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Interview: Mike Sukle about 9 years campaigning for Denver Water

Posted by Marc van Gurp | 16-06-2013 22:00 | Academy | Category: Interviews, Strategy

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I did a lot of blogposts about the Denver water campaigns made by Sukle Advertising &Design.
“Award winning, humorous, positive approach, recognizable, consistent style, understandable message and above all great artwork” I wrote recently.
The campaigns is already in it’s ninth year. Time to look back.

I did an interview with the agency name giver Mike Sukle last week about those nine years.
Mike took the time to give us a good insight from the agency side.

The first campaign dates from 2005. What was the reason Sukle was asked? Was it because Sukle is also based in Denver?
Actually we began working with Denver water in 1998. We responded to their RFP for a conservation campaign. At the time, it wasn’t much money, but we were a fairly new agency looking for any cool opportunity to make our mark. They were interested in us because of our strategic, creative approach to problem solving.

We’ve always been more interested in the challenge of a problem or the potential of something than the budget or type of industry a client may be in. And we’ve always felt that advertising could be used for good. Helping to save any part of the environment is pretty good.

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From the 2005 campaign

Was there a campaign before 2005 with the theme of water conservation?
Yes. The early campaigns were conservation campaigns. However, at that time there really wasn’t a need or a good reason for people to conserve. Water was plentiful. It was cheap. There hadn’t been a drought in 25 years. But Denver Water knew that at some point in the future conservation would have to play a key role in supplying water to the ever-growing population of the Denver metro area. The early campaigns were more to prime the market for the idea of conservation than actually achieve behavior change.

How big is the problem of water wastage in Denver?
The problem of waste is a big problem everywhere, not just Denver. And it certainly doesn’t just apply to water. I live near a university and it always amazes me when the students move out at the end of the year how much useful furniture and clothing and housewares get thrown into the dumpsters. And this is the generation that is supposed to know better. But I digress.

Based on the success of the campaign and the amount of water saved, yes, cutting out waste is significant. The Denver Water board had a ten-year goal to reduce water consumption by 22% of pre-drought levels. After the first summer (3-months) of the campaign they reported a 21% reduction in water. That goes to show you how much less water can be used and it’s not like lawns went brown. People just stopped letting water run needlessly down drains.

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From the 2006 campaign.

The Denver Egotist asked Mike in 2008 about this taxi:
How did you pull off production on the “Use Only What You Need” taxicab? Did the city have any issues with it?
Haa. To be honest we didn’t ask the city for their opinion. Though it is completely street legal. The only place that has pretty much banned it is DIA. Every time it went out there it got pulled over and sent home.

We shopped all the used car lots on Federal and finally found what we wanted for $3500. We offered $2500 and they took it. Taking apart a car is every little (and big) boys dream. The guys over at Perry and Terry’s did it for us. They were great, but a touch tentative at first. Andy, the art director would go over to take a look at the progress he’d have to encourage them to remove more. The total cost for the car, demolish and graphics was about $7000. It’s in its third year, not a bad investment.


Only in the first campaign year the color orange wasn’t the dominant color. That changed in 2006. What is the idea behind it?
In 2006 is when Use Only What You Need was introduced. That was the first year of the board’s ten-year plan. That was the first year that they really took conservation very serious and funded the campaign at the level necessary to expose people to the message properly.

The initial campaign of “Use Only What You Need” was based on using the media to communicate the idea. The message covered just a small portion of a billboard, or bus bench or ad, the rest of the medium was removed. The thought was just because you’re given a lot of something, it doesn’t mean that you have to use it all – and you can still have the same impact. The campaign demonstrated that proposition to people. And they immediately bought in. Because we were using such a small portion of any given media it had to be very visible. We also wanted the color to signal a bit of urgency. Orange worked on both accounts.

Outdoor and ambient campaigns are used most, not television and radio. Is that a strategic decision?
Absolutely. When the campaign launched, one of our strategies was to embed the idea into the community. Other utilities in the city used TV, newspaper, and radio to communicate to their customers. Their messages had no sense of personality or empathy. They were just telling the people what they thought they needed to know. Denver Water and Use Only What You Need were different. The campaign was developed from talking with customers and understanding how they thought and what they thought. From the beginning the campaign engaged customers and depended on them to help spread the word and convince neighbors that wasting water was wrong. Ambient is an excellent media to engage people and get them to spread a message. Its freshness was a really unexpected (and welcome) departure from how the other guys were communicating. The appeal of ambient is how people interact with it and that they get to be both part of the idea and media vehicle to pass the idea on.

Denver is a great outdoor advertising market because we are an incredibly healthy and active lifestyle. While it can get hot in the summer, there’s virtually no humidity so people are always out walking, running, biking, you name it. The fact that much of the conservation effort is directed at effecting outdoor water use also allowed us to get the message closer to the actual environment and time where it was appropriate. And finally geography played a big role. Out of home allowed us to target the citizens in the Denver Water service area with the message and eliminate the waste of media spilling over to the entire Front Range. It is a very efficient medium because of that.

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The famous bench.

The ambient and outdoor part seems costly. Is it more effective than other media?
I think I partially answered that question regarding outdoor in the previous question.
If ambient is well conceived it is an incredibly efficient media. The power of it extends far, far beyond the number of eyeballs that actually drive or walk by. For instance the Running Toilet, the taxi, the bench have been passed around the Internet and seen by millions. The year the large props were first used, they were covered by every news outlet in Denver. One TV station did a three-minute segment on the campaign, can you imagine how much it would have been to produce a three minute TV spot and buy the air-time? The really tough part of ambient is that the results can be difficult to track. That makes some people dubious. But just because you can’t track it, doesn’t mean it didn’t work. It just means you can’t track it.

The online component is mainly the website of Denver Water itself. Who makes this choice? Sukle or Denver Water? Why no special campaign site?
Originally there was a dedicated Use Only What You Need site. The decision was made to put it on their website because of the high volume of customers that visit the site each month to pay their bill. So, the client wanted to take that portion of the campaign in-house. It makes sense.

It isn’t very usual that an agency is working for the same client this many years like you. How does this work? Is there an annual assessment take place?
It’s really a shame that more agencies and clients don’t have this type of relationship. We both have a lot of admiration and respect for each other. We’re certainly fortunate to work with people like Denver Water. They are a public agency and have to put the business up for review every three years.

Are there any figures on the success of the campaigns? What is the benchmark for measuring success? The amount of water saving?
The initial goal was to reduce water consumption by 22% of pre-drought levels in ten years. After the first summer (3 months) a 21% reduction in use was reported. The following year the client had a third party evaluate and track the campaign. They found that 82% of customers were aware for “Use Only What You Need.” 71% reported changes in behaviors. And actual consumption was still down 21%. Additionally respondents reported a 10% increase in the perception of service, a 9% increase in trust and negative opinions of the utility were cut in half. So the campaign appeared to have generated positive effects on the organization as well as generating actual reduction in consumption.

Now, seven years later awareness is in the mid 90 percentile. And use is still down. Denver was named one of the top ten cities for sustainability in 2009 and the primary reason stated was water conservation.
Smart and engaging work really does generate disproportionate results.

Do you purchase the media itself?
We believe that the idea should inform and drive the media choices. Not the other way around. So we play a very heavy hand in planning the media but do partner with a media firm. They’re Explore Communications and do wonderful work.

The Running Toilet

When searching on Google or Pinterest the half bench seems to be the most popular. But what is your personal favorite?
Hmmm. That’s like asking which of my son’s is my favorite. I’ve got to say, I never would have guessed that the Running Toilet would never have developed the cult following that it has. I love the bench and taxi too. And the big props are super popular.

What makes the campaign unique for Denver?
Definitely the longevity and depth. I can’t recall a campaign that run for this many years and with this much love. Every spring, we’re like dang…how are we going to top last year.

Are there more campaign items on it’s way this year? What we posted last week are billboards and bus ads. Are you doing ambient items also this year?
We’re picking up the ambient from some of the recent years. So the new work is going on billboards, buses, bus shelters and a radio spot. That’s one of the really cool things about the campaign. We have so many toys to play with the campaign just keeps growing.

All posts on Osocio about Denver Water:
- Nothing replaces water (2006)
- Denver Water: keep our rivers flowing (2008)
- Grass is dumb (2009)
- Denver Water: Waste is Out (2010)
- You’re pouring too much water on your lawn (2011)
- Water Less (2012)
- Trees. The official men’s room of summer 2013. (2013)

- All videos in one post. See them here.

We made a Pinterest board with a a lot of print ads and photo’s from all Denver Water campaigns made by Sukle.
See it here.

Great interview with Mike Sukle on the Denver Egotist.
Read it here.


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