Close-Up: Newsjacking - the art of riding the trending wave

Grant Hunter and Jon Burkhart's Urgent Genius Weekender showed the value of real-time ads in the era of social media.

Topical ads aren't new. But transforming a hot-topic news story into a website that results in a million hits/Tweets/Facebook updates in a day? That's new.

"Urgent Genius" describes this trend, where individuals and agencies respond to trending topics within hours and watch their work spread rapidly if it's fast and clever (or urgent and genius, if you will). By piggybacking on "what's hot", you can amplify your (or your clients') message and help stand out from the media clutter.

At Iris, we've been tracking this "newsjacking" trend for the past nine months on our Urgent Genius blog. There have been notable branded and unbranded examples from around the globe. Synergy, the US gym, invited people to stomp on Mel Gibson's face on their treadmills. Crispin Porter & Bogusky hired a homeless man, Ted "Golden Voice" Williams, to voiceover their Kraft ads. KK Outlet made commemorative crockery for the royal wedding. And a few guys in our London office recut a version of the Robert Green disaster at the World Cup and changed history - to the delight of 800,000 presumably English YouTube viewers.

After studying the trend, we decided to test the concept properly and, on Friday 18 February, we challenged teams to compete in an Urgent Genius Weekender.

The idea

The competition gave teams 48 hours to develop a concept and create topical social ideas with the aim of earning as many views, likes etc between 7pm on the Friday and 7pm on the Sunday. One hundred and fifty teams from around the globe signed up. London competitors included Fallon, Albion, Tag, Profero, Big Balls Films, Salt Pictures and Iris. Global participants included BBDO Singapore, Ogilvy Sydney, Saatchi & Saatchi Cape Town, Miami Ad School, Iris Singapore and Sydney and two New Yorker cartoonists, to name a few.

Our judges included Luke Sullivan, GSD&M's author of the how-to ad manual Hey Whipple, Squeeze This; Gemma Butler, a former creative director of Agency Republic; Gavin Gordon-Rogers, Wieden & Kennedy's interactive creative director; Guy Roberts of Droga5 Auckland; David Brown, the digital director of Iris Worldwide APAC; Ben Akers, the creative director at George Patterson Y&R Sydney; BBC Comedy's Will Saunders; and Dave Bedwood, a creative partner at Lean Mean Fighting Machine.

As a guide for the participants and the judges, we said that we would evaluate the responses in the following way: Is it urgent? How quick did you get it out there? Did it catch fire instantly or was it a slow burner? And is it genius? How strong is the idea? The craft? Is it entertaining or useful? Can you participate? Does it give the user something of real value?

We knew that seeding would be crucial so took into account the size of each team's network and helped them with seeding tips as well as promoting the content ourselves.

The winners

Radiohead Late on Friday night, Radiohead's Thom Yorke's weird dancing in the new Lotus Flower video took the trends list by storm. Many teams responded to it within hours, with various other mash-ups being released over the following two days. "Thom whips his hair", which mixed the dancing with Willow Smith's latest hit, was among the quickest responses. The video, by the Miami Ad School students Kaely Coon and Alexis Mercado, topped lists at, and Even Perez Hilton said he liked it. At the time of writing, it now has more than 75,000 views.

One of the other things we found worked well was to fit two trending topics into an execution. As a result, one of the cleverest spots was Modea's "Thom Yorke says never", which sees Justin Bieber getting shot by Yorke. Bieber had guest-starred on CSI on Thursday so footage of his character being shot was starting to circulate at the time, anyway. That quickly made it to 5,000 views and reaped hundreds of positive comments.

Dead Island Another trending topic that weekend was the trailer for the zombie game Dead Island, which became the most-shared video game trailer in recent memory. Teams produced gaming gloves on eBay, postcards from Dead Island, various other video mash-ups and Zombie Tumblrs. The "Shaun of the Dead Island" spot by Dan Bull, which took the angle "What if the Dead Island movie was made by the Shaun Of The Dead guys?", ended up on the actual game publisher's blog, an amazing endorsement. Simon Pegg Tweeted that it is "the greatest trailer ever" and Edgar Wright, the film's director, also wrote a piece on his blog.

Dan used a combination of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube along with a more traditional approach. Besides social media, he also contacted individual journalists directly to get more news coverage. It has garnered press coverage from Metro, The Escapist and Game Rant and has more than 100,000 views at the time of writing.

Politics Not for the first time, Silvio Berlusconi was also in the headlines that weekend, as the date of his trial was announced. The Urgent Genius response was Salt Pictures' "Bunga or bust", which mashes him up with Hot or Not. It has already had interest from a content company that wants to pay for it. We also had, which allows you to chuck a few thousand euros - Space Invaders-style - at scantily clad women.

Meanwhile, in response to the political unrest spreading across the Middle East and North Africa, Albion's allowed you to upload a message on a placard and join the virtual protest.

What we learned

A few people have asked us: "What was the point?" Well, it was the first of many Urgent Genius experiments. There were failures and successes. Developers went AWOL and were feared dead. But in the end, it got teams out making stuff for the love of it.

On a more serious note, it questioned the structures and processes of both client organisations and creative agencies. Why is it that many agencies are still structured in exactly the same way as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? The traditional ad agency creative department as we know it is dead. The agency of today, and the one fit for the future, has to embrace proactivity. The old internal approval and production processes have to be parked - they're too slow. There should be a new "Go until I say stop" client approval process if you want to harness the power of real-time marketing.

We need hybrid thinkers who are multi-skilled. They do as well as think. From programming to editing to directing, the creatives of today need wider and deeper skills. They need to adopt a new mindset. Hybrid thinkers have a motto: "Do it now. Ask forgiveness. It's easier than permission."

Too often in our day-to-day lives, we get caught up in the red tape of global organisations. The Urgent Genius Weekender freed our creativity and encouraged us to take the plunge. Thank you to everyone who took part. Your enthusiasm and output was inspiring. We look forward to seeing how the lessons from the weekend get taken into the realities of client work. And long live Urgent Genius.

Grant Hunter is the regional creative director and Jon Burkhart is the social media creative director of Iris Worldwide.