LONDON — So you’re not Donatella Versace, Giorgio Armani or the Gap, but you still need to crank up buzz about your brand. Your audience is young, easily bored and craving cool, but your budget is limited. Freewheelin’ Media, the London-based youth marketing company, claims it has the answer.
This story first appeared in the November 15, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Since they founded Freewheelin’ in 1999, Jeff Boardman and Vikas Malik have staged a mock funeral procession in London’s financial district; started a radio station and a fanzine to mark a store opening, and hired a truck with their client’s name to “break down” in front of a trade show.
The two, who are both in their early 30s, treat every project, and especially their guerrilla marketing activities, as military, one-hit operations. In most cases, they are working on comparatively lean budgets. Freewheelin’s clients pay about 50 percent less than they would at a traditional agency, and their only rule is to avoid any criminal or civil damage. Clients include fashion brands, graffiti artists, online betting services, restaurants, skateboarding groups, rental car agencies and independent film companies. A one-off stunt-like funeral parade-costs between $40,000 and $48,000, not including materials.
“We’re always thinking, ‘If a brand were a person, what would appeal to them?’” said Boardman during an interview at the company’s Soho offices. “And when we advertise, we’d rather be social and happy rather than trendy and moody.”
When the folks from 55 DSL – Diesel’s edgy subbrand inspired by skate- and snowboarders — were planning to open their Soho store they turned to Freewheelin’ for help.
“Obviously, there is an intrinsic link between music and fashion, but there wasn’t a budget to bring in any of the big DJs. So we created a radio station within the store, and brought in big name and up-and-coming DJs to record sets there,” said Malik.
Dan Burton, marketing and communications manager for 55 DSL, said of Freewheelin’: “They’re good. They respect their clients, but they respect their clients’ consumers even more.”
The DJs are still live every Saturday and their sets are on the brand’s Web site, 55dslfm.co.uk, by the following Monday. Freewheelin’ also created a fanzine for the brand and designed its Web site. It helps, of course, that Malik is a former music promoter and Boardman is the former head of Ground Control, the guerrilla marketing division of the creative agency Cake.
While much of their work takes place outside the fashion industry, it’s all youth oriented. When another client, Betfair.com, an online spread-betting service, needed help, they came up with the funeral idea. The two staged a mock funeral for bookies — who were no longer needed, thanks to the Web site — in the streets of the city.
“We were looking for London’s high rollers — men between the ages of 25 and 45 who worked in finance, which is why we focused on the city. We started with the idea of the bookie being dead and came up with a big, elaborate New Orleans-like funeral with tombstones and coffins and jugglers and a brass band. We had a one-hour lunch to get our point across and we got all the subscriptions we had planned,” said Malik.
The parade was never stopped, nor were the two partners questioned about the street spectacle. “It’s true that England has quite draconian civil liberties laws, but at the same time English eccentricity is allowed and tolerated,” he said with a laugh.
The duo’s approach to branding —whether it be fashion, online betting or rental cars — is that it pays to go deeper rather than wider. “The problem today is that so many brands are running after new markets that they have no association with, and they decide to use graffiti, music or art to sell their message when it doesn’t necessarily make sense. You always have to stick to your core market base,” said Malik, pointing to a local stencil campaign for the lingerie maker Gossard. “Yes, stenciling is trendy, but is it correct for that brand?”
Freewheelin’ is a small business with a staff of five and an annual turnover of less than $1 million. Its competitors are usually small companies within the bigger ad agencies — in the U.K., Cake and Exposure — or the brands themselves. Levi’s, for example, is a big fan of guerrilla marketing. It recently did a guerrilla promotion for Engineered jeans in Germany, sending actors around in a police car “arresting” badly dressed people. “We prefer to think of ourselves as lean, not small,” said Malik, immodestly. “This business is about having a lot of balls — and brains — and we have plenty of both.”