New York Citi Bikes: Agency Interview with Thomas Cashin, Publicis Kaplan Thaler

Thomas Cashin, SVP, Group Account Director, Publicis Kaplan Thaler, talks to IPA Effectiveness editor Carlos Grande.

Q1. When and why did you decide to launch a campaign?
There is an important context to understand as it relates to the timing, rationale and potential risks associated with the commitment from Citi to sponsor a bike share program in NYC.

Citibank is a global bank, but it has its roots here in NYC. It was founded here over 200 years ago and while history has taken Citi around the world, its spiritual and financial headquarters has always been, and remains New York City.

In the aftermath of the global financial meltdown the press singled out Citi as the poster child for banks "too big to fail".

And Citi’s problems were worst here in NY. Brand health had plummeted and competitors were aggressively expanding their footprints in the city.

For Citi it became a time of existential threat in its #1 market and hometown. Citi had to win back the hearts and minds of the people of New York.

This point in Citi’s history coincided with mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vision of bringing a Bike Share program to NYC. Mayor Bloomberg was intent on doing so without funding it with tax-payer money and needed a corporate sponsor to help make it happen.

Citi bought into the sponsorship, then gave us the brief to bring it to life.

Q2.  How did you feel about the original brief?
When Citi and NYC closed the deal on the sponsorship, two things happened in quick succession – we were briefed, and the mayor had a press conference announcing that bike sharing, sponsored by Citibank, was on its way to NY.

As New Yorkers ourselves, we realized that the introduction of the bike share program had to be done with extreme care and sensitivity toward New Yorkers’ willingness to accept hundreds of branded bike stations and thousands of branded bikes infiltrating their beloved neighbourhoods. The risk of rejection by the people was very high.

With the buzz generated by the mayor’s announcement, we had the unique opportunity of watching in real-time how the press and public reacted. We learned quickly that there would be a right way and wrong way to launch this program.

Those insights shaped our approach.

Q3. How hard was it to get the campaign green lit?
Green-lighting was not the challenge – this was going to happen – and the world knew it. But we had to get the approach right. Everything about this program, its personality, look, feel, tone, etc., had to endear itself to the people of New York, right out of the gate.

The public’s initial reaction to its presence was going to be critical. It needed to be accepted as native to NY.

That meant not behaving like a bank. We had to create an identity for the program that was independent from that of the bank and develop a comms platform that spoke to New Yorkers as a local.

This became a passion project for everyone at the agency who got to work on it.

The designers were incredibly thoughtful in their approach to all aspects of the branding, the writers drilled down to cross-streets of the station locations and wrote hundreds of lines that spoke directly to residents of that neighbourhood, and our tech team made the mobile app as user friendly as possible.

Q4. When and how did you first know that you had been successful?
Truth be told, things got scarier the closer we got to official launch. There were no guarantees of success, and we did not know how people would react once the bikes were on the streets.

The first real affirmation we got on our approach to the advertising was from tweets about stations installed in Brooklyn in the weeks prior to the official roll out of the bikes.

People were commenting on how the lines spoke directly to the neighbourhood. They appreciated the tone and recognized that the humour was smart and insightful. That gave us all an initial sigh of relief.

Then things started happening that we did not anticipate. The media was overwhelmingly positive. Selfies of people on bikes were circulating, celebrity sightings on bikes starting popping up – and then we made the cover of the New Yorker magazine – a coveted placement that you cannot buy, and one that cemented our acceptance as native to New York.

Q5. What was the biggest challenge in demonstrating the effectiveness of your work?
All of the above told us that we had been accepted by the people of New York. And that was great. But the Bank also needed results from its investment. Within thirteen weeks from launch – Citi’s brand health had increased by 25%, brand consideration by 41%.

Bank account openings saw a +7.1% increase in NY over the rest of the country and new credit card acquisitions were up 10.4% in NY.

Q6. What lessons did this campaign teach you?
You can’t force a sponsorship as large as this one onto a population that doesn't want it. Citi Bike changed the face of the streets of New York City – and that was a change that the people of New York had not necessarily asked for. As a brand we had to respect that.

At every turn and touch point there was the temptation to make this about Citi – to claim credit, or plug a product. But we couldn't do that – this was about bikes, this was about the people of New York. Citi, for a short while just had to get out of the way and let people enjoy the bikes.

Q7. What were the low points/high points of this campaign?
The lowest point was when Hurricane Sandy wiped out the entire bike fleet and station hardware. It was all staged in a warehouse at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in preparation for an autumn rollout. Everything was submerged in six feet of saltwater for weeks.

It destroyed everything and delayed the launch by eight months. The highlight was seeing the overwhelmingly positive public reaction once the program launched.

This wasn't just an ad campaign – it was an activation that immediately integrated into and impacted people’s daily lives. It was cool to be a part of that.

Q8. What would you do differently if you did this campaign over again?
Not a whole lot.

Carlos Grande ( is the effectiveness editor of the IPA, formerly of the Financial Times and Warc

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