Close-Up: Live Issue - Virgin reaps rewards of live-to-air advertising

Despite the difficulties involved in creating live ads, Virgin's V Festival commercial brought huge response.

For hundreds of thousands of music lovers, British summer-time is now all about which festival you're going to visit.

For companies such as Virgin Mobile, which runs the V Festival, and Mean Fiddler, which now runs Glastonbury, it means a summer of money-making, product placement and advertising to huge captive audiences.

However, the appeal of the music festival has now extended far beyond the original hippie ideal of music and free love. The clientele is more varied, with all age ranges and demographics in attendance and lots of advertisements.

This extra interest was proved by this year's V Festival, which sold out within 48 hours. It was even rumoured that one pair of hospitality tickets was sold on eBay for £600.

In promoting the V Festival, held on 20 and 21 August in Chelmsford and Staffordshire, Virgin Mobile wanted an ad campaign that not only increased awareness of the company's branding of the festival, but also involved viewers and promoted the feel of the event.

"We basically gave Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R an open brief. But it had to be big, brash and unique," the Virgin Mobile brand director, James Kydd, says.

The creative team at RKCR/Y&R - the copywriter Nick Strada and the art director Greg Mitchell - worked closely with the client and the media strategist Goodstuff. After a few false starts, they hit on the idea of creating a series of live ads shot on-site the night before the gates opened, offering viewers a chance to win 40 VIP tickets.

There were three 90-second ads, one 70-second ad and one 20-second ad on Channel 4 between 8pm and midnight.

This was the first time a whole ad had been broadcast live, so RKCR/Y&R worked with the production company Blink, which specialises in live programming. "Some of the worries of filming live ads were allayed once we realised how good Blink is at live broadcasts," Kydd says. "Only some of them, though."

With any ad, there are thousands of possible problems that can disrupt the schedule of the shoot, but time is planned into the schedule to rectify these problems. With a live ad, the possible problems become very worrying.

"If there were any glitches, we wouldn't have time to fix them, which was worrying. Also, on a normal shoot you get weather insurance," Strada says. "We didn't get any of that, and the weather was awful."

There was also concern about how many new experiences the production team would encounter. First, the ads had to be broadcast with a ten-minute delay so the BACC could check they were suitable for screening.

The reduced time for editing, grading and dubbing meant the agency's editors had to use alien editing techniques in a live editing suite set up in a van next to the set, as well as write new script copy on the spot and produce overlay text before the shoot, then add it as soon as the ad was shot, instead of in an editing suite days after the event. Finally, the presenters, the Cuban Brothers, and the extras only had two practice takes to get the shot right.

"Even though we were working without a safety net, we were all confident we could overcome any of these difficulties," Strada says. "It was so important that we worked with the client, and Virgin allowed us to do that, so it ended up being a great ride for all of us.

"It was a great experience and being on-site was brilliant because of the excitement and urgency. The downside was having to be prepared for the unexpected."

With the ads scheduled for one evening only, it was imperative that viewers knew exactly when and where they would be shown to ensure maximum viewer participation. Virgin Mobile took out national press ads the week before the campaign and on the day of the shoot, notified tabloid gossip columns. To back this up, Goodstuff and RKCR/Y&R created a viral promoting the live commercial and a web-based game promoting the festival itself.

"All of this was good, but we wanted to create something that had a live feel to it and that would only be there for one day," Andrew Stevens, the Goodstuff partner, says. "So, on Friday afternoon, we decided to put Virgin Mobile-branded tents in the middle of four London roundabouts and create mini festival sites."

To be in with a chance of winning, viewers had to send texts to a number flashed up on-screen. Virgin Mobile decided the text would cost the standard rate for the viewer's network, and just 3p if they were Virgin Mobile customers.

By the time all 40 tickets had been won, the ad had generated more than 5,700 texts. Kydd said Virgin Mobile was not in it for the money, which is lucky because revenue would have been under £2,000. However, Stevens asserts: "This is phenomenal payback. For a normal direct-response TV commercial with the number repeated hundreds of times, you could expect around 850 responses. We received almost 15 times that."

Although he wouldn't go into figures, Kydd was impressed with the campaign's overall impact. "It was a lot more expensive on production costs and media costs than a normal ad, but it was cost-effective in the impact it made," he says.