Cossette turns heads with naked 'Live Free' campaign for Killam Properties REIT

Case Study by Greg Dubeau RGD, Art Director, Cossette 


Killam Properties REIT owns, manages and develops multi-family residential properties in Atlantic Canada, Ontario and Alberta. Since its first acquisition in 2002, Killam’s real estate portfolio has grown to $1.8 billion and includes 13,655 apartment units and 5,165 manufactured home community sites.


Cossette is the agency of record for Killam Properties, and as Art Director at their Halifax office, I was the creative lead on their “Free Rent for a Year” campaign, an annual initiative that is redesigned each year with new creative. As a new addition to the Cossette team, this was the first project I worked on with Killam Properties and my primary role was to determine a new creative direction and develop new content to be dispersed across selected media outlets.


The primary objective for the Live Free campaign was to draw attention to Killam's free rent promotion, with the goal of increasing the amount of one-year leases signed by tenants in the age range of 18 to 65, living in Killam’s largest market, Eastern Canada. Our strategy for this objective was to use censored nudity as a metaphor to draw attention to the promotion. We focused on the idea of absurd or silly nudity as opposed to sexually-charged nudity to express the light-hearted nature of the campaign. The secondary goal was to maintain Killam's position within the community as innovative marketers, serving the region with excellent service and products.


The 2016 Free Rent campaign was an eight-week campaign active from June 27 to August 8, 2016. Due to the restructuring of Killam's annual marketing budget, we were unable to acquire the same amount of funds used on the 2015 free rent campaign. We were challenged to increase the amount of leases signed in 2016 during the promotional period, while working with a significantly decreased budget. We allocated approximately 70% to media, with a heavy focus on online advertising (50%), out of home advertising or OOH (25%) and radio (25%). The remaining budget was split between administration, concept development, execution and production.




The key benchmark that was used to navigate the success of the 2016 Live Free campaign was looking at the amount of leases signed during the 2015 campaign, and also examining the online footprint using the quantitative data gathered from Google Analytics. It was determined that the 2016 campaign should increase digital advertising opportunities, while reducing the media buy for out of home and terrestrial radio advertising.


We assembled a creative team that we felt confident in working with under a tight budget and equally tight schedule: Freelance Copywriter Brad Dykema; Producer Don Veinish and Producer/Director Ben Bennett from Buoy Marketing and Production; Audio Engineer Joe Audio; Photographer Kelci MacDonald; and Graphic Design Interns Becky Ryan and Karen Lewis. As the Art Director representing Cossette, it was my responsibility to supervise the creative team, collaborate on ideas and concept development, build marketing materials and maintain the creative direction of the project.


We created a schedule of manageable objectives by compartmentalizing the project into four development phases: conceptualization, planning, execution and delivery.


Phase I: Conceptualization
During this phase, we received the creative brief from Killam and I worked with Brad, Ben and Don to develop creative concepts that met the client's needs. After a series of internal meetings with the creative team, we narrowed our thinking down to three ideas.


Our copywriter Brad took these ideas and developed concepts to represent the light-hearted brand that Killam Properties has built. We presented three concepts to the client. Each concept was playful and used humour as the vehicle to deliver the "free rent" message. Killam chose the "Live Free" concept because they believed it would be the easiest concept to execute within the schedule and budget constraints. The other two concepts had more production time and prop assembly required, so they would have exhausted most of our creative budget.


Here is the official concept rationale:

"What does true freedom feel like? Well, one interpretation of “living free” is the ultimate feeling of freedom: living without the encumbrance of clothing. Living free is living naked. Of course, this bold graphic message is simply a metaphor for the freedom you’ll feel when you live without the weight of paying rent."


Phase II: Planning
In this phase, we organized the people, places and things necessary to carry out our creative objectives. Buoy Marketing and Production were excellent and helped us scout the correct locations for the shoot, cast appropriate talent, assemble the right video production team, assemble the necessary props and develop a storyboard to guide our process.


The client was involved in each step of the creative process. We presented Killam’s marketing team with budgets, schedules, creative directions, marketing/media suggestions and creative concepts, seeking approval during every stage of development. They were very receptive to our ideas and preferred to be hands-off with the creative execution.



Phase III: Execution
The execution phase came down to an intense one-day marathon of filming. Together we were able to film six video spots in five locations across Halifax, during the middle of the week, amongst the curious public, all while working with semi-naked actors. Though we were on a tight schedule, the cast and crew had a light-hearted attitude and we were able to accomplish our objectives by remaining focused and sticking to our storyboards.


Phase IV: Delivery
With less than three days between the video shoot and the campaign launch, which included the first online video and the first series of outdoor boards and radio spots, the delivery timeline was tight. 50% of the media budget was allocated to online advertising, so it was necessary to have all digital content ready to publish by the campaign launch date of June 27, 2016. As the campaign progressed, we introduced new alternating creative in the form of online videos, Cineplex videos, outdoor boards and posters—incrementally introducing new types of expressively naked people.



1. Budget Constraints

We were given a smaller budget to work with than we forecasted, so the production schedule was very short to accommodate our minimal resources. We had one week to storyboard, cast, shoot, edit and produce five 15-second video spots and a variety of OOH boards and online ads. Our desire to generate a full campaign, despite the limited budget, meant we had to develop cost-effective solutions. The simplicity of the “Live Free” idea enabled us to explore multiple executions within a tight timeframe.


2. Mother Nature

We initially had two days dedicated to shooting outdoor video, but rain cut our schedule down to a single day. Prior to our first day of shooting, we realized we might get rained out, so we created a contingency plan that would synthesize two days' worth of shooting into one.


3. Naked People

How do you market naked people without using sexuality? The simplicity of our concept meant we needed to create scenarios that expressed the metaphor of “freedom” and not the idea of “exhibitionism”. Upon selecting the Live Free concept, we warned the client that there would be some negative reactions to the campaign. We advised them to reallocate resources to monitoring their online channels and providing swift and informative customer service. Both Cossette and Killam used account managers to monitor the social media activity happening with the campaign. There were negative, critical and malicious comments posted online that were targeted at Killam; however, the account managers responded quickly to ensure that campaign-specific information was communicated and no comments were ignored.


Any publicity is good publicity. Even though there were some outspoken individuals who did not agree with our creative direction, their response created conversation between people and an undeniable impact within the community. I can't be certain that the controversy fuelled some of the success of the campaign, but I'm happy the message reached a broad audience who talked about it with their friends, reached out to sign a lease or posted their positive and/or negative feelings towards the campaign online for all to talk about.

Every phase of the project faced some sort of roadblock stemming from objections from a select group. However, it wasn’t until Google declined our initial online ads because they contained “exposed skin and nudity” that we realized we had underestimated its impact. We were all shocked because our ads had the same amount of exposed skin, male and female, as many online fashion ads; however, Google deemed them to be sexual content not conforming to their family-friendly ad policy. To meet our launch deadline, we redesigned the online content to appease Google’s advertising policy and proceeded with the online portion of the marketing campaign.



The success of this project was measured by the amount of leases signed during the promotional period of June 27 to August 8, 2016; in comparison to the projections Killam developed for the Atlantic Canadian market.


Though our process was sprinkled with controversy, the campaign was a great success for Killam. They received a significant increase in leases signed during the promotional period, leading to a positive financial gain and greater brand recognition within Atlantic Canada. The largest impact was an 11% increase in the Nova Scotia market, lowering the Killam vacancy rate from 4.6% to 3.7%. During the campaign, Killam collectively lowered their national vacancy rate from 4.9% to 4.5%. During that time Killam exceeded projections by acquiring 877 new signed leases, a 7% increase from the same period in 2015.


Designer Takeaways:
  1. If you plan to shoot photo or video outdoors, always have a contingency plan in case the weather doesn't cooperate. Pre-schedule a rain date that can make up for any lost time or budget that may occur.
  2. Be fluent in the advertising policies of all media outlets within your marketing plan.
  3. Condensing two days of video shoots into one day was a challenge. It was incredibly important for all cast and crew to be focused and supportive with our decision making, so as not to waste any daylight. It’s important to have fun during the process and be a team player, but with our condensed schedule it was important for myself and others to provide leadership and direction to make sure we capitalized on our time.


Client Takeaways:

  1. If you decide to execute a campaign with controversial content such as nudity, be prepared to absorb negative criticism. Have a customer service strategy that will prepare staff to communicate with unhappy customers and online personalities.
  2. Producing new creative focused around video takes more time than most traditional media, so schedules should be adjusted to accommodate production.
  3. A limited budget should not determine the quality of ideas. If anything, it should be incentive to flex your creative muscles. Trying a new approach to things without the security blanket of a fruitful budget can lead to new insight and an enlightened perspective on your role in society, what you can contribute and where your position will be in the future.



Agency: Cossette

Art Director/Designer: Greg Dubeau RGD, Cossette

Account Manager: Jena McCulloch, Cossette

Strategy: Sam Abudayyeh, Cossette

Design Interns: Becky Ryan and Karen Lewis, Cossette

Copywriter: Brad Dykema

Producer: Don Veinish, Buoy Marketing & Production

Producer/Director: Ben Bennett, Buoy Marketing & Production

Photography: Kelci MacDonald

Audio: Joe Audio


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