‘I don’t want to Russian into this’: how DDB started scamming scammers

With $12 billion lost globally to phishing scams every year, and New Zealand alone losing $257 million in the past year to cybercrime, Netsafe and DDB have teamed up to tackle scammers with a time-wasting bot.

Called Re:scam, the artificially intelligent (AI) email assistant works to occupy the time and resources of scammers who would otherwise be targeting potential victims. To do so, it’s asking people to forward it their scam emails so it can then reply in the hopes of hooking the scammer into a long, drawn-out conversation about the scam’s details without ever actually giving into the scam.

Martin Cocker, CEO of Netsafe, says the campaign comes from its concern about the growth of predatory email phishing, which leaves victims essentially powerless.

“We feel the scale of the problem far outweighs the attention it receives and wanted to create a tool that would empower people to take action.”

One conversation between a scammer at Re:scam was so successful, it saw the scammer eventually ask Re:scam to stop emailing it – an ironic response, considering it’s the scammers typically causing the frustration.

“Would it be a good idea to for me to get some legal advice?”, “I’d love to join your secret club. Do you do a bingo night?” and “How soon can I expect to receive these funds? I owe a pretty significant amount of money to Readers Digest and need to pay them back before they take legal action”, are among the lines Re:scam has used to prompt the scammer to reply.

So far Re:scam has received more than 210,000 forwarded emails and sent over a million emails to scammers.

The future of advertising

Considering the magnitude of the campaign in both what it aims to achieve and fact that the Re:Scam bot had to be created from scratch, it was no easy undertaking by DDB.

Fundamental to the campaign was the agency’s digital team, which after a period of growth has opened opportunities for the agency that it wouldn’t have been able to consider three, or even two years ago.

Digital director Liz Knox says the digital team is in the unique position in being able to work on all aspects of a campaign from advertising banners to creating products thanks to it four full-stack developers and senior front-end team.

Having those skill sets under its roof has enabled DDB to experiment with new technologies, such as facial recognition and AI—which was serendipitous given the challenge Netsafe faced.    

“It was kind of a beautiful thing with the timing,” says Knox. “Netsafe came to us with a problem and we happened to be tinkering with AI and chatbots at the time.”

The creative team was then brought into the mix to come up with the solution and in doing so, the ubiquitous mess of buzz words, like ‘big data’, ‘algorithms’ and ‘AI’ became a creative and relevant solution for a client.

Chief creative officer Damon Stapleton adds that the real lesson here is you can have technology that’s boring as batshit and you can have creativity that might not work—but put them together, spend some time on it and that’s where the magic happens.

The merging of creativity and tech is seen in the face given to Re:scam for its promotion. Created by joining together different faces, it demonstrates the point that it has multiple identities to hold the thousands of different conversations it’s able to have with scammers.

It’s a creative execution that serves to simply communicate what Re:scam is to the audience. Rather than talking about bots or AI, the creative serves to show the users how the initiative functions. 

“It was an interesting learning for us,” says Stapleton. “How do you explain an idea like this – it seems easy to us but your average person would go: ‘What?’”

The face was therefore important to give an identity and humility to an otherwise tech-based idea.

That humility is also in the conversations Re:scam is able to have with scammers as DDB wanted to avoid “the Terminator” vibe that some bots give off when talking.

To do that, 90,000 potential conversation lines have been created for IBM Watson’s Natural Language Classifier to choose from based on keywords in the conversation. That selection method ensures Re:scam doesn’t go off topic and the conversation flows.

The longest conversation it’s managed to have with a scammer lasted 32 responses back and forth.

Good things take time

With so many conversation lines to be written and an identity for Re:scam to create, it’s no surprise the campaign has been in the pipeline for the past year, with over 10,000 hours of work put in by the team.

It’s a number that also reiterates the fact that Re:scam is the first of its kind and DDB wanted to get it right before putting it out to market. It was about creating a long-lasting programme rather than launching a product that never gets beyond the prototype phase.

The investment of time in the campaign was also a huge undertaking for the client and DDB commends Netsafe for sticking with it throughout the journey. However, in saying that, spending a year producing a campaign is the new reality.

Stapleton says the timing of great ideas is a far longer process and in doing so references the likes of Peter Field and Lis Binet who champion long-term brand building.

When speaking to StopPress earlier this year, Field explained his 60-40 rule, that states 60 percent of the budget should be spent on building long-term, brand-driven success while the remaining 40 percent should be spent on short-term activation. 

“You can look at campaigns across a number of metrics for success, long-term success, and always you come to the same conclusion: it was the ones that did the 60-40 balance that were the top achievers,” he explained. “So there seems to be some real robustness in it.”

Field went on to explain that creativity takes time to deliver the full benefits.

For the agency, this means it may appear to have crashed, or not be working on anything when really it’s just busy cooking.

“We’ve always admired agencies like Wieden + Kennedy where I don’t think you always have the volume, but if you do something, it’s a piece of work everybody knows,” Stapleton says. “There’s some quality to it and some robustness.”

One thing challenging that long-term thinking approach is the number of awards shows calling for new work to be displayed. In New Zealand, this can be seen in the annual Effie Awards that celebrate long-term effectiveness. When speaking to StopPress, this year’s international judge and founder of Bacon Strategy and research London Chris Baker reflected on the IPA Effectiveness Awards in the UK, which are held every two-years and are the “gold-standard in terms of rigour,” he says.

With this in mind, the local definition of effectiveness probably still relies quite heavily on a short-term interpretation in order to attract entrants every year.

For DDB, the frequency of awards shows has seen it change its approach, making a call to only enter four to five a year out of the 26 shows it would qualify for.

“If you’re going to win, win for something that has some credibility,” says Stapleton.

Generating attention

If its earned media attention is anything to go by, Re:scam is already proving its credibility, with a Google search bringing up pages of results of media around the world drawing attention to the new weapon against scammers.

In the same way DDB’s in-house digital capabilities were utilised develop the product, it’s in-house PR capabilities served as a vital player to drive attention as the campaign lacks above-the-line components.

Claudia Macdonald, managing director of Mango Communications, says the team is always conscious that campaigns with no above-the-line component live or die based on PR.

“Re:scam is a fantastic idea, but a fantastic idea that nobody hears about doesn’t help Netsafe raise awareness about email phishing,” she says.

To overcome that, the PR strategy was modelled like other successful tech launches and used an initial exclusive broadcast on The Project to secure the user base that would provide immediate engagement with the technology and credibility to the campaign.

In the 12 hours following the first story, Re:scam received more than 3,600 forwarded emails and attracted more than 18,000 unique browsers.

“From there, we used the stats to bolster the story and secure a flood of local and international coverage,” she says. “We were fortunate to have in Netsafe CEO Martin Cocker a client who was very flexible, game for anything, and ready to ride the wave when the likes of The Guardian and the BBC came calling.”

Further supporting the international attention that it’s earning, is the fact that only five percent of users of Re:scam are in New Zealand.

“We are now doing this for the world,” says the DDB team, whose pleasure in producing the product is shared by their client.

“We are thrilled that Re:scam has been recognised and used across the globe, and want to thank the DDB team for all their hard work – working with us to build a solution from the ground up,” says Cocker.

And that building isn’t over yet. The team plan on using time over the Christmas break to take it offline, take a look at it and bring it back next year as Re:scam 2.0.

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