How to...stage a PR stunt on the Thames

Event speaks to Ed Livett, project co-ordinator at Livett's Launches, about just how brands stage weird and wonderful activations on the River Thames.

Land Rover kicked off its Rugby World Cup campaign with a Thames stunt
Land Rover kicked off its Rugby World Cup campaign with a Thames stunt

It seems to be the activation de rigour: creating an eye-catching, waterborne installation and launching it down the Thames – whether it be manned or unmanned by Jedward.

But although it is open for the public to enjoy freely, the river cannot be commandeered for PR stunts whenever a brand feels the need.  Much like other activation hotspots (Observation Point on the South Bank and Potters Fields Park seem the favourites of 2015), companies need to book the Thames in advance. And unlike spaces on dry land, they need to compete with tides and traffic.

Enter Livett’s Launches: marine co-ordinator for brands and PR agencies. "We provide the marine expertise from start till finish to help make the stunt a success," says Ed Livett, project co-ordinator at the company. "Livett’s will often provide a location for the build, a pontoon, barge or boat, along with craneage, generators, towage, safety boats, filming boats and - most importantly perhaps - the marine coordination, liaison with Port of London Authority (PLA) and other stakeholders, risk assessments and passage plans."

Ultimately, it’s the PLA who have the final say if a stunt goes ahead. If it’s a yes, it issues the client with a commercial licence, and the brand team is left to consider the next step: navigating the Thames.

"It can be an extremely dangerous environment," explains Livett. "The tide rises and falls by up to seven metres twice a day, every day, and there are 20 bridges between Tower Bridge and Putney that vary in height from the water. This, combined with the large amount of commercial traffic that navigates through London’s 24/7, throws up a lot of safety concerns."

He continues "We provide the marine advice that ensures we do not carry out stunts that are unsafe, and movements are planned to the minute so we know we will not collide with bridges and other vessels. Stability is a huge consideration for us also. We’ve loaded cars, lorries and planes onto barges, but never without carrying out the necessary stability calculations to ensure we know that what the client wants to put on our craft will be stable and safe when we’re on the Thames." 

Tides in particular dictate when a stunt can take place during the day; for a house, Thunderbird or giant birthday cake to travel, they need the help of the river to do so. But, Livett adds: "We will work 24/7, all year round. We’ve certainly had some bizarre requests, but we’re used to that now. We try not to say no to anything - what we aim to do is listen to the client’s brief and advise what elements of it are possible and safe, and what might not be, then help to suggest an alternative that may work.

"What I’ve found more often than not though is that we can help our clients do more on the Thames than they ever thought they could." 

Why does Livett think it’s such a popular method of activation? "By holding a stunt on the river, the potential exposure to London’s general public is so much greater than if it were to be on land," he says. "You could be on foot, on a bike, in a car, on a train, on a boat or on a plane and still see the River Thames – it’s  unique.

"Furthermore, there’s something quite special and exciting about seeing something that you’re just not expecting, floating through the heart of one of the busiest cities in the world. There’s simply no better way to make an impact in London than on the River Thames." 

How we did it…

Andy McDonald, managing director of The Persuaders, on sailing an island down the river for the Croatian National Tourist Board

Working with Grayling PR and the Croatian government, we researched Croatia and all the beautiful sites and places to visit and were inspired by the many stunning little Croatian islands in the Adriatic sea. It was a natural link for us to promote the new ‘Full of Life’ campaign by bringing a small piece of Croatia to London by floating it up the Thames.

The island was built on a floating pontoon, so the design was based on this as a platform and constructed over this.  The build of the ‘set’ started in our warehouse and was then transported to a dry dock, which is situated on the Thames close to City Airport where the build was finished and scenically dressed. All the materials we used were waterproof as standard but very little of what we created actually touched the water.

Sam Corry, account director at Taylor Herring, on turning Thunderbird 4 into a reality

By creating our own Thunderbird 4, the fully submersible underwater rescue vehicle featured in both the original and new series, we were able to stage an eye-catching event that would get people talking and reminiscing about the show. The Thames made for the perfect setting; with the vehicle at home in its natural environment, we surprised and delighted London commuters on their way to work.

The build was based on a small fibreglass dinghy that was then encased in polystyrene to form the iconic shape of Thunderbird 4. In order to keep the structure stable, we had to ensure the centre of gravity remained low and the weight was evenly distributed across the build – by starting with an already river-worthy vehicle, we were able to maintain its safety more easily. The use of lightweight polystyrene helped to keep the structure buoyant. This was then sealed with plastic-based agents jesmonite and idenden, which meant the surface could be sanded and details carved, but the whole prop was watertight. 

We consulted a structural engineer about the weight distribution of the vehicle, and of course the PLA and river police about access to the river. We needed to be aware of tide times and navigation lanes so this was all checked and double-checked by the team. On the day, we pulled Thunderbird 4 through the water using a tow boat to give the impression it was cruising down the Thames.

More: Five activations that took to the River Thames

Squatters' rights: Is the pop-up dead?

Documenting the selfie: why brands opt to include it in their activations

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