It started with a tentative, innocuous greeting. In a New York City window, one office employee reached out to the world with a collage of Post-it notes that spelled out the word “HI.” Across the street, another firm posted its response: “Sup.”
Contact had been made and salutations exchanged, but the cordial tone was not to last. In the coming weeks, the two companies would spar mercilessly, expending thousands of multi-colored Post-it notes in a “war” for creative supremacy while other firms also weighed into the battle.
Based on Canal Street in trendy Tribeca, both companies are players on New York’s fiercely competitive advertising scene. Harrison and Star, which initiated the exchange, is a marketing agency specialized in healthcare. Havas Worldwide, which answered, is a global marketing agency with offices in 75 countries.
Both firms employ teams of graphic designers who understand that a single square Post-it note is analogous to the basic unit of color in a computer image: the pixel. Armed with the tools and the talent, the firms set to work marshaling pixelated “Post-it art.”
Post-it notes are essential, versatile stationary for the office. They can be slapped on anything and proclaim anything from “out of order” to “this sandwich does not belong to you.” Who knew that they could be also assembled into collages of some of our favorite cartoon characters?
One office posted a Batman logo. The other returned fire with Marge and Maggie Simpson. Day by day, their efforts became more detailed, ambitious and dramatic. And so went their game of artistic one-upmanship.
But in any war, it’s the arms dealers who profit. “I work in this building,” wrote jonroobs, a Reddit user. “Post-it played this masterfully, and supplied all of our offices (there’s several companies which occupy the two buildings) with TONS of Post-it notes. Smart marketing.”
Soon the “war” escalated, drawing Horizon Media, Biolumina, Cake Group and Getty Images into the fray. The hashtags #postitwars and #canalnotes were abuzz with banter and images of their best work. Offices in Lima, Tokyo and other international cities joined in too.
“What started as a simple greeting exchange has blossomed into a global phenomenon,” Havas NYC President Laura Maness told Adweek. “It has not only brought together our employees across the Havas Village to create a gallery of art, but it has been a channel to showcase our collaborative spirit and unmatched creativity.”
Of course, their war was not the first of its kind. The “Great French Post-it War” of 2011 saw software developer Ubisoft Montreuil battle against BNP bank, each side depicting an array of computer game characters such as Mario and Bowser.
But the 2016 NYC Post-it War went viral in an unprecedented way. Once the clients of the agencies involved saw the media coverage it was getting, many asked to have their brands emblazoned across the window too.
Was it all a planned publicity stunt from the start? Or did the 2016 Post-it War begin spontaneously and become a marketing campaign later? Creativity is a matter of play and perhaps it hardly matters if the “war” was a publicity-seeking sham. It worked – and in the world of marketing, that’s pretty much all that counts.
“What made Canal Notes special was that it was completely analog,” said Maness. “It brought us back to simple communications even in today’s overly digital world. Given that, we wanted to bring it back to where it started – with a simple Post-it message and design.”
Whatever its artistic merits, the war could only have one victor – and Havas Worldwide was determined to prevail. To win the crown, it would need to administer a blow so final and devastating that its enemies would be crushed into submission. How could it be done?
“It was pretty easy,” wrote a Havas employee on Reddit. Its graphic designers first drew the plan, and then “a bunch of people stayed late on Monday, got a ton of beer and pizza and went floor by floor executing…” Whatever they were creating, it would have to be huge. And clever.
As Wiktionary puts it, to “drop the mic” is “to do something decisive, meaningful or impressive… From the practice of entertainers (particularly rappers) concluding performances by dropping the microphone onto the stage.” In that spirit, Havas unveiled its masterpiece.
Sprawling across the windows of its entire building, an image of a giant hand dropping a giant microphone settled the “war” once and for all. Nothing more could be said, nothing more could be done. Havas had won and peace prevailed. Or had it?
When the building managers ordered a ceasefire and the removal of all Post-it art works, the fun – and the “war” – seemed to be truly over. But Getty Images and New York Magazine had one parting shot: the image of a fat lady singing, mic in hand.
The 2016 Post-it war may be one of the year’s cleverest and most effective marketing campaigns. Above all, it was fun. And since Post-it notes can be found in nearly every office from London to Tokyo, just about any workplace can do the same.
Resistant bosses might want to consider the words of Andrew Bennett, global CEO of Havas Worldwide. He said, “Corporate agility is reliant not just on organizational flexibility, but also on the nimble and innovative thinking of the talent who power the enterprise. That sort of thinking doesn’t come naturally in a buttoned-up environment.” Happy posting.