes success? I run a new music blog focused on unsigned bands and even 4,000 Likes (Which is were we started is a decent number) so to get to over 10,000 in 10 weeks is a big jump. Guns was also featured in the most viral tracks on Spotify, so to say the impact was limited to just YouTube is fundamentally failing to understand how music fans across platforms. It is also racked up 320,000 on Facebook. Most importantly more people discovered their music and the impact is still being felt. There is still a Tweet about the band every 4 minutes.

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