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The early days of viral marketing – pure Genius

Way back in 1994, I was Assistant Brand Manager on Draught Guinness. I was dutifully learning the blue-chip marketing ropes, but really far more captivated by this fledgling thing we then called, wonderfully, the Information Superhighway.

It’s to the eternal credit of my then manager, Jason Nicholas, that he signed off a £25k budget to investigate further. Over the following months, I worked with great people at Ogilvy & Mather (especially Saul Klein) to create Guinness’ first website. We didn’t have the brand domain, so it was hosted at the clunky URL of (sadly not captured on’s wayback machine). We stretched the limits of  Mosaic/Netscape to offer not only images (woo) of a pint, but also an animated gif (double woo!!) of, er, a spinning globe. We even put that address on a TV ad.

But by far the most successful and illuminating piece of work was the Guinness Screensaver. As a format, screensavers went on to be be hackneyed quite quickly, but at the time it was wildly original. It’s not too much of a brag for it to lay claim to being one of the first pieces of viral marketing.

Guinness had just launched a new ad, Anticipation featuring a guy dancing round a pint to infectious mambo music.  The idea was to bring to life his inner excitement while waiting for the pint to settle and be ready to drink. It was fresh and wildly popular.

O&M created the screensaver and we put it on the website. But back then, very few people had internet access and this file was a mammoth 1.3 megabytes(!) In the end, we branded up hundreds of 3.5″ floppy discs and put the file on there (it just fitted, thankfully). We seeded a few to friends and colleagues and suddenly the requests came pouring in. By letter! I had a box under my desk and spent most of my day stuffing envelopes. People would take the discs and pass them around friends and colleagues. People loved having beer imagery in their workplaces. There was a point in 94/95 when it seemed every office had screens saved to Joe McKinney dancing round a pint.

[edit] thanks Leo for the screencap!
Can anyone help preserve this small piece of web/marketing history? It’d be great to screencapture it to a movie file and put it up on YouTube for posterity. The .exe file ran under Windows 3.1 and if you’d like a copy, please email me hello (at] contrarymarketing dot com or via Twitter @cslyons

10 replies on “The early days of viral marketing – pure Genius”

hi – i am the creative at ogilvy who’s idea it was to make the ad a screensaver – it was a way to get people to visit the site “the local” which i stil have my first draft presentation for – i had previously done the interactive “pull a pint ad” which ran on netscape and on creative reviews cd rom –
i have a copy of a tv interview done in the agency and of me on EBN talking about should there be ads on a computer and i think this was the first time an ad was talked about as a virus – certainly in a few text books it is regarded as the first viral marketing campaign- how things have changed eh
will try to put some copies of stuff on u tube

Possibly Grolsch did something around the same time, but my memory is a little hazy. And presumably someone like compuserve or AOL or BT must have been in the game too? But Guinness definitely catapulted things.@Al Cox

The screensaver ad was created by NoHo Digital for rage magazine from an idea cooked up between me, Saul Klein and Tyler Moorehead. As far as I remember the screensaver part of it was my idea. Saul wanted to do something different for rage as we were a pdf mag that ran interactive ads and Saul wanted to do something that wasn’t just a banner. I suggested a screensaver and Tyler got her mate Tim Carrigan at NoHo to do the work for O&M – NoHo was subsequently bought by Noho. We ran the screensaver as an exclusive on rage and it was followed by downloads on Future Publishings Futurenet site. We had a lot of downloads of the screensaver – despite the 1.4Mb – and it certainly went viral. It was everywhere you went, which to this day still hacks me off as we never got paid for the ads we ran.

Hope this helps put a little bit more meat on the story.

re advert with a URL? I don’t think it was the youtube version doesn’t have a URL – I remember the advert and the stupid URL but I don’t remember the URL appearing on the TV ad. I have a feeling the first was the Levis Babylon Zoo Spaceman advert – also 1995 – with a web site produced by Lateral. But the versions of that I’ve found also don’t seem to have a URL.

Marcus Austin

Hi Marcus

Thanks for the comment. I remember NoHo Digital.

I’m sure that there was a version of the ad that ran with on it. In the edit, the URL was unveiled one character at a time, typewriter style as if Joe McKinney was tapping it out with his hands. It wasn’t on every ad every time, but certainly in a later burst.


the tv ad definitly ran with th url on – dont think it was the first – but the unexpected thing was that people passed it around ‘virally’ – and i remember rage – we were working with tyler on stuff for lucozade and first choice holidays – and i remember tyler saying have u got anything we could make a screen saver for – and i showed her the guinness dancing ad as it seemed to be appropriately about waiting – interestingly before this we had made a guinness interactive ad that ran on creative reviews cd rom – it won a silver at campaign press awards in the ‘electronic press’ section – funny eh – we also entered the screen saver into the D and AD AWARDS that year – but they sent it back as they didnt have a category till the next year – reckon thats the only time they have ever done that

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