Why John Hancock Set Up a Fake Retirement Community in the Middle of Texas

Brand's web series plays up humor

The financial firm wants to make retirement less scary. - Credit by Courtesy of John Hancock
Headshot of Lauren Johnson

During the thick of South by Southwest, patrons of Austin’s hip Better Half Coffee and Cocktails shop likely noticed something odd while sipping their espressos and craft cocktails last Monday: The upper window of a plywood house behind the restaurant shattering while cameras zoomed in on the scene.

“That’s the window we’re knocking out to put a drone through,” said Evan Slater, chief creative at Heat New York.

Just moments before, a truck had toppled over another flimsy house nearby.

The scene may sound like pure chaos, but the day was going exactly as planned on the set of John Hancock’s new commercial. The entirely fake “retirement community” had popped up two days previously to serve as the set of a campaign meant to show all of the unplanned moments of retirement beyond just saving money. What do you do when after years of working, you suddenly have unlimited time to yourself? What do you do when the dream house you saved up for quite literally falls apart?

“So many people just talk about not having enough money [for retirement] and you don’t actually think about what you’re going to do with that time,” said Kate Ardini, avp of brand strategy at John Hancock. “This is [meant to] connect with the emotional side of retirement as opposed to the scary graph charts that show that you’re never going to have enough money.”

To drive that message home, actors Pete Holmes and Jamie Lee from HBO’s Crashing play two characters who get a humorous, over-the-top glimpse at all of the unplanned retirement challenges through a virtual reality experience.

“This is the sort of campaign that I felt good about doing because it’s something that young people don’t know a lot about,” Holmes said. “There is a way that retirement can go very wrong, and I think that’s what makes this campaign fun.”

The campaign, which launches today on Fast Company, is the first major commercial work from John Hancock and its recently-appointed agencies Deloitte-owned Heat and WPP’s m/SIX and Wunderman.

If downplaying the financial hardships tied to retirement seems like an odd message coming from a financial services company, that’s kind of the point, added Heat’s Slater.

“When you look at the industry, there are different ways of doing it and ‘finding your number,’ but it’s always about the number. It’s always about the math [associated with retirement], and if there’s one thing we know about humans, they don’t want to spend time thinking about numbers,” he said. “This is not about hard-selling products or scaring people. The hope here was to find a way of talking to people who don’t think about retirement and get them to.”

John Hancock created a web series with five short video clips that tell the story of the characters played by Lee and Holmes. Media is targeted at anyone between the ages of 20 and 45 who are looking for more information about retirement. Over the next five weeks, one video will launch weekly on Fast Company and on social media.

“We decided from day one that we could have gone out and made a 30-second ad, but that’s not what we wanted to do or what the aspiration ever was,” explained James Chanter, media director at m/SIX. “It’s making something that the audience wants to engage with and wants to consume.”

John Hancock is also working with Fast Company to create a hub of themed editorial content like quizzes and stories about finance as well as native ads. With m/SIX’s demand-side platform, the agency is building out audiences based on demographics and using predictive modeling to understand which consumers are in the market for insurance.

“The FastCo audience is young, they’re professional, they tend towards creative,” says Eric Shurenberg, CEO of Mansueto Ventures, which owns Fast Company. “If people like that are talking about retirement to their friends and recommending humorous videos about their future, that halo effect works pretty well.”

Plus, it’s not a coincidence that the commercial was being shot during SXSW, when thousands of creatives and digital marketers were in town to talk about technology. “We have to be with these digital tastemakers, and being here is obviously the way to do that,” explains Ardini.

So, why zero in on Holmes and Lee specifically? “It had to be someone who felt earnest and genuine. We wanted comedians who had a natural relationship, and they had an organic relationship as normal people before becoming famous, and that translated to their show,” Slater says.

The idea is for Lee and Holmes to improvise off each other so that the script doesn’t feel like a script. “It felt like how Curb Your Enthusiasm has been described to me—you have a loose outline, and then you fill it in with your own conversation and improv,” says Lee.

Emphasizing humor in its ads is one way that John Hancock plans to take more risks in its marketing going forward. “This is not super scripted and it feels really real. As a brand, we’ve been in that space for a long time,” John Hancock’s Ardini says. “Comedy is new for us, but the authenticity is something that’s within our DNA.”

@laurenjohnson lauren.johnson@adweek.com Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.