Trying to land “Magic of flying” felt like landing a 747 when you’ve never flown a plane before. There were so many elements that had to come off at the same time: keep the speed steady, the nose up, the wing flaps down and not overshoot the runway. The first officer, co-pilot, navigator and head of cabin crew were all equally inexperienced. But what we did have in buckets was determination, ingenuity, bravery and a love of adventure.
Inspired by his little daughter pointing up at planes flying overhead, our creative technologist Jon Andrews had an embryonic idea about a child on a digital out-of-home billboard pointing to British Airways planes flying overhead. A rough scamp had been sitting on his desk for a while and one day he popped into our office to see what we thought of it. Was it any good? Was it worth pushing? It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when you see what could be a gamechanger. Exhilaration for sure but also mild panic because you know that you’ve got to make it happen, no matter what.
For “Magic of flying” to have any hope of becoming a reality, we knew that we would have to make a proof of concept first to convince BA that it could be done. My top tip for getting brave ideas off the ground is to keep your team as small and as close as possible. Not everyone has the strength of conviction that you do, especially when the idea involves emerging tech. So, we assembled a core squad of ninjas who were prepared to take the leap of faith. New ideas also sometimes require new skillsets. Some of the team, like our digital producer Julie Cosain, needed to learn about TV production so the wonderful Kim Parrett stepped in and gave her a masterclass.
Jon and partner Lorenzo Spadoni set about figuring out how to actually make it all work. They built a virtual trigger zone in the sky using ADS-B antennas on the roofs of tall buildings within the flight path that would read each aircraft’s transponder when it entered the geofenced area. This was then sent to a PC with a custom-built app that could recognise a BA plane among all the incoming flights and cross reference it with the Heathrow air traffic control flight data to determine the destination. At the same time, a meteorological data feed told us whether the cloud height allowed the plane to be clearly seen from the ground and, if it could, a server sent all the information to the digital billboards. All of which happened within 0.2 seconds. Putting the back end together was a mixture of tech prowess and sheer physical legwork, some of it hilariously low tech. I remember a bunch of us crammed into an Addison Lee, driving up and down the M4 trying to assess the angle of the incoming planes. The bemused driver couldn’t work out why we kept asking him to drive up and down the same stretch of motorway again and again but when we showed him a rough sketch of our idea, he was delighted to be part of the “make it happen” gang.
Because Jon’s original inspiration had come from watching his little daughter point at planes in the sky, we wanted to capture that same emotion and charm. That meant filming a child running along and pointing at the airplanes, just like Jon’s daughter. But how do you fund a film shoot with a proper ace director when there’s no budget and you can’t tell anyone what you’re up to? I’d been given a budget for crafting work and making awards case films so I decided to risk the entire lot, hiring ace director Patricia Murphy to shoot a range of cute kids for us. It was a massive gamble. If the idea didn’t come off (and there were many reasons to believe it wouldn’t), then I’d probably get fired.
That wasn’t the only thing keeping us awake at night. We had to solve a big media problem. Digital OOH was bought in the same way as old-fashioned static posters, in hugely expensive weekly and monthly blocks. Yet we wanted to use them in a dynamic way, for the few moments when our BA planes were flying overhead. Cue visionary media man Darren McKay who had just set up Storm, an innovation arm of Clear Channel. Darren came up with a new concept in DOOH media buying for us called “interruptive media”. It was a kind of “time share” with another advertiser who would let our content “interrupt” theirs for an agreed percentage of time every week. This symbiotic partnership meant that we could afford to use a range of landmark sites in the flightpath while they benefitted from a reduced media cost and extra eyeballs.
Lastly, we knew BA wasn’t in the business of buying work if it didn’t put bums on plane seats so we made the idea capable of dynamically displaying the real-time price of the flight if it was better value than the competitions (another data feed and algorithm) or the flight frequency if it wasn’t. And then disaster struck. A few weeks before we were due to present the work to the clients, BA called a pitch. As the incumbent, we were in a race against time. Darren’s DOOH sites had been earmarked for later in the year – way after the pitch date. While he set about negotiating madly for earlier slots, we called in the help of the Ogilvy big guns, Annette King and Jo Coombs, whose relationship with BA was to prove invaluable in getting a very risky idea sold to our risk-averse clients in a hurry.
Abi Comber, the BA head of marketing, and her team loved the idea. Naturally, they were nervous about “doing a first” in such a public way, but they trusted us and put up the money to run it. A mad scramble ensued to get everything in place and, on 11 November, we went live. Watching the feed from one of our cameras trained on the Piccadilly screen, we all fell silent as the BA New York flight came into view. The huge digital screen sprang into life and our little boy leapt to his feet and ran along, pointing perfectly at the aircraft overhead while the headline called out the correct destination. Hallelujah! We started streaming the feed on social media and minutes later comments and reposts under our hashtag #lookup came flooding in. We were trying to count them but we couldn’t keep up as the image of our little boy proliferated across platforms and channels across the UK, then around the globe. Our little boy at Piccadilly and our little girl on the M4 sites pointed at hundreds of BA flights over several weeks and during that time we didn’t see any negative social sentiment at all.
It was hugely flattering that the industry gave “Magic of flying” so many awards, from the Grand Prix at Cannes and the Grand Prix at Campaign Big to D&AD yellow Pencils and One Show Pencils. But what was even more amazing was that it won across so many different categories including OOH, technology, media, direct, UX and more. It seemed the work had connected with everyone on an emotional level, largely because Jon and Lorenzo had made the tech invisible. The work is still being re-posted all these years later. That really is magic.