Marketing

Better than SEO: Why this small-business owner spent his marketing budget on a private jet

Ian Whitworth /

You can spend your marketing money on pop-up ads, search words and sponsored posts, but those are all boring things nobody notices because everyone does them.

We bought a private jet instead. It was a thousand times more fun and had a far better marketing ROI.

Ours was a distressed-asset — an old six-seat banger from the 80s that was going cheap. Its first owner was an Asian president, whose Wikipedia page describes him as a “politician/kleptocrat”. Then it did rock ‘n’ roll tours with bands so dirty its value dropped to where our low-end consortium could pick it up.

You’d describe the interior as ‘used Winnebago chic’.

We only flew in it ourselves once, because it was ferociously expensive to run and we are responsible business people. It chewed through $2500 an hour just in fuel. The rest of the time it did charters. It did a lot of justice system work, ferrying around the sort of criminals you don’t want next to you on a commercial flight. It was basically this, but smaller …

… and with smaller hair.

The percentage returns on private jet rental are not as good as AV equipment rental (our regular business). But the jet’s very existence was an atom bomb of gossip-driven marketing hilarity.

It was a long game, building up over 12 months.

In year one, we put the word out at the events industry’s annual conference via the free t-shirts we hand out every year, instead of the usual promo junk.

(For analog design nerds, the Scenejet t-shirt logo was lifted from Interflug, the long-gone East German airline. I love it so much.)

We also ran a competition, with the lucky winner receiving a private jet day out with five of their friends.

Tea and risk

Almost all stock photos are terrible, but private jet stock photos are just the worst. So we did our own deliberately stupid shots that magazine editors liked. Interesting photos really help open the PR doors. Yes, that is my late grandmother’s tea set, complete with knitted cosy. Beat that, Trump.

Some were sceptical of Scenejet’s existence. People love to wonder if rumours are true, and this dramatic tension is good. It’s high-octane fuel for industry gossip. We knew the following year, the conference would be on Hamilton Island, the one destination where every arriving passenger has to walk past your parked jet to get to the terminal.

Also, it felt like a good idea to form a dirty industry band — dubbed AV/DC — who played the conference after-party. It gave the plane livery some nice extra detail: back to its rock ‘n’ roll tour roots. It’s nice to play in a band made up of your competitors, it reminds you that you actually really like them.

Come day one of the conference, the word-of-mouth frenzy was insane. Particularly when handled the correct way.

“OMG was that your jet on the tarmac?”

“We’d prefer not to talk about that.”

The oldest attention-getter trick in the book.

Because people want you to be a success. They’d followed the progress of Scene Change as a plucky little challenger brand, and they liked saying: ‘We knew them back when they had nothin’ and now they’ve got a private jet! What a story!’

It was endlessly funny, and that sort of fun rubs off on your clients and staff. Our people knew it wasn’t serious big-notin’ Fyre Island jet lyfe, but more a sort of performance art experiment.

But where’s the ROI?

We had Scenejet for two years, which was enough antics. When you add it up it cost a bit over $50,000 a year, which seemed pretty reasonable considering we spend about that on search marketing. The return? Just one bar conversation during the AV/DC set led to an ongoing contract worth seven figures annually.

Plus, nobody ever talks about your tedious targeted-search campaign four years later. But the Scenejet audience recall is still vivid. I am writing this blog on the way to that conference now, and every year people still ask: ‘Hey did you come here in the jet?’

The band played okay after our one rehearsal, and we returned the year after. I only mention it so I can share this promo vid for the second gig, featuring Senator Richard Di Natale, Australian Greens leader, in his only public agreement with the then-Abbott government:

“This government’s stuffed a lot of things up but the one thing they’ve got right is revoking AV/DC’s passports.”

Interesting stories just provide layers of material that can run for years.

At this point in the article, I guess I should draw some ‘lessons’ from this.

Lessons that sound better than ‘we just wanted to because it was hilarious and messed with people’s minds’.

Lesson one: Go big or go home

Marketers, every so often you should do something large and insane. It’s all very good to describe yourself as a brand storyteller on LinkedIn, but big stories need big raw material. You can’t create this sort of thing out of product shots.

Starting your own brand helps. It really speeds up the approval process.

Lesson two: Sometimes there is no measurement

Measurement is generally a good thing, but if we had some budget approval ogre demanding to know the cost per acquisition for this kind of caper, there is no truthful answer because you just don’t know. It’s pure instinct. For the full time I’ve been writing this, I’ve had an idiotic smile on my face just thinking about the sheer joy of being able to do the Scenejet thing. And it rubs off on everyone around you.

We’d still do all of our marketing capers even if they never gave us a single new customer, because our staff dig it. And if they dig it, they’ll do better work, the customers will be happy and they’ll do our business development for us.

Lesson three: A half-arsed microeconomic theory on the American dream

Every time I take an internal flight in the US, with systematic humiliation every step of the way, I think: ‘This is why America is the land of the entrepreneur, for just one reason.’

Everyone dreams of owning their own jet so they can escape the dehumanising clutches of the TSA and their nightmare security checks.

If that takes trying to out-work Gary Vaynerchuk, so be it.

This article was first published on Motivation for Sceptics. Read the original article.

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Ian Whitworth

Ian Whitworth is a reformed branding and advertising creative director turned entrepreneur, who co-founded corporate audiovisual company Scene Change.