How one agency helps Candy Crush, the NBA, and others put their brands in the sky

Drone advertising is a fairly new, fairly niche marketing strategy that has high hurdles to clear. Still, some brands are giving it a shot.
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Pixis Drones

4 min read

It’s a bird… It’s a plane… It’s an ad.

Last June, the NBA appeared in the New York City skyline to hype up its draft. In November, Candy Crush put on a light show over the Hudson to commemorate its 10-year anniversary. That same month, Paris Hilton celebrated her wedding anniversary and the debut of her company, 11:11 Media, by lighting up the sky above the Santa Monica Pier.

Thank drones for bringing those brands to the sky—or, more specifically, Pixis Drones, an agency that creates what it describes as “branded aerial art displays.”

Despite some big-name clients, drone advertising is still in its “infancy,” Pixis General Manager Jeff Kaplan told Marketing Brew, so Pixis is still working to educate marketers on what’s possible before they give it a try. Plus, there are other hurdles to clear before liftoff, including creative and technical planning, FAA approvals, and the court of public opinion.

Still, Kaplan and Pixis founder Brad Nierenberg are betting the strategy will take off.

“We have an opportunity to…tell a story in a medium that has not been yet defined,” Nierenberg told Marketing Brew. “There’s a huge ceiling for this, and it can only go higher and brighter.”

Much to think about

When Pixis puts on a drone show, it typically results in a “flurry of inbounds” from people inquiring about costs and asking about doing shows of their own, including for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and corporate events, Nierenberg told us. Shows typically run for about 10 minutes.

Pixis charges between $300 and $500 per drone per show, according to Nierenberg, depending on different factors. Most installations use between 250 and 500 drones, Kaplan said. That adds up to somewhere between $75,000 and $250,000, not including additional costs like site fees and content capture packages, Kaplan said.

For most weddings and bar mitzvahs, that might be a little much (though maybe not for the more extravagant ones…), but some are willing to pay up.

The shows themselves present an easy social opp for brands; Paris Hilton’s Instagram Reel from 11:11 Media’s show racked up 2.8 million views. The show alone reached people beyond those attending the company’s launch event, according to Krystal Hauserman, CMO of 11:11 Media.

“I think it could be seen as far south as Long Beach and as far up the coast to Malibu, and so for the whole west side of Los Angeles, [we] created basically a viral moment in the sky,” Hauserman told us. “No social media platform required.”

Ready for takeoff

Brands can’t just hold a drone show just anywhere. In some areas, like New York City, it’s illegal to fly drones, so for Pixis’s Candy Crush installation, they took off from New Jersey, Kaplan said. Plus, Pixis has to obtain permits and waivers from the FAA and coordinate with local police and fire departments, he said.

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The creative elements of a drone show present their own challenges, too. For instance, the images have to take into account the various points of view of spectators.

“You might be on the banks of the Hudson, and somebody else might be [in] New Jersey looking at it backwards,” Kaplan explained.

Every drone is like “a pixel in the sky,” Kaplan told us, so more drones equals more clarity. Pixis also chooses music or narration. All in all, the turnaround time is about 45 days, Nierenberg said.

Attention, please

The drones take to the skies. The music swells. The images rotate, so spectators on all sides can see them clearly. People stare, point, applaud, and rave on social media. At least, that’s the hope.

Media coverage, as well as in-person and online impressions, are metrics that Pixis provides to clients to demonstrate ROI, Nierenberg said.

Andrea Nirsimloo, president and partner at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment North America, which worked with Pixis on Candy Crush’s 500-drone show last year, said the campaign drove about 1.8 billion impressions in earned media across more than 300 placements. She said it also “generated a wealth of content” for the brand’s social channels.

But some of the earned media for the Candy Crush show was less than positive. Engadget called the installation a “swarm” of drones that would “plague New York City with advertising.” Gothamist pointed out that some “see the drones as an unwanted form of visual pollution,” and cited concerns from NYC Audubon that “the artificial light will likely disrupt the flight patterns of thousands of birds passing overhead.”

Setting bird safety concerns aside, do people really want ads in the sky? It’s a question Pixis gets asked a lot, according to Kaplan.

“People walk around doing what? Looking down into phones,” he said. “So when you have the sky as a canvas to celebrate, it’s a positive thing. We don’t look at this as bombarding people with ads.”

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