Xfm: shake, rattle and roll
Take one cutting-edge radio station. Mix in some of the brightest brains in adland. Whistle up a few babies. Meg Carter on the recipe behind the launch that's about to hit Manchester
Monday 27 March 2006
he "Liam" character pauses to take a swig from his baby cup before turning towards the camera with a scowl. "Noel" starts to scratch his head - his hair piece is giving him a spot of gyp - before throwing the wig on to the floor. The photographer sighs. It's been a long morning. He's done one shoot already - with "Pete Doherty", although for once the Babyshambles front man was as sweet as pie. "Franz Ferdinand", however, have just entered the building and they're clamouring for milk.
Shooting an advertising campaign featuring 15 one-year-olds all disguised as rock stars was never going to be easy. But then the last thing Manchester's newest music radio station, Xfm, wanted was something run of the mill.
"We're featuring some of Manchester's musical heroes in a way that will appeal to the many people who don't think of themselves as alternative music types but still love Arctic Monkeys, without alienating hardcore music fans," Mark Waites, creative director of advertising agency Mother, explains as he slumps on to a sofa in the north London studio where the Xfm shoot is under way. "There's a lot of information to get across: the fact there's a new radio station for Manchester, its name, logo, frequency, and what music it's going to play. We wanted a striking way to demonstrate visually the campaign strapline - 'A new music station is born' - with a bit of humour. Dressing babies up as pop stars just made sense."
Perhaps. But it's been anything but straightforward. For a start, there was the thorny issue of just which performers to feature in the six poster ads which go up across Manchester from today - a topic that provoked heated debate.
"Xfm has never been niche," declares Xfm marketing director Richard Mintz, deftly side-stepping baby Joel, aka Liam Gallagher, who's still sporting a mini-parka and pencilled-on monobrow as he takes a five-minute break from shooting. "Words like 'alternative' or 'independent' just don't capture the hugeness of Arctic Monkeys - a band which is totally Xfm. So it was essential this launch campaign underlined the station's broad appeal."
Nine years ago when Xfm first launched in London, its blend of indie rock was a bit left field. In the intervening years Xfm's coverage has grown. A regional analogue licence in Scotland gives it a potential audience north of the border of four million, while it's now almost nationally available on digital radio. The popularity of its featured artists has also soared, as the success of Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Chiefs have shown.
So artists featured in Xfm Manchester's launch campaign had to be instantly recognisable, with a number directly reflecting the city's vibrant music scene. It was not an easy selection to make: many were inappropriate; others weren't recognisable enough.
"It's one thing to do Elton John, but you wouldn't want to do Bernie Taupin (Elton's lyricist)," Waites elaborates. "We were looking for easily identifiable acts without that heritage feel - which is why U2 and Green Day just failed to make the grade. Stick a kid in a parka with one eyebrow and two fingers up, though, and you've got Liam Gallagher. Others, like Franz Ferdinand, were an obvious choice. Pulling it off is as much about finding the right wardrobe as it is about lookalikes. And hair - most bands seem to share the same haircut nowadays."
After lengthy deliberation, the final line-up was agreed. Pete Doherty would headline with Franz Ferdinand, The Magic Numbers, The White Stripes, Oasis, Shaun Ryder and Bez from Happy Mondays. The next challenge was casting.
"If you ask 'Are there any young children out there who look like a pop star?' and you'll find people queuing round the block," says Mother copywriter Rob Potts who, with his creative partner, art director Andy Jex, dreamt up the campaign. To make the process easier, a selection of babies was shortlisted from a number of different casting agencies. These were then invited to attend a casting and the pair made their final choices the same day.
"With Doherty we went for looks - he's pretty baby-faced anyway, and from the first instant I saw the baby we chose I knew he was the one. He was also far better behaved than the real thing," Potts says. "With the Gallaghers, though, it was all about attitude, while the baby who plays Bez had a really natural 'what day of the week is it?' look in his eye."
Accessories were critical as these would offer the only clues to each poster's subject along with the campaign strapline, station logo and frequency. "With Doherty, we've gone with the look he sported at last year's Live8 concert - black cap and matching jacket, with red braces. White Stripes have a highly distinctive wardrobe, which helps, and the Gallaghers were pretty straightforward, too," Mintz adds.
"For the others, like The Magic Numbers, it's a lot down to hair - although there's only so much you can do with cut-down wigs and stick-on moustaches. The last thing we want to do is cause tears or, worse, a rash. But we can fill in any outstanding details in post-production."
Behind him, the photographer's assistant is once more rattling her keys in front of one year-old Quinn, aka Noel, as she tries to get him to look straight into camera. He's been a bit frisky since the earlier wig-throwing incident and his mother, Sam, looks anxious. "When we came to the casting he kept his wig on beautifully. I think he's a bit distracted by the lights," she laments. The results, however, look encouraging.
"Most kids are embarrassed when their mum gets the baby pictures out," says Adele, whose son Jonny stole the show with his impression of Pete Doherty. "Jonny will be showing these off when he's a teenager. He'll think they look really cool." Xfm hopes Manchester will agree.
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