How is this still a thing: the eccentric advertising underbelly of skywriting

Skywriting is a rare form of communication that enables people to write in the sky. Invented in the 1920s to communicate with troops during World War 1, the phenomenal medium is now a vehicle for political commenters, artists, advertisers and romantics.

Over the years individuals have used their imaginations, and taken to the heavens for a multitude of reasons. Common sticklers include dirty kneed men ordering sky-bound marriage proposals, brands sporting aerial banners, and religious folk who reserve skywriting for the man upstairs – claiming that ‘they only sky write for god’. Whether blasphemy or not, the sky has become a chalkboard for advertisers. And for what seems like an excessively expensive, environmentally unnecessary and a rather risky operation, the celestial medium is still somehow a thing.

So, what does New Zealand’s skywriting landscape look like today? Why is it still attractive for advertisers, and what does the future look like for skywriting? We talk to Fletcher McKenzie, a feigned Kiwi skywriter and a man fanatical about aviation.

From early on McKenzie had all the key attributes to be a skywriter. At 13 the Kiwi-born entrepreneurial aviation maestro joined the Air Training Corps and flew solo three years later at the age of 16. After gathering his diploma in marketing, he set up a bunch of advertising agencies; Dynamite Advertising Ltd, Magnet Direct Ltd and the Cortex Group. He also set up a multi-million-dollar marketing agency and worked with some very esteemed multi-national brands along the way, including Mercedes-Benz and Castrol, as well as setting up New Zealand’s first text messaging service via Vodafone.

Despite the success, McKenzie’s eyes were on the sky. He later left the advertising industry and set up global aviation-based TV show, FlightPathTV, which is currently on screen in 60 different countries. Now, McKenzie is a global board member of the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation, and on the side, he has combined his passion for flying with his history in business, running Auckland-based aerial banner towing and skywriting company, Sky Campaigns.

McKenzie was introduced to the skywriting industry in 2007 during an aerobatic lesson when he discovered that his instructor had a banner towing business. Naturally, he jumped in the cockpit and joined the team. Now, McKenzie facilitates aerial banner towing and smoke based skywriting campaigns – doing a range of projects including art installations, marriage proposals, love messages and aerial banner towing campaigns.

“We did an AMI smile from 9,000 feet up, we also worked with coloured smoke for Cerebos Gregg’s on Valentine’s day. We came up with an idea for chicken on Valentine’s day, we had the first banner ‘I love you chicken’, and a minute behind a banner stating, ‘We love chicken’ to promote Greggs seasoning. Having jets and different types of ‘aircraft like helicopters, means we come up with some crazy ideas when we work with creative agencies.”

Asked why advertisers would go to skywriters as opposed to more conventional mediums, McKenzie says, “it’s the sky, everyone looks up to the sky and while I may be a bit of an aviation geek, I think people will always look overhead and read the message, it’s uncluttered, and it works”.

In terms of measuring audience success, skywriting is a different kettle of fish from the magazine or online world, which can measure engagement and reach with specified plotted figures and data sheets. McKenzie says that “eyeballs in the sky are much different from figures on a sheet” – and for the ambient media form, it largely comes down to primary research.

In terms of ad spend, only one skywriting company is registered in the 2017 SMI ad agency spend figures, Skysignz, a Christchurch based aviation advertising company. According to Scott Keddie from Omnicom Media Group, it represents a puny section of the outdoor sector and adds up to a mere $10,000 of ad spend per year.

To order an aerial banner tow, clients are expected to fork out roughly $2,000 and for smoke based skywriting it’s between $4,000 and $4,500, according to McKenzie. He says the additional cost for skywriting comes from the extra resource in generating smoke, the additional preparation and the level of riskiness for pilots carving words in the sky. He adds that his company is very careful to adhere to the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) regulations.

Asked if there have been any blemishes over his time in the business, McKenzie assures that he has a 100 percent record thus far: “I am conscious of down-playing the expectation, the last thing I want to do is promise something that isn’t delivered.”

For aerobatic smoke-based skywriters who are at 10,000 feet above the ground, it’s not surprising that there are plenty of precautions. McKenzie points to the weather as a critical component for skywriters, who rely on calm and clear conditions.

“The hard part with skywriting is the weather because you have to try and get high. What I always say to clients is to ‘use it as a support mechanism rather than building a campaign’ because it’s just hard work. I can’t guarantee it is going to be a good weather day.”

According to McKenzie, Auckland’s moody weather patterns is the Achilles heel for local skywriting companies. He says people often set out to order a smoke-based campaign, but later turn to aerial banners as it is comparatively less reliant on conditions and more affordable. The Auckland weather seems to dishearten McKenzie who is particularly keen on pursuing more local smoke-based campaigns.

“I love the smoke it’s fun, we have the top aerobatic pilots in New Zealand flying these aircraft, they are very professional and they deliver. It’s always good to see what the media has captured afterwards it’s really cool to see.”

Auckland’s weather woes continued to niggle at McKenzie especially when he attempted to bring skytyping to New Zealand. Skytyping is a form of skywriting that sees five or six equidistant aircraft traversing across the sky in unison. The style of skywriting leaves massive neatly typed messages in the sky and has been popular internationally. “It looks like a dot matrix printer,” McKenzie says longingly over the phone.

However, with a steep license fee of a few thousand dollars per year, combined with Auckland’s moody weather patterns, McKenzie discovered that skytyping in New Zealand wasn’t viable.

This compares with international markets such as Western Australia or the USA, which have bigger scale, larger budgets, and more suitable weather for skywriters. McKenzie says, for New Zealanders, it’s more about finding creative alternatives. He adds that New Zealand’s market has a few competitors, but unlike the US, he doesn’t know of any skywriters who are doing it full-time.

“People do it because they are passionate about it, no one goes into skywriting to make money, but I guess it’s like anything, if you are passionate about something, money comes as a result.”

Gazing into the future, McKenzie shares his excitement for the America’s Cup. He says it’s a great spectacle for skywriters who have a two-week window of hope. And despite Auckland being slightly patchy in the weather department, he is sure there will be an opportunity to fly a few smokey messages overhead.

As for the skywriting industry on the whole, McKenzie believes the possibilities for the aviation sector are endless. He points to drones as a future weapon in the advertising armoury.

Despite McKenzie’s excitement about drones, it must be said, in a world already saturated with advertising, adding drones to the mix sounds like some sort of dystopic nightmare. 

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