If you know what this billboard means just by looking at it, you're cool. If you don't, you're probably in need of some schooling. Maybe, at the end of the lesson, you'll buy a billboard of your own. That's what Clear Channel Canada hopes, anyway.
Last month, alongside Universal Music Canada, rapper (and grandpa dancer) Drake erected an enigmatic 30-by-60-foot posting that read, "The 6 God is Watching," alongside a highway in Toronto, his hometown.
In Clear Channel's telling, passersby noticed the billboard and posted photos to Twitter and Instagram, where speculation about its meaning snowballed into news coverage, none of which was helped by an equally cryptic post on Instagram from Drake himself.
For anyone not steeped in the rapper's lore, the phrase "6 God" and its accompanying iconography are symbols for Drake's brand, recognized by fans. The "6" is his nickname for Toronto, derived from its area codes (416 and 647). And for all the other olds out there, the praying hands reference the prayer hands emoji (though these were apparently derived from a 16th century German painter's work), representing, in this instance, "God"—a humble allusion to Drake himself.
In plain English, Drake—whose human name is Aubrey Graham—is branding himself the deity of the Toronto rap scene, a message that's captured in his song "6 God" from his recent mixtape, If You're Reading This It's Too Late. (For a particularly thrilling spinoff, watch Salman Rushdie read part of it for you.)
Put in that context, and playing on the word "Watching," the billboard is a sly promotion for Drake's upcoming album, Views From the 6. Clear Channel, which sold the placement—and is eager to peddle more—describes it as "the most viral billboard in history."
The company claims earned media impressions totaled a whopping 86 million, not counting broadcast coverage. Online outlets that featured the billboard included MTV, Time, GQ, Pitchfork and Complex.
Clear Channel's more in-depth postgame is worth skimming (taking, with a grain of salt, the "learnings" for a broader class of advertisers, though there may be some).
"This billboard looks like it could have been designed by a panda bear on a 1993 IBM Thinkpad, but that didn't matter," says Chris Advansun, head of digital technology at Clear Channel Canada. "In fact that may have been the point. This campaign's simple, mysterious nature compelled people to speculate, share and discuss. A killer creative idea still trumps all."
Sure, it was smart to make fans feel in-the-loop while leaving everyone else scratching their heads. But the truth is, Drake was just hyping his own hype: He has yet to set a release date for his album, and the sign, for all the buzz it inspired, didn't reveal anything new.
But setting aside his 16.6 million Instagram followers, and the fact that he's one of 2015's biggest celebrities, the real reason it worked is that people care deeply about music and are willing to invest in learning more about musicians they love—if only so they don't feel stupid when everyone else at the party is talking about it.
Most marketers don't have that luxury. Perhaps more important, most marketers lack the bravado required to publicly, if subtly, refer to themselves as gods ... even if they might feel that way sometimes.