How Stoa created and launched their new brand campaign
A behind the scenes deep-dive into how great advertising comes together
Last week, Stoa, the alternative MBA program I teach content marketing at, released a brand campaign. It was immediately all over social media. One reason for the buzz is that Stoa is a social-native brand, fuelled by the frenetic community of young people that have filled its cohorts. The other reason is that the spots were genuinely great, and spoke to something that Indians understand, accept, and make fun of: the primacy of the top-tier degree.
The campaign is called "Stoa isn’t for you", and you can watch them on their YouTube channel. This, called Accidental Degree, is my favourite.
My first thought after watching was: who wrote this? So I asked Aditya Kulkarni, co-founder of Stoa, and he told me it was Vishal Dayama. I wasn’t surprised. I’m familiar with his work, and the ads carry his brand of dry, sharp wit.
But that’s not enough for a great campaign, is it? You have a great product and its articulation, you have a writer/creative who can communicate that uniquely, but you also need a filmmaker who can get the ideas to come together and do what they are supposed to do. This was Dipro Ghoshal of The Rabbit Hole, who was roped in by Vishal; they’d worked together before and trusted each other.
As a B2B marketer, the way we think about marketing is different, and campaigns like these are not our natural turf. But there are parallels, of course, and there’s a lot to understand and learn from the creative process.
So I interviewed the three main protagonists: The client, the creative, and the filmmaker, and tried to tell the story of how it all came together. Though the conversations were Q and As, I have structured them as individual narratives, which I thought was the best way to convey the development from idea to finished advertisement.
Aditya Kulkarni, co-founder of Stoa, the client
We had no real intention to run a campaign on this scale.
The idea began from our performance marketing teams. They had been running ads on Instagram, and we realised that there was a same-y template of ads on the platform.
Roughly, it went like this:
- Are you stuck with problem/difficulty/confusion?
- So are we
- Here’s a solution.
There are different iterations of this, of course, but you get it.
As a brand, I was not comfortable with this template. I felt that it was selling fear, basically, and that a kind of adverse selection of the audience would happen. I had seen Edtech ads like this, and I didn’t like it. We didn’t want people to be scared or confused, and see Stoa as a solution.
So I sort-of asked myself the question: Could make ads that were funny and quirky and could help us stand out? So Raj (co-founder, Stoa) and I got on a call with Vishal, and my first thought was that we need to ship this as fast as possible.
I actually asked Vishal if we could get this done in 2 weeks.
Vishal had been talking to us for a while. We had mutual respect, had worked with him, and he understood what we do at Stoa.
Raj’s viewpoint was that if we were doing this, we should do it properly. It was then that we started thinking deeply about what this would look like. We thought about it from different angles, one was from the viewpoint of careers, another was from the idea of degrees. We thought this fit really well into what we wanted to do, and lent itself to many angles, like temperature (degree Celsius), and other connotations like the third degree, and so on.
We also did not want to take the traditional MBA head-on. The MBA has a lot of meanings for a lot of people, and we didn’t want to attack institutions that had helped make our country. But the degree, and the mindless worship of it, was a good proxy.
Once we knew the direction, the writing process started, and Vishal came up with 4 or 5 different scripts. Some didn’t work even though they were memorable. I was worried about how one particular funny take, very slapstick-y, would be interpreted, for example. But the three ideas we eventually made were immediate hits.
The hospital one was tricky, we didn’t want to show someone with burns, or make light of the injury. We somehow pulled that off.
The restaurant spot was inspired by a character and a sequence in the Hindi movie 3 Idiots, the annoying suitor to Kareena Kapoor’s character during the wedding feast.
The third spot, obviously inspired by Delhi road rage incidents, took a while. Internally, we thought that the hospital spot was the strongest, and that the restaurant idea was touch and go.
With this process out of the way, we then spoke to Dipro from The Rabbit Hole to bring this to life.
We actually wanted to do it in Bangalore, but realised it would be easier to execute in Mumbai. From finalising the script to getting to production took us 20 days. We shot all 3 spots in a single day, on 28th December. The shoot started at 8 am in the morning and went on until 3 am in the night. It was an interesting process, and we enjoyed it a lot.
We did quite a bit of launch planning. One thing that came out of it was deciding to launch all of it in a single day, as we had seen examples in which a phased out drop didn’t work. It would be easier to grab attention quickly, we thought. This was a good decision, as we went to 3 million impressions across social in just 48 hours, with Linkedin being the breakout success.
We will now run performance ads with the ads, but the launch was always planned for social media. We simply didn’t have the budgets for TV, and knew we were getting to the target audience on social. Also, we went LinkedIn first because we felt that the relevant audience is on LinkedIn rather than anywhere else.
I still look at all of it as an experiment but I definitely do want to see what changes downstream. Is the audience more aware, has the campaign helped aid conversions? We’ll see, but immediately after we launched, I had a bunch of founders DMing me, and I was glad. Because founders are also employers, and are important stakeholders in the future of Stoa. The signs are all there that we hit the spot with the campaign.
Vishal Dayama, the creative director
I’ve been consulting with Stoa for like 4, 5 months now, and it’s been very general, very brand-centric. And we have done a couple of sketches before, so I knew how they worked.
Then Aditya called me and said we want to do a couple of digital ads that would be for YouTube and social channels. We spoke about the brief on 1st December, and Aditya wanted to shoot on 8th December, with a camera he had!
So my first thing was to tell him the process. I explained to him and the team how such ads are made, how much it costs, the process, and so on. I also understood the kind of budget the Stoa team had in mind.
It was then that I told Aditya that if you want something good, it’ll only get done by about January 10, at the soonest. This was 40 days later, as opposed to the 7 days he was expecting it to be ready in. So I had bought some time for myself to do this well.
What helped was that that their brief was pretty simple, that we had to differentiate Stoa from a degree.
Generally my process is that when when I get a brief, I'll give the founders or the POC 3 or 4 routes to consider. For example, here’s a safe option, here’s a slightly riskier take, and so on. We had a safe option in this campaign too. But everyone stuck to this degree idea, because it was clearly mentioning the proposition.
This led to the creative that we finally locked down: Stoa isn’t for you. It was a nice little negative and it took the brand to an elite, aspirational vibe. This was how I understood the brand too, in my time working with the Stoa team.
We locked the concept on 7th December, then started scripting. I wrote 6 or 7 scripts. The first two I cracked easily, but the third one took 15 days.
I also wasn’t comfortable working with an agency that I hadn’t worked with before. Because at the end of the day it’s my work. If I don’t trust someone, I don’t think I will work well with them. Budgets were tight too. So I called Dipro and asked him if he was willing to do it with me. When he agreed, everything was smooth from then on.
Also, I was sort-of behaving like an interpreter from filmmaker to the client, because whatever Dipro will say, the Stoa team will not understand. For example, how much time music takes, how much time mixing takes, and so on. Even when they came on shoot for the first time, they were blown away at the number of people that go into making an ad.
We used it to our advantage that this wasn’t a TV ad. If you watch the ad for 20 seconds, you won't understand what is happening. You will get the whole story only after the VO. And then on the rewatch you’ll chuckle. We were okay with that. I made it clear that this wasn’t a conversion ad, but would increase brand awareness. I told them that it would convert fence sitters, or folks who will be interested 4 or 5 months after.
Initially everyone was worried about the approach, and whether we could say this so directly. But I convinced them by writing the script. This usually doesn’t happen, but then I wrote down a sample and then they understood and came on board. They were very trusting after that. Actually Stoa was a very odd client, because they weren’t questioning my calls, they were trusting my judgement.
This is why I like working with startups: With startups, you seem to be working with them, but with bigger clients you feel like you are working against them. A smaller group of people who will give you that decision making power is always better for creative work.
In terms of the writing process, because the idea was so straightforward, you get a lot of first thoughts, like a thermometer degree and third degree and so on. But you shouldn’t ever send these first-cut ideas to the client. If they like even one, then you won’t be able to convince them of a better idea later.
I wrote this campaign alone, no collaborators. So there was no real pressure, even from Stoa. I generally work on dialogue based films more because that's my forte, but this is the first time I've written films which are not dialogue-heavy but situation-heavy. I think it has come out well.
Dipro Ghosal, the filmmaker
Since I do commercial work my range needs to be big and accurate. In effect I need to be like water, you put me anywhere and I fit in.
Now among these, one vessels is comedy and there’s an element of that here. The biggest challenge was not to do anything as a director. My biggest fear to go overboard, because that’s what we would do for a TV commercial. I didn't have to do any of that over here because the script was straightforward.
When I met the client and discussed, I realised that there are one or two moments that come out organically. We cut them up. That's what happened during the shoot too. Because not doing anything and keeping the spot as it is was also a task for me. This was also a creative choice I had to make.
Another thing what happens is that when I'm making the ad, I always look for the wholehearted character, someone with presence. Like the guy with the degree on the road, he believes in it and has become a laughing stock. His conviction, very stupid though it is, makes the scene. Sometimes you just have to do the most basic thing like that without going overboard.
We shot continuously for 20 hours for this campaign, that’s not unusual. If you have less time you have to be cognisant of that and work accordingly.
Getting humour right becomes a practice. Your initial perception about filmmaking changes as you keep doing it. You eventually learn that you need to let things be and this also comes with trusting your crew a lot. As a director my main job is to inspire people and make the right environment, so wonders can happen. Of course sometimes the spots won't land but there are many tricks to make a scene work. Here there was a pattern and the actors were very strong too.
I have done a few startup ads by now and I really get excited when I hear the client is a startup. Advertising usually has to look clean and sanitised, but with startups I can try to push the boundaries and portray the heart and soul of the films. This is absolutely important to make any film work, in a slightly different light that may not always work for a traditional brand.
In terms of the making, the video has a life and vibe of its own. So you have to get that right first. It’s also very important to test the waters. Even with Stoa we didn't have a lot of time but we showed it to a lot of people, and the feedback/response helped.
All this prep shows in the quality of the end product, I think.
Thanks to Aditya, Vishal, and Dipro for spending time with me for this edition of the newsletter. Thanks also to Raathika Nagarajan, incoming summer intern at Atomicwork, for her help with the draft.
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