Avenue Q - an R-rated puppet show about living the hard life in New York City - was considered a long shot at best when it came to winning a coveted Tony Award, given out to Broadway's best.It was a shocker in a usually staid awards season when the play took not one, but three Tonys: best musical, best book, and best original score.
But the puppets had a bit of help from ad agency Spotco and PR shop Sam Rudy Media Relations, which together came up with an innovative campaign to remind viewers that it was OK to vote puppet.
Spotco creative director Drew Hodges says one of the biggest challenges of a Tony campaign is creating one at all.
"Most Broadway shows run a Tony campaign, however covert they want it to seem," says Hodges, noting that the award leads to "very real financial gain," as well as prestige. But most producers "cloak it and make these things that don't look like they are running," he notes. "They are not being so vulgar as to run, but of course they are. People try to remind everybody of their show."
Spotco and Sam Rudy decided to break from tradition and have some fun with Broadway's stuffy outlook. "We decided that what would be funny would be to openly parody the running for votes," says Hodges. Because it was running during an election year, the PR team waged a red, white, and blue extravaganza that was tough to miss.
"We basically sort of mocked the fact that we were going to be so brazen to say, 'Vote for us; we're better,'" he says.
Still mindful that the show was a dark-horse candidate, the PR team also had the secondary goal of using the campaign as a platform to "relaunch the show" for audiences so that if no awards were won, the campaign would not have been wasted money and effort.
Humor was the key element to every piece of the campaign, as was the goal of reminding "people of all the things the show was about," says Hodges.
The team created buttons with campaign slogans, such as "American needs Avenue Q," and "Don't suck. Vote Q." In addition to passing them out, ushers wore them, and the buttons went into press kits.
"Anywhere we could, we handed them out," says Hodges.
The team also created a launch party for the campaign at a notable local pizzeria and wrote a series of special songs performed by Avenue Q cast members that "parodied the rest of Broadway." Copies of songs were put on a CD and distributed, and a special performance was given for out-of-town theater owners.
"We were very open, and that seemed to amuse people," says Hodges.
Aside from the three Tonys, the play grabbed media attention for the out-of-the-box effort. The London Guardian, New York Post, Chicago Sun-Times, and Entertainment Weekly all covered it, among others.
"It's been strange because a lot of the press have said we are the first people to run and really embrace movie tactics," says Hodges.
Sam Rudy and Spotco are continuing to work on the show.
"We're their ongoing agency, so now we're trying to figure out what the next campaign is," says Hodges. "We're probably going to radio because what we really have learned is that it's a smaller show, a funky show, and our next role here is to try to inform."
PR team: SpotCo, Sam Rudy Media Relations, and "Avenue Q" (all New York, NY)
Campaign: "Avenue Q" Tony Awards
Time frame: May to June 2004