Expensify's first Super Bowl commercial: An interview with JohnXHannes

Behind Expensify’s Super Bowl commercial: An interview with JohnXHannes

Kacie Hughes's Layout avatar

As creatives in the digital marketing industry, we get pretty excited for the first weekend of February. No, not to watch the Patriots win (another) Super Bowl, but instead to tell our football-loving friends and family to pipe down the second the commercials come on. Aside from making us laugh, groan, and cry, Super Bowl commercials help marketers and creatives define creative trends for the year and dream about what it’d be like to work with huge companies like Budweiser, T-Mobile, and Expensify.

Our team here at Flywheel was fascinated about what it takes to launch a campaign this large, so thanks to Ad Age’s list of Super Bowl agencies, we reached out to JohnXHannes New York, an Emmy-award winning agency that concepted and created Expensify’s first ever marketing campaign, “You Weren’t Born To Do Expenses,” to completely reposition the company.

Since Expensify had never previously invested in marketing, JohnXHannes New York (JXH) stepped in to develop new brand positioning and design, a comprehensive consumer strategy, and an interactive music video (and commercial) directed by Andreas Nilsson that featured 2 Chainz and Adam Scott.

“People aspire to be a pilot, a teacher, rapper, designer, or firefighter, but nobody was born to do expenses,” said John McKelvey, JohnXHannes Executive Creative Director. “Our goal is to create compelling content that entertains while conveying a focused message, all born from human truth. ‘You Weren’t Born To Do Expenses’ rings true to everyone.”

Our goal is to create compelling content that entertains while conveying a focused message, all born from human truth. – JohnXHannes

So, how’d they pull it all off? We’ll let the JohnXHannes Executive Creative Directors, John McKelvey and Hannes Ciatti, take it from here!

How did you establish trust with Expensify’s team, and how did you reach the decision that a Super Bowl spot was the best media buy?

We rightly needed to earn Expensify’s trust, but once we did, the level of room they gave our team to push the thinking and execution was amazing. Expensify has a great product, they just needed mass awareness. So, we set our sights on the Super Bowl, and focused on unpacking and contextualizing the whole process from strategy to creating content with multiple spikes of consumer engagement.

We’d love for you to walk us through the brainstorming/ideation process of this particular campaign!

From a structural perspective, we operate differently from a lot creative businesses. Instead of having creative teams at different levels, we focus on having fewer, highly seasoned creatives who we bring together based on specific assignments, working under founders John McKelvey and Hannes Ciatti. Operating this way allows us to move more quickly, but most crucially, we devote all our time to the creative thinking and the making, all while trying to avoid bureaucracy in the middle.

We devote all our time to the creative thinking and the making, all while trying to avoid bureaucracy in the middle. – JohnXHannes

From a process perspective, we first redefined Expensify’s brand strategy. From there, we built our creative platform, before getting deep into the specifics of the Super Bowl.

Once we’d all aligned on: “You Weren’t Born To Do Expenses” as the overarching brand line and platform, moving through each stage of development was quite quick, as Expensify is a pretty decisive bunch with great instincts.

It seems like taking on challenges is baked into every campaign you take on. How do you manage risk when pitching and executing big, audacious ideas?

We’re definitely up for challenges. We’ve pulled some pretty impressive feats in the past, so a key part is understanding a client’s appetite (and budget). In this case, Expensify wanted something bold. Expensify has historically experienced tremendous growth through the strength of their technology alone, so we were inspired to come up with the most unconventional and engaging product demonstration ever. Once you try Expensify, you’re hooked.

How did you define (or are you defining) success with this ad?

Expensify isn’t caught up in traditional metrics, which in some ways, challenged us even more. Our headline measure of success was creating something their whole company was proud of. Nowadays, to be a contender at the Super Bowl is to have a strong showing in the pre-game, period. Based on this, we knew we had to create something highly entertaining to drop a week or two out from the game. So we needed to achieve pre-game buzz, be one of the best spots, plus we dropped our music video at half time.

We also had to achieve a ton of earned media. We ensured mass success during the actual game by making ours the “World’s First Commercial You Can Expense.” People just had to snap a photo of the receipt in the commercial with Expensify for a chance to be reimbursed $200,000 in cash. It got 10,000 people per minute to their website during the Super Bowl and over 11 million views of our music video on YouTube!

Could you touch on how you (and the client!) made it happen, logistically?

We pulled it all together by coordinating with celebrity talent, bringing in a high-end production partner (Biscuit film works), conceptualizing an original music track, and then getting it made with 2 Chainz and DJ Mustard.

We produced the digital portion, but used a great tech partner in Austria for the app integration. The biggest variable to nail down was finding a film director, and we had the best in Andreas Nilsson. Uniquely, Andreas can not only do great music videos, but he’s also technical, which is rare to find. JXH is set up to work intimately with partners like Andreas, and we put all our effort into the making of great work.

In the end, the world’s first music video you can expense with 2 Chainz and Adam Scott is basically the greatest and most fun product demonstration ever.

What was the biggest challenge of this particular project, and how did you work through it?

Making the world’s first expensable music video was challenging. Integrating the tech so you could photograph receipts with the app for people to experience how the app works in real life was not an easy task, but we partnered with Expensify every step of the way. We’re honest about challenges.

What advice would you give to an agency that’s taking on a project of this scale for the first time?

Less time talking, more time making. Put all your effort into what people will actually see. That’s what matters. In our experience, with bigger agencies, too much time is spent talking in circles and arguing strategy and intangibles. Just focusing on a real insight, getting to a simple big idea, and then crafting the great execution is what matters. Nobody sees your strategy decks.

Less time talking, more time making. Nobody sees your strategy decks. – JohnXHannes

Media provided by JohnXHannes New York. 

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