It was a fantastic piece of branding, and ahead of its time. When the Liebig Extract of Meat Company rebuilt an old power station on the Thames in 1928, it added the name of the company’s principal product—OXO Beef Stock Cubes—in huge, vertically stacked art deco lettering on the tower. Every night since, the 220-foot tower glows in red neon, boldly inserting the letters OXO into the London skyline.
This particular evening, as I meet Anthony Ganjou, founder of the out-of-home ad studio CURB Media, the tower says some-thing different. The O and the X are there, but they’re followed by a square and a triangle, rather than the final O. To promote the launch of PlayStation 4 in the United Kingdom, Sony’s agency Manning Gottleib OMD turned to CURB for something big, extraordinary and unique. So for two weeks, the button symbols from the PlayStation’s joypad are occupying the OXO Tower in brand colors: red, blue, purple and green.
As it gets dark and Ganjou gazes up at the shapes, shining brightly above the river, an excited grin spreads across his face. “Seeing it in the light doesn’t really do it justice,” he says. “In the dark, it’s insanely amazing, and it is something we’re very proud of. It’s lovely to do something that London can see and, I hope, be inspired by.”
Since it was founded in 2008, CURB has created numerous huge, outdoor spectacles, but Ganjou seems genuinely in awe of this one in particular. As he sips a beer in a café bar on Gabriel’s Wharf, just under the tower, he explains the creative, logistical and engineering challenges they faced.
A deal had to be struck with the OXO Tower’s owners, Coin Street Community Builders. To support the neon symbols, huge metal frames—strong and light—had to be welded to match the art deco windows they covered up. Electricity had to be wired, and the icons themselves crafted in tubular glass by sign maker Southern Neon. Finally, the frames had to be positioned by a rappelling team and then secured in place with expanding clamps. And it was all done within a timeframe that would make both creative directors and engineers gasp: sixteen days from scratch. “You know, I don’t think you’d find an engineering firm in the country that would take on a challenge like that,” says Ganjou, “but that’s what we did.”
The main reason he’s so proud, though, is that he’s a Londoner. At a time when so many of us are looking down at our phones and tablets, CURB has inspired people walking along the south bank of the Thames to look up at the PS4 symbols, snap pictures and post them online. From the London skyline, the work has spread to Facebook and Twitter, shared by thousands, if not millions, of people who felt moved by it. They aren’t all hardcore gamers, either. Many just liked the imagination behind the gesture.
“Are a lot of our campaigns focused specifically around measureable unit sales?” asks Ganjou rhetorically. “No, because a lot of the time what we do is part of a much wider media plan.” Instead, CURB measures its success by the thousands of pictures posted and the comments written beneath. “You’ll see the sentiment and the way doing something remarkable can truly affect how people feel about brands,” says Ganjou. “I think that’s the future of advertising.”
Ganjou’s background is in sales—he’s sold everything from teddy bears to toilet brushes, he says. The inspiration to found CURB came to him while he was sitting outside a pub and a bus drove past with an advertising banner on the side. The ad was for Innocent, a British smoothie company whose brand is based on environmental sustainability. “The brand was communicating an ‘all-natural’ message on what was effectively a dead tree on the side of a bus,” he explains. “That just struck me. From that moment, I started to think about how the medium can be aligned to the message.”
Ganjou started with the idea of sustainability. He researched the subject and found that while thousands of companies and agencies had come up with green products, and green messages to sell them, there wasn’t a single agency out there devoted specifically to doing green marketing using purely sustainable media.
“That moment of realization evolved into: ‘Why don’t we create a company that stands for the extraordinary and remarkable, where you could give us any message in the world and our job would be to deliver that in the most unique, amazing and, where relevant, sustainable way possible?’ From that point I started to build a collection of people with unique talents.”
Working on his own at first, Ganjou sought artists who used unusual and unlikely media. One of the first was Native American artist Jon Beartusk, who burns portraits onto pieces of wood using sunlight and a magnifying glass. The Montana-based artist helped launch the studio on a bet back in 2008: He promised a CURB-sponsored portrait to then-Senator Barack Obama, if he won the presidency. A historic moment for the United States became a coup for the fledging agency, whose logo now adorns Beartusk’s portrait of Obama, which hangs in the Oval Office.
With “the most powerful man on Earth as our founding client!” Ganjou launched CURB from a basement studio—a former bomb shelter—in West London. It was literally at curb level, which is how the agency got its name. Since then, CURB has moved to better quarters just off Oxford Circus and the team has grown to ten. With each project, they try to do something unique—creatively, technologically and in terms of scale. The idea, ultimately, is to evoke an emotional response, getting viewers to grab their smartphones, take pictures and post the work online.
In their early days, the team worked with an artist who painted using Guinness stout, and another who made mosaics with polished coins. For energy company NPower, CURB made pro-environment messages out of moss. Working with Sony Music in 2010, CURB laid out a 29,070-square-foot poster of Michael Jackson next to a runway at Heathrow Airport. The poster helped Jackson posthumously win his thirteenth Guinness World Record. CURB has worked with sand sculptors to promote Renault cars, and with artists who used cleaning products to scrub murals onto dirty walls for Procter & Gamble during the 2012 London Olympics.
For the 2012 Ryder Cup, CURB executed its biggest project to date, for the online betting outfit Paddy Power. The four-word brief came straight from Paddy Power’s Head of Mischief: “Disrupt the Ryder Cup.” So CURB enlisted a skywriting team of five planes, which flew over the golf course at the Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Illinois, printing tweets sent by fans to encourage the European team.
In dot-matrix lettering—each letter the height of the Empire State Building—the formation wrote messages like “Yes we can,” “Down but not out” and “Do it for Seve,” in reference to Spanish Ryder Cup hero Seve Ballasteros, who died of a brain tumor in 2011. According to Ganjou, when the European captain José María Olazábel saw “Do it for Seve” in the sky, he spilled his coffee, and tears rolled down his face. Across the golf course, fans and players reached for their smartphones, took pictures and posted them on the web, expanding the reach of the campaign, which also included ads in print and on TV, to 500 million people.
“That type of experience is what we live for,” says Ganjou. “That’s what we want to do. It’s something that transcends advertising. There’s a video of [Irish golfer] Rory McIlroy online when he sees the tweets. There’s something you can see in his eyes that is magic; it’s not advertising. You don’t ask your caddy to get your iPhone out of your golf bag just to photograph an advert.”
Projects don’t need to be massive to move people. CURB has made an impact stamping shapes into London snow banks with a special mold to promote Extreme, an extreme sports television channel. And the agency has used the other kind of mold too. In poster-sized petri dishes, CURB grew mold and bacteria to spell out the word “Contagion” in a shop window in Toronto to promote the Warner Bros. film Contagion. It was the ultimate viral campaign, covered across the North American entertainment press, and was, dollar for dollar, one of the most successful film promos of 2011.
More recently, CURB has explored new targeting technologies in its out-of-home ads. In 2012, it created the world’s first smart, gender-targeted bill-boards. Digital screens at London bus stops were equipped with facial-recognition scanners. When the ads detected female viewers, the screens showed a video by the charity Plan UK about creating more and better choices for girls in today’s society. Males were denied the opportunity to see the ad—a taste of gender discrimination in reverse. It started conversations wherever it appeared, but more importantly, it made the BBC news and Al Jazeera, spreading Plan UK’s message much farther. Today, CURB is working on another technology that will recognize the make and color of cars that pass by an electronic billboard, allowing auto manufacturers to target specific drivers.
For Ganjou, the future is all about innovation, and harnessing wild, out-of-home advertising ideas for global events. CURB is working on over 50 new technologies, he says—new ways of targeting audiences, adding interactivity, helping and encouraging people to share experiences. Meanwhile, he’s looking forward to the possibility of producing huge pieces for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and the Rio Olympics two years later. “I believe 2014 is going to see us doing some outrageously inspiring things—infusing technology with talent, art and science to create amazing moments for people on every continent.” ca