In a world where viral events and album build-ups means laughable TikTok dances, memeable lyrics, Fortnite concerts or Amazon exclusive performances – this story of virality is none of that.
Let me take you back to 2010 and Jay-Z’s groundbreaking and multiple award winning viral promotional campaign of his autobiography ‘Decoded’ that involved a truly unique experience. A real-life daily scavenger hunt, spanning over months, releasing more than 300 clues, and taking over everything from billboards and bus stops, to the bottom of the Delano Hotel pool, a rooftop in New Orleans, a Cadillac in Brooklyn, cheeseburger wrappings and pizza boxes – hell, even to official Gucci collaborative leather jackets.
Through an interview with then Creative Director of Droga5, Neil Heymann, and the projects Art Director, Jon Kubik, plus hours of scattering the internet for decade old articles and searching abandoned rap-and fashion forums, this is the story of how one of the most influential campaigns ever went down.
Back in 2010, Jay-Z was releasing his first autobiography containing lyrics, their explanations, anecdotes, reflections, and autobiographical information on the New York born Hip-Hop rap-mogul. Back then, the now renowned creative agency Droga5 approached the Rocnation team with a ingenious and indeed ambitious campaign that to most would seem impossible. The plan was to release every single page of the book at public physical-and online locations spanding 15 cities – most in the USA, some in the UK. Every day for months a clue would be released either via radio, Jay-Z’s social media or, primarily, via campaign partner Microsoft Bing’s search engine.
As the book holds many specific locations telling Jay-Z’s life-story, the idea was that named places within the book would be locations for the released pages. Die-hard Jay-Z fans could for example log on to Bing’s dedicated ‘Decoded-site’, solve the daily clue, and rush down to relevant physical forms of the book’s scriptures. As the founder of Droga5, David Droga, teased before the campaign launched; “If in certain pages Jay-Z is talking about something related to Times Square, then those pages might be on billboards in Times Square…” – and take over billboards on Times Square, among hundreds of other places, they indeed did.
But when obvious commercial spots were out of reach, Droga5 would get creative, and these instances were what really made the campaign take off. As for example on Jay-Z’s childhood street Marcy’s where Droga5 placed a real bronze plaque, citing page 2 & 3 about his childhood home.
For Jay’s memoirs about writing the lyrics for ‘Big Pimpin’, Droga5 “printed” the whole bottom, literally, of the Delano Hotel’s swimming pool – plus the free towels laid upon the surrounding sunbeds – with page 121 from Decoded. This by itself sounds like an incredible feed to pull of and Art Director Jonathan Kubik remembers especially this clue location to be one of almost a sheer miracle, of course forced by hard work for it to make it into the real world: “The Delano Pool location happened in like five days – from concept, to reaching out to the hotel, to building and placing the page on the bottom of the pool, to releasing it to the public to find it.” as he recalls in an interview for the article.
Memoirs of pimpin’ at the Delano Hotel in Miami was just one of many stories referenced and brought to life by Droga5. For example, when Jay-Z mentioned eating a blue cheese burger with Bono and Bill Clinton at ‘The Spotted Pig’ restaurant, well then Droga5 had printed pages on the wrappings, tablecloths, mirrors, and on the actual porcelain plates, if you ordered that same burger that Jay did. These short-run items were among the favorites of then Creative Director Neil Heymann: “I loved the short-run items like burger wrappers, bodega paper bags, or album covers in second-hand record stores”. These might have been some of the most underrated according to Jon Kubik: “I think the thing that maybe went under the radar was how the stories from those pages were so relevant to the actual placements and the activations.”
Among Bill Clinton and Bono, other notable namedrops within the pages of Decoded, included the legendary grunge artist Kurt Cobain and the revolutionary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Fittingly, Droga5 wrapped the pages citing Cobain’s musical influence on Jay onto a custom guitar displayed in a local New York shop. And for Jean-Michel, a bus stop near Basquiat’s childhood home and at his studio in Brooklyn would be cleared for the pages citing the meaningful impact his art and his creative being had on Jay. The citing of Jay’s biggest influences would of course also mention his parents, and here Droga5 would reveal the pages via a jukebox that was playing his parents favorite records, all while displaying pages from Decoded.
Notable influences on Jay would not be complete without the mentioning of Christopher George Latore Wallace, aka. Biggie Smalls, aka. The Notorious B.I.G.. Honoring his influence on Jay-Z, Droga5 rented the front page of a Brooklyn New York newspaper, picturing Biggie’s last ride through Brooklyn and citing Jay’s memoirs of thousands of people gathering in the streets. Also cleverly referencing the early life of Biggie, Droga5 printed pages on pizza boxes from a pizzeria on Fulton Street – The street that a 17-year-old Biggie namechecks in his most iconic freestyle. A reference that Neil Heymann remembers being genuinely surprised by Jay-Z’s fans: “Even cardboard pizza boxes were suddenly very sought after at the time”.
Jay-Z’s legendary 40/40 club would also be endorsed by the campaign. Among his wall of famous sports memorabilia inside the club, a custom Nets jersey would suddenly be framed and hung, printed with the contents of page 86. His love for the Nets would evidently also become a more intricate part of the campaign as Droga5 had banners citing pages during their home games, hung among the Hall of Fame banners. Combining Jay’s love for basketball and hustling the streets of New York, Droga5 also switched out one of the hoops at the world’s most iconic streetball scene: Rucker Park.
A pool hall would also be visited with all of the in-house pool tables being re-lined with pages from Decoded. And again, revisiting his love for sports and games, basketball and pool was not all. Page 79, among others, citing his love for boxing, would be found on punching bags within the famed Gleason’s boxing gym in Brooklyn.
Other notable pages taking physical form is page 198 & 199, where Jay-Z talks about the Run-DMC crew and Cadillacs. Here, Droga5 fully wrapped a classic 1982 Cadillac Seville with the pages citing Jam Master Jay’s love for “The Caddy” and placed it at a local mural of the legendary DJ rapper.
Of course Jay-Z’s love for fashion and New York’s reputation for custom leathers and artisans like famed Dapper Dan, Pelle Pelle, or, as Jay mentions on page 189 & 190, North Beach Leathers iconic 8 Ball jacket would also be cited in Decoded. This jacket was sought out by street-hustlers like Jay-Z due to the implied drug dealer connotation of the slang term for an 8th ounce of cocaine – and for the near thousand-dollar price tag. Here, Droga5 connected Jay’s memoirs of writing the song ‘Blue Magic’, where lyrics cited Jay matching his Gucci sweater with his leather jacket, and made an exclusive one-of official Gucci leather jacket! This was supposedly hand-stitched to Jay–Z’s exact measurements by Gucci’s then lead creative, Frida Giannini, completed with the lining printed with page 189 & 190, and then displayed in Gucci’s flagship store on 5th Ave. An old forum mentioned a hefty price tag of $3.800, but according to Neil Heymann, “The jacket was custom made to Jay-Z as a gift from Gucci”, and followed-up by Jon Kubik, “At the end of the project, we all wanted that jacket for ourselves but Jay-Z / Rocawear kept that one. Don’t know if they ever sold it – I always imagined it being somewhere in Jay-Z’s enormous closet!”
But life is not only filled with things we love and our own deep found passions. It’s also filled with failure and frustration. Struggles with the late 1990’s and early 2000’s popularization of bootlegging music was cited by Jay in Decoded and, ironically, Droga5 released those pages through a counterfeit book distributed by a local street vendor near the mecca of knockoffs: Canal Street.
Remembering past struggles and Jay–Z’s implications with the law during his career as a famed street hustler, Droga5 would fill out the shop window of a local New York bail bonds dealer, reminding visitors that there are other ways in life that leads to success than one of crime.
Knowing Jay Z, all of the pages’ physical forms couldn’t only be citing things related to his personal struggle and his rise to fame. The autobiography also contains Jay’s memoirs of the horrors in New Orleans during the raging hurricane Katrina, cited on page 220 & 221. To creatively commemorate this, Droga5 draped the Decoded pages on a rooftop in the city, making the pages visible only from the air – or, more conveniently, visible from campaign founder Bing Maps online satellite view. This was made to also resemble how rescuers in helicopters would look for survivors climbing the city rooftops during the tragic devastation of the following flooding.
This is all without further mentioning Decoded pages displayed in movie theater commercials, subway billboards, vinyls displayed in record stores, an oversized puzzle piece in a local game-café, street art sold through street vendors, and a framing at a famed Chelsea Art Gallery. All in all, 320 pages were displayed in online-or physical form. But what was the incentive for even hardcore Jay-Z fans to keep up with the promotion?
Well, besides a copy of the book with Jay–Z’s signature on the exact page you would go out of your way to find, you would also join the raffle of an all-in paid trip to see Jay-Z and Coldplay’s New Years Eve Concert in Vegas – but that’s not all. Droga5 also decided to gift a person that solved all of the 200 Bing Maps clues with something as valuable as a Life-Time Pass for two to all then announced and future Jay-Z concerts!
This obviously caused a frenzy to solve the Bing Maps clues, peaking with Bing’s then General Manager, Eric Hadley, stating to Fast Company: “We heard a story through Facebook about a woman, a lawyer, who more or less hired a team of six or seven people who all scouted through the clues.” Jon Kubik was also wauw’d by the lengths the hardcore Jay-Z fans would go to: “It was wild. I don’t recall who won, but I do remember the lawyer! I also remember that the person who found the final page got a first-class ticket to party with Jay-Z in Miami.”
As a large part of culture now revolves around cultural capital and collecting fashion, art, sneakers or almost whatever niche-thing that shows individuality and cultural knowledge, many of you, including me, might be left dreaming about stepping out in that Gucci leather jacket, or just merely owning a small piece of the Jay-Z Decoded memorabilia. Neil Heymann believes sourcing anything of that nature now, over a decade later, must be a hard task: “Some of the key pieces of memorabilia were given to Roc Nation and some can also still be found in the Droga5 offices. To my knowledge though, no fans have a collection of Decoded stuff. I myself still have a few of the pieces that we made in bulk, like a Spotted Pig t-shirt and a Delano Hotel pool towel.” Jon Kubik also recalls “working with amazing craftsmen of all sorts on a lot of cool items that were almost works of art”, and got to keep a couple of the Spotted Pig plates, a pizza box, and one of the custom vinyl records for himself. Imagine owning a piece of history like that now, when Jay-Z is still on top of his game!
This dreamy and extraordinary campaign must have been a nightmare to produce, plan and execute. As there were hundreds of clues, pieces and placements to make, and to release one daily at a specific time in the correct order and in both virtual and physical form, Neil Heymann recalls daily production problems to overcome – all while keeping the three-part investors happy, consisting of Jay-Z’s brand Rocawear, Microsoft Bing, and Random House Books.
The production chaos is also something Jon Kubik vividly recalls even now, more than a decade after the campaign ran: “Oh god, yes! There were many mishaps and crazy things that happened along the way. There were even A LOT of moments where we didn’t even think the project would happen. I mean, my partner Adam Noel and I were still concepting and figuring out the page locations as the first pages were going out into the world, and we were just a very small group of really talented and dedicated people doing it. We even put out beds in the back of the agency to sleep! It was nuts and exciting and I really don’t know how we pulled it off – probably because we had insanely good producers like Mea Cole Tefka and Andrew Allen, as well as amazing leadership under Neil Heymann and Founder David Droga.”
But the golden question… How much did all of this cost!?
Neil Heymann was foggy on the numbers as this happened so long ago, and Jon Kubik stated that he “honestly don’t even know.” He did however shed a speckle of light on the fundings saying “The majority was definitely paid by Microsoft, but the initial budget was greater than they were willing to pay. I do remember hearing Clear Channel gave us $1 million dollars worth of free OOH-media for the campaign (Out-Of-Home media, outdoor advertising), as it was such a great case study for them to show off how insanely targeted they could get with placements. And also, at this time everyone wanted to work with Jay-Z and that gave us partners that were willing to join at a reduced cost for the publicity. That being said, I am sure the cost was still crazy expensive just because of the sheer size of the campaign…”
Luckily, all the effort and all the million dollar investments did not go unnoticed. Droga5 can now brag of nothing less than 1.1 billion global media impressions and almost a 12% increase in overall visits to Bing.com – all among a dozen of awards.
In the end, besides launching a great career as an Art Director, Jon Kubik also got some fond and hugely flex-worthy memories: “At the end of the campaign, Jay-Z sent limos filled with Ace Champaign to the office and our team got to ride in style and sit front row at a Nets game together. The project took a full year and a crazy amount of work, so it was just so fulfilling to end it all celebrating with the people we had been through so much with.”
Reflecting on the campaign, Neil Heymann said “It was a truly life-changing experience in so many ways. Personally, I loved getting the chance to present to Jay a couple of times, and I loved seeing the fan reactions – even meeting one or two of the most dedicated players of the game. All of us who worked on it knew at the time that it was a once-in-career project, and it’s thrilling that people are still curious about it so many years later.”
Now, imagine a campaign of this magnitude running in this day and age, with today’s technology of AR and AI inside all the forms of social media in the front pocket of a rapid fan frenzy spanning over generations… Although funny and engaging, a viral Tik-Tok dance could never compare creatively.
WORDS BY JACOB KREBS