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The most brilliant outdoor campaign ever

August 18th, 2008 · 76 Comments · Copywriting, Innovation & Creativity, Marketing, Media

The rules for outdoor advertising are very simple.

  • Never use more than 7 words
  • Always use an attention getting visual
  • Include the company logo
  • Leave the boards up for a minimum of 30 days to achieve frequency goals
  • Buy several locations to increase reach

The most brilliant outdoor campaign broke every one of these rules.  Every single one.  I use this campaign as an example in many of my presentations and wanted to share it with you too.

Let me tell you the story. 

This campaign broke in 1989 in Buffalo, New York.  There was (and still is – my mistake, I found it on the web’s yellow pages and assumed it was current) an Irish Pub called Garcia’s in downtown Buffalo that needed to drive not only name awareness but traffic.  Their agency, Crowley Webb, devised this campaign, which not only won them a National Obie (Oscars for outdoor boards) but made Garcia’s a household name in Buffalo.  The campaign also showed up in the New York Times, USA Today and naturally, all of Buffalo’s local media.

No ordinary billboard series, eh?

The agency bought a single board location (this I am recalling from memory so I may be wrong) and every Monday for 9 weeks….a new board went up.  This is story-telling at it’s best.  Enjoy the campaign and be sure to catch my questions at the end.










Can’t you see all of Buffalo being completely caught up in this story?  Can you imagine how many people showed up at Garcia’s on Fridays to see if Angel made an appearance.  I don’t know if the agency took it to that level (I wouldn’t be surprised) but I would have hired actors to play William, Angel, Candi and Frankie and put on a floor show.

What do you think of this campaign?  Notice the boards didn’t push the daily soup special or promise us the same cliches that all restaurants promise.  Instead, they invited us into a story.  A story where we could play a part.

How could you use this kind of a technique?  Or, where else have you seen this sort of creativity played out?

Update:  Here’s the back story to this campaign.  Now I’m even more impressed.

76 Comments so far ↓

  • Patrick Byers

    Nice post, Drew.

    Really enjoyed this — great engagement with this campaign. Creatively, they left some room for improvement, but the concept is so strong, it doesn’t matter much.

    Keep up the good work.

    Patrick Byers

  • Karin H.

    Hi Drew

    I had a chuckle with the title, thought it read:
    The most brilliant outdoor camping ever ;-)

    (Tells you more about how to make sure your outdoor text shouldn’t be confusing) Great ‘billboard’ story though.

    Karin H. (Keep It Simple Sweetheart, specially in business)

  • Toby Getsch

    Stories absorb attention. Anything that needs/wants attention can gain from good story telling. Any message that needs/wants to get out can gain from good story telling.

    Downside: It costs more to tell a story in advertising, and it may not work because people often have to stay to the punch line or keep paying attention longer to get the message. Regular adds most often feature immediate action required… “Buy now!” or have a price to guide users to make a quick decision if they’ll do more to follow-up. Stories require involvement.

    Hence: Branding works well with stories.

    When someone tells a good story, do people say, “I liked that story.” or do they say, “I like her. She’s a good story teller.”???

  • BIG Kahuna

    Proof is in the pudding. What was the ROI? Did the campaign make a difference long term? Do many people recall the name of the restaurant or just the saga?

    Personally I think billboards are a big waste of money, especially when budgets are tight.

    Do you know how this did as far as sales go?

  • Cory Garrison

    This definitely goes on my long list of “why didn’t I think of that”! Thanks Drew!


  • Jim Kukral

    Great stuff Drew. Thanks for sharing.

  • Bill Kennedy - United Church of Canada

    This campaign reminds me of a series of billboards all signed “God”, with tags like “Let’s Meet At My House Sunday Before The Game.” Also brilliant.

    Nice post.



  • Josh Klein

    Absolutely brilliant. This demonstrates the power of telling a story over the dreadful monotony of another carefully manicured collection of sales copy.

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Drew.

  • Mike Ward

    What’s brilliant about this campaign is that they got the client to sit tight for 9 weeks while the boards did their work. Hospitality folks are notoriously fidgety when it comes to message and cost. Most owners would have killed the campaign by week #3 (when the pub’s name was shortened from 3 words to one).

  • Drew McLellan


    I’m curious — what would you have done to up the creativity on this campaign?

    For me, the simplicity is part of why it works. Using th fonts to give us a subtle clue about the author is just enough for me. But, I’d love to hear what you would have done with it.


  • Scott Fox, E-Commerce Success Blog

    Great post. That campaign is also an example of excellent copywriting for anyone using a microblogging platform like Twitter.
    No one could have predicted that back in 1989!

  • Drew McLellan


    Sounds like someone needs a long weekend in the great outdoors!


  • Drew McLellan


    Your question is a good reminder — we should be careful that the storyteller does not outshine the story.

    On the flip side, having a master storyteller means you can get attention (like Steve Jobs) even if sometimes your stories don’t pack a wallop.


  • Drew McLellan


    Sorry — I could not disagree with you more.

    There is no medium that is always a waste of money. Every medium is the perfect fit for some messages or product/service offerings.

    Equally true, every medium is absolutely the wrong fit for some messages or product/service offerings.


  • Paula Thornton

    In music and theatre it’s known as improvisation. Good improvisation is an art. But as I learned from a wise music professor — you first have to learn the rules to know how to successfully break them.

    Truth: Random breaking of rules doesn’t work. Rules have to be embraced, honored and then trampled.

  • Drew McLellan

    Cory –

    I know. It’s one of those “I could have had a V-8″ moments.

    Even us guys who can’t draw could have done this one!


  • Frank Martin

    Drew, thanks for the terrific marketing story, and for reminding us that it is the most brilliant among us who break the “rules” in a creative and effective way.

    Put another way, not following the rules because you are ignorant of them is one thing – deliberately and intelligently breaking them is quite another!



  • Casey Hibbard

    Fun post! I’ve never seen these billboards before.

    You need very little space and few words to accomplish some storytelling. One of my favorites is for Rosetta Stone language software:

    “He was a hardworking farm boy.

    She was an Italian supermodel.

    He knew he would have just one chance to impress her.”

    You want to know what happens next! I can’t find it online or I would link, but I’m sure many readers have seen it. I’m certainly a fan of breaking rules if it truly works, and sometimes it’s just a risk you need to take.


  • Kristin Gorski (KG)

    Great post and compelling billboard story! Talk about effective: it’s almost 20 years past this launch, and a whole new group of people are talking about Garcia’s. While I’m not in Buffalo, this campaign made me wonder if Garcia’s were still there; if I were ever in Buffalo, I’d check it out, too.

    Nothing like a short, well-written story. Web banner ads could use this technique, and some companies probably have, but I can’t remember any…

  • Bill Kennedy

    Hi Drew,

    I tried using the trackback url above when referring to your entry in mine (link to energizedaccounting.blogspot.com), but it didn’t work.


  • Drew McLellan


    I agree — the God billboards reminded me of this campaign when they first appeared. Like the Garcia’s campaign, I thought the concept and the writing were brilliant.

    Goes to show, smart strategy opens up new doors in terms of creative.


  • Drew McLellan


    I thought about that as well. The trust between the agency and client had to be very strong. Imagine — not putting in your full name AND not showing your logo?

    Smart, brave clients indeed.


  • Drew McLellan


    Clearly this agency was ahead of its time — already thinking in Tweets!


  • Drew McLellan


    “Truth: Random breaking of rules doesn’t work. Rules have to be embraced, honored and then trampled.”

    That’s an excellent point. I am sure they carefully considered the fact that they were going against the grain.

    And especially in this execution, it worked. Had they looked like traditional billboards, no one would have bought that there really was a William and Angel.


  • Drew McLellan


    As Paula said — to break the rules right, you need to be smart about it. It wasn’t breaking the rules because you could. It was breaking the rules because in this case, you should.


  • Drew McLellan


    You’re right — there’s nothing as compelling as human interaction and relationships. We love being engrossed in a good story!


  • Drew McLellan


    The message and the “brand feel” is timeless, isn’t it? It really does give you a sense of what an experience at Garcia’s would be like.


  • BIG Kahuna

    Drew, given that this restaurant only does about 1-2 million/year there was obviously not an unlimited budget. That said, although the campaign is truly creative and won awards the only thing that matters is ROI. Getting people talking about you has to lead to further brand development and sales. If 6 months later people couldn’t recall the name of the restaurant but could recall the billboards it was a royal waste of cash.

    Billboards like direct marketing are very easy to track. Do you know what the results were?

    It looks like they’re not even in business anymore? I tried calling their number and its been disconnected and I couldn’t find a website?

    If that’s the case, then all that wonderful creativity wasn’t so wonderful. I’m a hard nosed ROI guy, after all people hire us in most cases to make them money, not win awards.

    But it really is very creative!

  • John Rosen


    Two comments: 1. Good storytelling is good for bloggers as well as advertisers — just look how many comments you’ve received so quickly on this one post!
    2. Under the “seven words only” rule, my favorite was from the Dairy Council in England many years ago: “Have A Pint A Milk A Day.”

  • Drew McLellan


    Actually, I do know the rest of the story and will tell it tomorrow.

    The campaign had huge ROI, exceeded expectations and had nothing to do with winning awards. Oh and was done on a impressively small budget.

    Thanks for doing all that leg work. But as you and I both know…there’s always quite a bit under the surface.

    I’ll share more tomorrow.


  • Drew McLellan


    Agreed — we are all, as humans, drawn to a story. And we love to talk about stories that capture our imagination. Gotta love the word of mouth added bonus!


  • Paul Dowd

    Hi Drew,

    In New Zealand we have a beer called Tui that always has these “Yeah Right” billboards up. They regularly run controversial ones that reference current news items that stir up controversy. (they have had to pull a couple of them)

    Here is a google image search on “tui yeah right” so you can see them. link to images.google.com

    People even rip them off and make fake ones to send to mates or place on websites so they win with a viral aspect as well.



  • Drew McLellan


    Boy, you can feel the brand and the attitude in that campaign! Love it!


  • Karl Staib - Your Work Happiness Matters

    Wow! That is brilliant. They hook you in with a story that’s compelling. The billboards are easy to read.

    It’s the type of advertising I hope to use promoting my blog.

  • Drew McLellan


    Agreed — it is the story itself that hooks us from the beginning. It really does deserve all the attention and awards that it won.


  • getnoticedfirst.com

    Very effective and generates a buzz. Fantastic campaign!

  • Rob

    Burma Shave!

  • Drew McLellan

    Get Noticed –

    The buzz is what takes this from a very clever campaign to brilliant, in my opinion.


  • Drew McLellan


    True — but with a twist!


  • Finishing Schools

    What is great campaign. Success is written all over it. There is no way such campaigns fail. Think of word to mouth publicity which this ad must have received. It’s massive.

  • Drew McLellan

    Finishing Schools –

    The word of mouth generated was huge. They got media coverage, incredible buzz and of course, a huge bump in business.


  • Marsadie

    That billboard campaign was genius!

  • Kevin Young

    Very nice campaign. Here’s the business results from the back-story:

    The net result beyond the media exposure and buzz around town? When the new waterfront club opened, every restaurant in town took a double digit drop in revenue. Garcia’s business went up. They maintained that competitive advantage for some time and never felt the impact of the waterfront club.

    Im impressed with the campaign and the results.

  • Time Tracker

    interesting. This ad campaign looks and feels like an IM and/or SMS conversation, about 10 years before either medium became popular. Obviously, outstanding work!

  • seven words

    Just busting your balls:

    * First point: “Never use more than 7 words”
    * First billboard has 13 words.
    “The most brilliant outdoor campaign ever”?

  • Drew McLellan


    You and me both — it’s so impressive that I read about it almost 20 years ago and still recall and talk about it to this day.


  • Drew McLellan

    Time Tracker –

    Yes…someone else compared it to the old Burma Shave signs. A good reminder to all of us that simplicity is powerful.


  • Drew McLellan


    Actually that was my point. They BROKE every rule and it was a huge success.


  • Ned Carey

    My partners and I have created a PowerPoint presentation. i told them it was boring, we need to tell a story to make it interesting. I’ll direct them to this post.

    by the way I found you via stumbleupon and I stumbled this post.

    Ned Carey

  • Drew McLellan


    Well, this outdoor series tells a remarkable and engaging story, doesn’t it?

    Glad you found us. I hope you stick around and keep adding your thoughts.


  • The Baldchemist

    I used a similar campaign in the personal column of Manly Daily 20 years ago.
    We were promoting a hip restaurant. Every week we ran ads alluding to a similar theme.
    It worked. People came from everywhere to find out who the people were and if they could be seen and see.
    I used Aussie stars though.
    Thanks for the memories. Cheers. the Baldchemist

  • Drew McLellan

    Sounds like you had a hit on your hands. Did you do any follow up campaigns or did this one stand alone?


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    Sehr wertvolle Informationen! Empfehlen!

  • mike sch.

    Nice post and an interesting idea.

  • acai

    Il me semble enfin souhaitable que nos élus aillent se…

  • blogmoneymania

    Very fun ads. Creativity is the action plan for branding.

  • Brett

    Reminds me of the “Gone Google” campaign that ran in NYC this month. link to youtube.com

  • Drew McLellan

    Brett –

    I hadn’t seen that campaign — thanks for sharing the link!


  • Jeff Bernheisel

    That is awesome!

    The beautiful thing is that no matter where you enter the “story” it still makes sense and captivates you… Like you mentioned, it totally makes you want to go to Garcias on Friday to see just what unfolds.

    Well done!

  • Business Gas

    This is hilarious and so so clever. It’s amost subliminal.

  • Bed tray table

    Creatively, they left some room for improvement, but the concept is so strong, it doesn’t matter much.

  • Douglas

    Yes enjoyed your site Drew. You are so correct in stating outdoor campaigns must be to the point. Sometime we get carried away and try and place so much emphasis on loads of words. Thanks for the reminder.

    Promotional Gifts

  • Kibbee

    Such a usefule blog…wow !!!!

  • Tindel

    Your blog is so informative … keep up the good work!!!!

  • coach handbags outlet

    Very happy to see your article, I very much to like and agree with your point of view.

  • Carol Covin

    Totally awesome. Reminds me of a contest to write the shortest short story ever. I think it was Hemingway who submitted:

    Baby shoes for sale.
    Never worn.

    • Drew McLellan


      You know…I’ve seen that example many times and honestly, it touches my heart every time i see it. It’s that raw and absolutely hits you in the gut. He really was a genius.


  • Tampa Real Estate Attorney

    This is indeed a great way to generate leads. But it will work best coupled with tv or radio exposure. A single announcement on TV or radio regarding the ad can do wonders. But I say, the billboard idea is witty enough.

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  • Declan Carr

    Fantastic, just fantastic.Going to try to come up with something like this for my own business

  • Pat Jack

    It’s a great campaign fully embracing industry best practices standards and guidelines.

    What really tweaks my interest here, (as a novice entrant into the digital billboard design paradigm), is how much more powerful the campaign might be running on three boards in the same demographic, (digital billboard faces).

    And I would have taken it one step further in design by bordering the boards with some lace or feminine article, (or archetypal piece of feminine clothing or apparel), for the female notes, and perhaps a tie draped over some “club item” like the back of a chair for the male communications or a tie carelessly dropped along the “floor” of the board, just my newbie two “sense”.

    So maybe a tube of lipstick with one of the lines of text underlined in a lipstick smear … or a crumpled or stained business card “icon” on the male boards.

  • Carrera Gafas de sol

    Very glad to read your article.Your blog which contains much knowledge I’ve never heard.And your article also reveals a lot of meaningful knowledge.

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  • Kerblotto

    What I find astonishing is that there’s an Irish Pub called “Garcia’s.” Great campaign.

  • Miguel

    I hadn’t seen that campaign before. Thanks for sharing. I can see how the people of Buffalo would get caught up in the story.

  • Stewart Energy

    Wow, very interesting post. It just goes to show the irony that repeats itself.

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