From billboard to gigantic interactive visitors' book

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As a digital creative, it's hard not to look at digital outdoor and - nine times out of ten - not see a missed opportunity.

But then my UX-head kicks in, and the truth is: it's rare for the opportunity to do something rich and interactive in this context to be a genuine one - who really has the time to spare when they're already busy going from A to B? 

Every once in a while, however, a brief comes your way that let's you legitimately throw everything at it but the kitchen sink...

 
 

Campaign showreel

 
 

If you watched that campaign reel, you'll get the pith of the gist of what we did. But if you want to know how we did it, or why, read on...

McDonald's had been a fixture on London's iconic "Piccadilly Lights" for decades. But with the screens due for a radical overhaul a few years later, and the cost of the associated media buy rising to levels that made even McDonald's eyes water, their time was coming to an end. So in late 2012, they approached Leo Burnett with a brilliant, if bitter-sweet, brief: how do we go out with a bang?

Leo's has long positioned the McDonald's brand as "the people's restaurant" - the world's most open and democratic restaurant chain - and treated their screen at Piccadilly Circus as an opportunity for pure brand-building whimsy - as a gift, if you like, to the people of London. This time around, we couldn't think of a better way to express the essence of the brand than to open it up to the people. But how? We started by sitting in the shadow of Eros* and watching the world go by...

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Piccadilly Circus is many things: it's one of the most instantly recognisable spots in London - it's a proof-point for visitors from all over the world to say "I was there" - it's a meeting place for locals and tourists alike - it's open 24/7/365, through rain and shine - and it's a place where everyone is welcome, no matter who you are or where you come from. 

It's a little world in microcosm (just like a McDonald's, in fact). 

We started to think of the McDonald's screen as a kind of magic mirror on that world. We wondered: what if we reflected that world in real-time, in all its multi-cultural glory? What if we could make the experience varied enough to always give you a reason to look up? And what if you could leave a little trace of yourself when you leave?

Introducing...

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Right upfront, we set ourselves four challenges that kept us honest throughout the process of creative development and production.

Firstly, we knew that if we wanted to let people leave a trace of themselves in real-time, 24/7/365, we would need to deliver an experience that worked without moderation (there being, IMHO, no automated moderation system that can withstand the ingenuity of a 15-year old boy with time on his hands, and mischief on his mind). UGC on the big screen at Piccadilly Circus was simply not going to fly...

So we worked with legendary (and very lovely) illustrator Stanley Chow to create a range of assets that could be mixed and remixed into millions of unique combinations, inviting those people just passing by to create an avatar of themselves and add them to the living, breathing world of Little Piccadilly.

The world itself reacted in real-time to the environment right there on the ground in Piccadilly Circus, reflecting temporal and seasonal changes, real world events - and, of course, the ever-reliable London weather (I will say now that, in the right light conditions, the dynamically-rendered sunset in Little Piccadilly was genuinely a thing of deep beauty, and my one regret from the project is not capturing it in timelapse...)
 

The second challenge we set ourselves was to create an experience that worked regardless of how many people were interacting with the screen. If someone was taking the time and trouble to engage with us, we wanted to get their Little Londoner up on the screen as quickly as possible. Not that we were naive enough to imagine a stampede onto the steps around Eros* on launch day - but the last thing we wanted was a backlog of avatars whose creator is long gone by the time they pop up onto the screen...

*Pop fact! Did you know..? that the statue at the centre of Piccadilly Circus is actually Eros' brother, Anteros: God of requited love, avenger of unrequited love, and all that jazz. 

So we created a range of character animations and a simple logic flow that could keep the on-screen action varied and exciting, and the audience engaged, whether there were no active users at all, or an entire class of smartphone-addicted schoolchildren. 

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(Hey kids! Flowcharts can be fun!) 

Part and parcel of keeping the active audience engaged was of course keeping the user journey as lean as possible - and hiding from them as much of the behind-the-scenes mess as possible (I'll save the systems integration story for another time). We delivered the experience via a mobile-friendly website, to avoid complex app store-based interactions and downloads; and gave careful consideration to the context in which the user was visiting the site, in order to keep the messaging as pointed and relevant as possible at every stage. Critically, we ensured that the user's attention was clearly managed between the big screen and their mobile device (and back again) - so that they knew just where to look, and when. 

(Flowcharts... fuck yeah! I'm not even joking...)

The third challenge we set ourselves was to deliver the end-to-end experience as visually as possible. Given the open, democratic nature of the McDonald's brand - not to mention the high volume of non-native English speakers amongst the intended audience - we needed to land both the idea and the desired interaction with as little text or voiceover as possible. We wanted Little Piccadilly to be accessible and easy-to-use for everyone from eight to eighty, from Birmingham to Bogota (and beyond). 

Dwell time on the site was anywhere between 60 seconds and 6 minutes (depending on how deep the user wanted their customisation to go). But with a completion rate of 73% for those in situ in Piccadilly Circus, we were happy that we got the balance right between personalisation and ease-of-use. 

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Surprise-and-delight was a key ingredient to the overall experience. By evolving and expanding the artwork and animations on a quarterly basis, we kept the experience feeling fresh, even for those passing through Piccadilly Circus on a regular basis. But sometimes the best tricks are the simplest ones - by skimming the language settings on the user's device, we ensured that each Little Londoner greeted their creator in their native tongue. I frequently witnessed this little moment of "how did they know?"-ness putting the widest of smiles on its owner's face. 

And finally, given that Piccadilly Circus is such a proof-point for tourists that they've been to London, naturally we gave people the opportunity to share a virtual postcard of their trip to Little Piccadilly (and Piccadilly Circus) with friends and family back home. 

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The fourth and final challenge we set ourselves was to deliver something that communicated the idea even to those people who were just passing by. On average, over 2,000 Little Londoners were created each week for the 2 years that the experience ran - a figure that we were more than happy with. But clearly, this is a drop in the ocean when put up against the hundreds of thousands of people that pass through Piccadilly Circus every day. What they saw was a mirror on the real world, populated by a broad cross-section of society. Every character that appeared on the screen by default was one created by real people, to represent themselves, from all over the world - and every one of them was representative of McDonald's global constituency. And even the notion that anybody, even if just for a moment, could take control over one of the most iconic and highly visible screens in the world powerfully evoked the open, democratic values that lie at the heart of the McDonald's brand. 

Little Piccadilly was shortlisted for industry awards all over the world (and - cough - I am in no way bitter that it routinely lost out to British Airway's #lookup awards-bait campaign), was covered in numerous in-flight magazines and industry rags, from AdWeek to Contagious - and it was named one of Campaign magazine's Top 10 Digital Innovations for 2014. 

That'll do, Pig.