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Behind The Creative Launch Of The Biggest And Priciest Billboard In Times Square

SapientNitro Chief Experience Officer Donald Chesnut talks about the creative opportunity of almost 24 million LED pixels.

Many New Yorkers hate Times Square. The traffic, the noise, the collection of restaurants that look like a mall food court on meth and steroids. But perhaps the most annoying thing is trying to actually get somewhere amid the heaving throngs of (mostly) tourists moving at a snail's pace, their heads aimed skyward, mesmerized by the shock-and-awe brand assault on the senses perpetrated by the gaggle of brightly lit billboards.

Vornado Realty Trust this week unveiled the behemoth of all billboards—24 million LED pixels mounted on the side of the Marriot Marquis hotel, spanning eight stories high and the entire block of Broadway from 45th to 46th St. But even with the biggest and brightest screen, how do you get people's attention in a place like Times Square?

That was the question posed to agency SapientNitro back in March. For Chief Experience Officer Donald Chesnut, that question quickly became less about what they could do and more what they should do. "Everyone is constantly being bombarded by advertising, we thought about it as an opportunity for real creativity," says Chesnut. "Rather than flipping the switch and presenting more advertising on Day One, we wanted to do something different and make it an event."

The agency turned to its Second Story division that specializes in digital installations and experiences, most recently for Whole Foods, and artists Universal Everything with the goal of creating dynamic custom content. "We wanted it to be a statement to potential brand advertisers, that this isn’t just a big TV but something that can be used in a variety of ways," says Chesnut.

The new screen—with an ad price tag of $2.5 million for four weeks—gives brands the ability to engage with audiences in new ways, blending the physical and digital, including the ability for passersby to use their mobile devices to influence and select the content that appears on the screen. For the launch event, the agency gave special guests the chance to choose elements of the art exhibit, then see those choices come to life when it went live.

"This is a new age of screens and this has immensity and drama in its scale, but people expect to touch and interact with them now," says Chesnut. "So we wanted to build that into it, to show what was possible."

On November 24 Google will take over the billboard for the next six weeks as its first commercial client and Chesnut says to expect to see some of the strengths of Chrome browser exhibited using WebGL.

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