How do you take the social web by storm in a day, winning over even the coldest of hearts and gaining international acclaim - with commercials?

A team of creatives, tech geeks, marketers and writers gathered in an undisclosed location in Portland, Oregon yesterday and produced 87 short comedic YouTube videos about Old Spice. In real time. They leveraged Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and blogs. They dared to touch the wild beasts of 4chan and they lived to tell the tale. Even 4chan loved it. Everybody loved it; those videos and 74 more made so far today have now been viewed more than 4 million times and counting. The team worked for 11 hours yesterday to make 87 short videos, that's just over 7 minutes per video, not accounting for any breaks taken. Then they woke up this morning and they are still making more videos right now. Here's how it's going down.

Setting the Stage

Old Spice, marketing agency Wieden + Kennedy and actor Isaiah Mustafa are collaborating on the project. The group seeded various social networks with an invitation to ask questions of Mustafa's character, a dashing shirtless man with over-the-top humor and bravado. Then all the responses were tracked and users who contributed interesting questions and/or were high-profile people on social networks are being responded to directly and by name in short, funny YouTube videos. The group has made videos in response to Digg founder Kevin Rose, TV star Alyssa Milano (now big on Twitter) and many more people, famous and not.

It is well done and it appeals to peoples' egos - but there is something more, too. It feels very personalized, even if it wasn't directed at you. Those people that got responses, and many people who didn't, have Tweeted, Facebooked and otherwise shared links to the videos back out across their social networks.

Iain Tait, Global Interactive Creative Director at Wieden, is leading the effort. "In a way there's nothing magical that we've done here," he explained by phone this afternoon. "We just brought a character to life using the social channels we all [social media geeks] use every day. But we've also taken a loved character and created new episodic content in real time."

How They Are Doing It

Tait says that the primary differentiator between this campaign and others is how closely technical and social media specialists are working with the creative team. "We brought social media experts right into the creative process," he told me. Tell that to the next person who claims that all so-called social media experts are just hot-air. Tait's own savvy no doubt played a large role in the success of the campaign as well. He's just been at Wieden for 3 months, after leaving a UK agency he co-founded 8 years ago. He was voted the Most Influential Person in the UK's New Media Age Top 100 Interactive Agencies Guide last year.

"In the room there are two social media guys and a tech guy who built a system pulling in comments from around the web all together in real time," Tait says. (Right: Inside the studio, around noon today.)

"We're looking at who's written those comments, what their influence is and what comments have the most potential for helping us create new content. The social media guys and script writers are collaborating to make that call in real time. We have people shooting and we're editing it as it happens. Then the social media guys are looking at how to get that back out around the web...in real time."

The videos aren't being posted in chronological order immediately after the Tweets and comments they are in reply to. They get moved up and down a queue in a deliberate, orchestrated, if very fast way.

Tait: "Those people are having more fun than I've ever seen anyone have in a shoot like this. That's part of why it's doing so well. It's genuinely infectious, it transmits itself through the internet in a massive way."

How loved has the new campaign proven to be? 4Chan, the anonymous nihilist obscene messageboard from whence sprang memes like LOLCats and RickRolling, was the subject of what's now the 3rd most-watched of the Old Spice videos made yesterday, after the ones made for Perez Hilton and Kevin Rose. 4channers hate everything, especially people who talk about 4chan - which this savvy man in a towel did not do. But 200,000 views later, that absurd video response to "Anonymous" has received more than 4000 thumbs up from viewers and less than 100 thumbs down.

Freedom

Tait says that Old Spice's parent company Procter & Gamble exhibited incredible bravery in allowing his team to write marketing content in real time, with little to no supervision.

"There is such great trust [between the companies]," he said. "But we are being very responsible. They have given us a set of guidelines and if we get close to the edges we contact them."

That trust is all the more necessary because of how new this really is, in some ways. "If the message that comes out of this is that you can make TV commercials in 30 minutes, then we're all out of a job," Tait jokes. "This is something new. We're operating on Internet time but with a level of quality you'd get on a TV slot. That combination was what really got many peoples' attention."

Old Spice continues to post new, personalized videos to its YouTube channel. How long can they go? No one knows, but Mustafa's sure to smile seductively and make a goofy-macho joke about it once the team is done.

The campaign itself is unlikely to end even then, though. You can already get an Old Spice Man voicemail message generated for your phone. The coolest thing about that? That system wasn't even created by Old Spice or Wieden - it was built by a crowd of users at social news site Reddit this afternoon.

Update: At midnight Wednesday night, a very tired looking Mustafa posted the following conclusion.

Double Update: Now Alysa Millano has donned a towel her bathroom and challenged Mustafa to make a $100,000 donation to support wildlife restoration in the Gulf of Mexico. Well done.


Disclosure: Wieden + Kennedy is an occasional consulting client of the author's. But this story was too cool to abstain from telling just because of that.