The story behind Michelin's last-minute Super Bowl spot

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TBWA\Chiat\Day NY went from green light to game-ready in less than a day.

Two days before Super Bowl LI was like any other Friday at TBWA\Chiat\Day New York—until 9 a.m., when CEO Rob Schwartz got a call from the account lead for Michelin.

"They want to do a Super Bowl spot," group account director Ben Muldrew told him. 

"When, 2018?" Schwartz replied. 

"No, Sunday."

The news kicked off an intercontinental scramble as creatives and the production team whipped up rough cuts to send to Michelin for review, both at the U.S. headquarters in South Carolina and the global headquarters in Paris. The agency spent the next 20 hours creating the tire brand’s first Super Bowl spot, a 30-second commencement for Michelin’s new "Caring" campaign. "It was the best Friday I’ve ever had in advertising," said Chris Garbutt, TBWA’s global creative president and NY CCO.

Michelin hadn’t been sitting on the news; the North America team had just found out for themselves. "We got the notification at about 8:30 a.m. on Friday," said Candace Cluck, director of consumer experience at Michelin North America. Sources say Fox Sports was offering last-minute discounts on its few remaining Super Bowl spots, though Michelin didn’t confirm whether that was the case with this last-minute buy. 

In any case, they didn’t need to start from scratch. The new global campaign had been in the works since Nov. 2015, Cluck said. It was about two or three weeks away from completion and scheduled to launch at the end of the first quarter of this year. 

Vignettes for the spot had been shot in three locations around the world: Paris, South Africa and Guangzhou, China. The spot is directed by the team of Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNichol of RSA Films. Gone is the animated, anthropomorphic tire-giant, the Michelin Man, replaced by real people in realistic situations. Well, he does make one quick cameo.

"We’re moving from rational, traditional advertising to really connecting with the hearts and minds of consumers," Cluck said. A multinational cast speeds along precarious terrain toward their loved ones, carried along safely by Michelin tires.

But the spot still needed plenty of work to be ready for the Super Bowl. The branding wasn’t finalized. And the soundtrack wasn’t working. The agency sent over track after track to Michelin, all while still searching for new music that wouldn’t "overshadow the humanity of the story," Garbutt said.

In addition to RSA Films, TBWA worked with Cartel on editorial, Method for visual effects, Company 3 for color grading, Heard City for audio mixing and Machine Head for sound design. The in-house integrated production team worked frantically throughout the night. 

Then Garbutt hit upon "Stay Alive," by Swedish artist José González. It had spent a bit of time in the spotlight on the 2013 soundtrack for the film "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," but TBWA repurposed it, using snippets to back the individual stories of their everyday protagonists. "This one just stood out," Garbutt said. "We just knew it was right." 

And Michelin agreed, signing off before first light. "We finished the spot at about 5’o clock Saturday morning," Cluck said. 

We’ll know whether "I Need You," as the spot is called, resonates with consumers in just a few more hours. But the campaign will continue in full force, with a 60-second cut debuting on Monday and single-story teasers tailored individual markets around the world, including the U.S., Europe, Africa and APAC. (That the Chinese story is called "And Baby Makes Four" highlights the kind of upwardly-mobile consumer Michelin is going after—car owners thoroughly distanced from the One Child policy of old.)

In America, most viewers probably won’t even notice the international cast. There is little dialogue, so these scenes could be occurring almost anywhere in the country. But in the current political climate, there is always the chance someone takes issue with a message about the safe travels of a diverse group of people.

That’s fine with Schwartz. The ad isn’t intended to be political, but it stands for something positive, he said. "There may be an America first policy, but it’s not America only. There’s still an entire world out there. Michelin being a global brand, and the Michelin man being a global ambassador, I think making a global statement is ideal for this company."

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