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Audi's Art of the Heist Captured Leads

Audi's Art of the Heist Captured Leads Neal Leavitt

A recently concluded interactive advertising campaign launched by Audi not only generated considerable traffic and industry buzz, but more importantly, it served as a consistent source of leads to Audi dealers nationwide.

Ad agency McKinney-Silver designed the three-month campaign, dubbed The Art of the Heist, to boost visibility for Audi’s A3 premium compact car. According to Jason Musante, an art director for the Durham, NC-based agency, a new 2006 A3 was "stolen" from an Audi dealership on Park Avenue in New York City last April. The "thieves" left behind a smashed window. Signs went up in place of the A3 at the New York International Auto Show asking for information about the "theft."

Thus began a comprehensive campaign (Audi declined to reveal total campaign costs but a company spokesperson said they were "substantial") that included virtually every known available medium -- print ads, billboards, TV commercials, radio spots, websites, live events, emails, videos, wild postings, blogs, IRC chats, direct mail, voice transcripts, puzzles, photos and scanned-in documents.

By far the most intriguing aspect of the campaign was an interactive fictional story sponsored by Audi that was told across multiple platforms. It also included live participation by followers at various events nationwide, some of which included:

  • New York International Auto Show

  • Jim Ellis Audi dealership, Atlanta, GA

  • Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Indio, CA

  • E3 Expo, Los Angeles

  • AFI film parties

  • Campaign finale party at The Viceroy Hotel, Santa Monica, CA

In brief, the story used a technique known as alternative reality gaming, in which a community of users becomes a part of the story, interacts with the characters, and helps each other solve the mystery.

"The story centered around six 2006 A3s containing secure digital memory cards (or SD; a postage-stamp-sized storage device used with certain cell phones, digital cameras, smart phones and PDAs) with code plans for the largest art heist in history,” says Lee Newman, a McKinney-Silver group account director. "One car, a red A3, contained the key to decrypting the plans.”

The story’s protagonists were Nisha Roberts, an expert art retriever; Ian Yarborough, her boyfriend and tech whiz; and Virgil Tatum, a world-renowned video game designer.

The Art of the Heist unfolded in multiple chapters via various story sites and a microsite. The websites contained hundreds of documents that gave the characters a comprehensive back story for the audience to go through. Newman says these included:

  • Backlogs of emails from the characters

  • Phone recordings, videoconferences, conversation transcripts and text chats

  • Index of image and text documents relating to work done before the story started

  • Blueprints, maps, crime photos, suspect lists, surveillance videos, security camera footage and MP3s

  • "Easter Egg" films, hidden in undisclosed one-word links as the story unfolded. The two-minute QuickTime films enabled the audience to see key moments in the story that would otherwise be undocumented.

The three characters raced for their lives cross-country as a pair of hit men pursued them.

"Since events unfolded in real time, participants were not only able to watch what happened, but were also able to influence events through their direct participation in live ‘retrieval missions’ that were webcast in real time,” says Musante. "A ‘living movie’ involved many different layers of presentation, which allowed participants to choose their level of involvement.”

Newman added that at E3, the world’s largest video game exhibition, the Virgil Tatum character conducted an interview at the PlayStation booth with Kazunori Yamauchi, the creator of the racing video game franchise for the PlayStation platform, Gran Turismo. VH1 also did an on-air interview with Virgil in front of the PlayStation booth.

The campaign concluded at a launch party for Virgil’s new game, held at The Viceroy Hotel.

"It was discovered that Virgil’s business partner, Emile Smithson, was behind the heist from the beginning,” says Newman. "From Germany to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, he orchestrated a series of manipulations and deceptions worthy of his best video game design -- all of it over the fame and millions he felt Virgil owed him years ago.”

At the party, the missing A3 was finally "found."


While the fictional story proved great fun for participants, Audi’s ultimate goal was to make the A3 a household name nationwide.

According to statistics researched and compiled by McKinney-Silver, more than 200,000 people became involved with the search for the stolen A3 in a single day. An estimated 500,000 people were involved in the search on an ongoing basis. Within the first few days of the campaign launch, fans created seven fan sites, one of which was a "Top 10 Reasons to Play Art of the Heist."

Website traffic to www.audiusa.com also spiked dramatically. May 2004 figures were 843,212; a year later during the middle of the campaign, traffic increased 40 percent to 1,199,049. Weekly microsite traffic increased steadily throughout the campaign, and took a huge jump when full-scale advertising started on May 15. As an example, daily microsite traffic was averaging about 33,000 from May 8 through 14; the following week it exploded to 281,000.

The story sites had long stick times -- 4:48 for www.StolenA3.com; 3:58 for www.VirgilKingOfCode.com; and 9:49 for www.LastResortRetrieval.com.

Newman also notes that online advertising effectiveness increased for Audi -- after a person clicked an online advertisement to investigate the program, 34 percent of user page views on www.audiusa.com were to A3 buying indicator pages (configurator, dealer locator, payment, estimator, request a quote). He says this represented a 79 percent increase in qualification over previous launch efforts.

The campaign was a consistent source of leads to Audi dealers nationwide -- more than 10,000 leads have been generated so far, including 3,827 test drives.

"Dealers are reporting a tremendous interest in Audi’s newest offering aided by this unconventional marketing campaign,” says Reinhard Fisher, Audi’s director of sales.

"The Art of the Heist represented a true innovation in the way Audi connected with its target consumer,” says Stephen Berkov, Audi’s marketing director. "Creating the thriller on the internet which involved our new A3 engaged our target customer in the Audi brand.”

Neal Leavitt is president of Fallbrook, CA-based Leavitt Communications, an international marketing communications company with affiliates in Paris, France; Hamburg, Germany; Hong Kong; London, United Kingdom; Bangalore, India; and Sao Paulo, Brazil. He writes frequently on internet and high technology topics.

Online, a good web presence can make or break your company. If a potential customer lands on your site and is immediately overwhelmed by an overload of information, hard-to-read text, and advertisements, they will likely be turned off and go elsewhere to find a similar service. Who would waste their time browsing through an impossibly confusing site?

Great companies with surprisingly boring websites

Let's compare this situation to a real-world analogy. You presumably wouldn't walk into a corporate business meeting in jeans and a ratty old t-shirt. Why? You'd look unprofessional, stand out (in a bad way), and make a poor impression on yourself and your company. Not many people, with the exception of a few highly respected world leaders, CEOs, and philanthropists, could pull that off and still garner respect. On the internet, these individuals come few and far in the form of websites. In other words, it's hard to find a well-respected company with a website comparable to a business professional dressed down in old jeans and a t-shirt.

Of course, these websites do exist -- what they all have in common is their superb and unique service. The customer simply does not care enough about the site's aesthetics to let that stop them from using the company's service. Furthermore, these customers often do not embrace change, especially for relatively straightforward services -- which may be why changes in such company's websites are typically subtle. Let's take a look at four respectable companies with lackluster web presences that don't measure up to the company's success or reputation.


If you haven't used Craigslist or know someone who's used Craigslist, you've surely heard about the monster classified ads website. Whether you're looking for jobs, to buy or sell items or services, a new roommate (search at your own risk), or even personals and missed love connections, Craigslist likely has what you need. You can find anything (honestly anything) from a used TV for sale to someone who will clean your pool for you. From the normal to the most bizarre requests, Craigslist truly has it all -- except a visually appealing website.

When you first load the site, your vision is flooded with lists and lists of categories in blue text: jobs, for-sales, services, discussion forums, and more -- and it is not pretty. The only apparent organization system on the site seems to be by title. If you're looking for a menu bar for assistance, give up because there isn't one. Everything is right on the site's homepage. What you see is what you get. In certain aspects, it's simple -- click on what you're looking for and follow the prompts. In other ways, it's unnecessarily complicated with a lack of any form of organization system whatsoever. Either way, it works -- in 2012, the estimated revenue of the private company was $126 million. With more than 60 million users a month in the U.S. alone and 50 billion monthly page views, Craigslist has clearly managed to uphold its reputation despite its plain web presence.


Like Craigslist, Reddit is a free, community-based site. However, instead of selling things, members simply post content such as text, images, or direct links. The content can be virtually anything -- news, jokes, random thoughts, crowdsourcing, etc. Community members ("redditors") vote on stories and discussions they like, so that the best content stays at the top and the unpopular stuff dwindles away into cyberspace. Also, unlike Craigslist, Reddit receives a portion of its revenue from advertising. It recently announced it would be giving 10 percent of advertising revenue to charity.

Another thing Reddit has in common with Craigslist is its visually unappealing interface. While it comes in slightly ahead of Craigslist simply because the content that's posted on Reddit often employs images, it's not far behind. The site is set up in a list format and looks like it hasn't been changed much since it was launched. With blue text overlaying a white background, the design isn't a far cry from Craigslist and is far from sophisticated or unique. Nevertheless, millions of users use and subscribe to Reddit every day, confirming its reputation and popularity. Its bland site design and lack of visual appeal clearly don't correlate to this company's success.

If you have a business platform that is so unique and important for people to use that they don't care about aesthetics, that's fantastic. But for most of us, we need that web presence to boost our reputation and make us look like we're ready to attend that business meeting. Here are a couple of smaller, but well-to-do companies who could benefit from a site overhaul.


Plenty of "deal of the day" websites require you to register before you can see the actual deals, but Zulily's homepage gives you next-to-no information about what the site does. One of its biggest design problems is that the little bit of information you can find about how the site works is buried at the bottom of the page under a banner that looks like advertising -- thus making the viewer ignore everything below it. Another issue is that links to "How Zulily Works," "Brands We Love," and "FAQ" appear in tiny type. Furthermore, there is no secondary call to action if the visitor isn't ready to register. What would make them decide to return? The bottom line regarding Zulily's website design is that it's simply too difficult for non-registered users to learn about the site. If you're going to be a membership-only site, at the very least allow non-members to easily learn about the benefits of joining. You'll not only be helping them, you'll be helping yourself get more members.

Pure Ecommerce

 Unlike Pure Ecommerce's site, this description will remain short and sweet. Essentially, you have to read through lengthy blocks of copy just to find out what the company offers. Once we click on its call to action, we're only directed to more copy and blocks of texts with little visual relief. Not exactly a one-click, ready-to-go experience as promised. 


Ultimately, where Craigslist and Reddit differ from Zulily and Pure Ecommerce is in their ease of use. While none of the aforementioned sites are particularly appealing from a visual perspective, Craigslist and Reddit hit the nail on the head with user-friendliness and simplicity. Zulily and Pure Ecommerce, two companies with a solid service and great potential, should take notes from Craigslist and Reddit. If you're going to be bold enough to neglect your web presence, at the very least make sure your site has a key essential: functionality. Can you think of any successful companies with sub-par websites? Please feel free to share below in a comment.

Emily Weeks is the social media and marketing coordinator at HMG Creative.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Sleeping on laptop" image via Shutterstock.

Neal established Leavitt Communications in 1991. He brings to clients a unique blend of more than 25 years of marketing communications and journalism expertise. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from UC-Berkeley and a Master...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Alex R

2009, January 29

To this day feel privileged to have been a part of this amazing and historic event, which has changed the way companies interact and communicate with their target audience, which has become increasingly aware of traditional marketing techniques.

Our studio provided the web casts for this campaign and were on location in Atlanta, Coachella Music Festival, New York and the Finally at eh Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica California.