On an Arctic roll

Ad-funded programmes could be the way ahead for cash-strapped TV channels, and Cake Media is leading the pack - to the ends of the earth
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There are enough reasons not to stage a multimedia event at minus 30 degrees that you can keep yourself warm just by writing them down. Phones barely function; ink freezes and lenses ice over. In the early Arctic winter even verbal communication is stifled by the need to keep one's face covered at all times. You cannot tell what anyone is saying, and everybody looks the same.

Such an unlikely adventure in the field of what is known as brand entertainment are the speciality of UK creative consultancy Cake Media, whose staff not only conceived this event - an open-air concert above the Arctic Circle - and transported and clothed everyone in attendance (including a party from Uruguay), but also patrolled it in high visibility vests, ensuring no one wandered off and died.

Having devised the polar gig scheme for Lynx, Cake then set about making it a reality. It ran worldwide competitions on the product, the internet and magazines, asked the production company Done and Dusted to record the event and approached Channel 4 about broadcasting it. With music stars The Thrills, Faithless and Shaznay Lewis playing live in the Arctic as the centrepiece, Cake brought the whole shebang together and provided a winning event for customers, client and broadcaster alike.

It is the kind of highly original and bespoke service that has attracted names such as Orange, Reebok, Nintendo and Evian to an agency that enjoys a reputation for pursuing clients' interests to the ends of the earth.

The scope of such activities far exceeds what was once known as a PR stunt. Weather permitting, events in the Arctic will yield a one-hour, discreetly branded programme on Channel 4's youth strand T4 that satisfies the needs of both broadcaster and brand, but which could not have existed without their collaboration. Such ad-funded programmes (or AFPs) potentially offer clients access to a kind of brand Nirvana that, say its believers, conventional advertising cannot reach.

It was while Mike Mathieson, Cake's founder, was working as a record plugger in the mid-1990s that he first saw the potential for better relations between commerce and media.

"At that time there were lots of brands who wanted to reach new audiences, including the elusive youth audience, by getting involved with music festivals. But they wanted to do it differently, and make a lasting impression. And that's when my ears pricked up. I thought I want to do that."

As partners Mathieson enlisted Ben Jones from Trinity St, where he was famous for doing projections on the House of Commons, painting a street pink for Barbie's 60th anniversary and clothing the Cerne Abbas giant in a pair of jeans. Mathieson also hired Mark Whelan, who came from the account side of advertising but was highly creative and very strategic.

They launched Cake in 1999, feeling very much like misfits, with a proposition called brand entertainment and with people asking what it all meant. Within three months the agency made its name by announcing the arrival in the UK of the Japanese animation phenomenon Pokemon via a convoy of giant lorries emerging from a ship at Dover. "Of course the lorries were empty," says Mathieson, "and that was then known as guerrilla marketing." Five years on, Cake is the leading provider of AFPs and branded entertainment in the country. In the past 12 months it has brought the Orange Playlist, Carling's New Kings of Rock'n'Roll and Virgin's V Festival to television. More than £5.5m of investment has come from brands to the music industry via the agency.

The budget for Lynx's Arctic excursion alone runs into seven figures. Mathieson sees Cake's role as above and beyond conventional sponsorship, or badging, where the client is "just along for the ride, and no one cares about the sponsor". He adds: "Our job is to conceive ways in which the brand can be as entertaining as the entertainment itself."

Back in the snow, or, more precisely, in a tent, huddled over an open fire Neil McCallum, commissioning editor for youth and music at Channel 4, is clear about the broadcasting benefits of a well-made AFP.

"If I had an unlimited budget, this would be the kind of programme I would love to make. But the costs are so high, in relation to what the return is, that it would never get made." But with a client to underwrite the expense of transporting a ready-made music festival complete with audience to the Arctic Circle, the figures start to make sense. McCallum even thinks that the kind of stealth branding that adorns today's proceedings is of more use to clients than traditional sponsorship techniques. He says, "Our audience is so cynical that if they saw a logo appearing on the presenter's chest, then they would see right through that straightaway."

With the concert successfully filmed - albeit with one member of Faithless requiring 20 minutes of after-show massage to restore the feeling in his hands - Margaret Jobling, brand director for Lynx, can reflect on a job well done. For one thing, no one has frozen to death, despite an ill-advised and extremely brief display of public nudity from one section of the crowd.

It is hard to imagine a less sympathetic climate for good PR anywhere in late November than Swedish Lapland. Abandon dreams of Santa's grotto; this is more like Touching the Void. Yet where normally there is solitude and snow, for one 24-hour period the northern wastes are host to more than 100 competition winners, a fistful of executives from the cosmetics industry, three pop groups, numerous broadcast technicians and the world's media. And all this in the name of personal hygiene. "I think it is the best thing we've ever done," says Jobling, "and obviously the most resource intensive."

They had singled out Cake because, she says, "They're incredibly creative. We wanted to do things a bit differently and they were well known for that. We were impressed by their level of thinking and how they operated. We've had media tie-ins before but this is the best."

While Cake may be able to deliver spectacular results in unlikely places, how can it value to the client be quantified? "It's really difficult," says Jobling. "A lot of it is intuitive. It's very difficult to put a media value on the core programme. But we know it works. We've been doing this long enough."

"The future," says Mathieson, "is all about putting brand entertainment on the map. We've been seen as a poor relation of the advertising industry for too long, but what we do is incredibly strategic, well thought out and planned. We think about audience and measurements and valuations and in an age of celebrity and entertainment; all of this is becoming more important all the time."

When you put it like that, putting on gigs where nobody lives seems sensible after all.