After successfully posing as musician Ben Folds while his friend pretended to be a fawning admirer in a bar one night, Charlie Todd decided to stage stunts on a larger scale. He started Improv Everywhere in New York in 2001 with the goal of making people notice the world around them (or just smile). Todd and his team of “undercover agents” have since organized more than 70 public missions involving thousands of volunteers, which are filmed and shown on the Web. This past January, they captured worldwide attention with a spectacle that involved 200 people simultaneously frozen in their movements for five minutes in Grand Central Terminal. What’s more, the group’s efforts are influencing corporate events and marketing stunts: Todd, who has been consulting with corporate marketers for three years, advised Marie Claire for a recent Ray-Ban project. We spoke to Todd in between his teaching duties at the Upright Citizens Brigade improv comedy theater and planning his next public coup.
How do you feel about people who copy your work?
It depends on who copies our work. One thing that has been amazing to watch is what has happened with our “Frozen Grand Central” video. It got about 13 million views on YouTube. I get email from all over the world with links to videos of people freezing in place in China or South Africa or small towns in the United States. We’ve always been democratic about our ideas, but we appreciate it if there’s a mention that what they’re doing is inspired by us with a link to our Web site.
Which projects are you the most proud of?
Freezing in Grand Central was very successful. Everyone in the world understands what’s unusual and funny about a group of people freezing in place simultaneously. The idea has been copied by regular people in 40 countries around the world, spanning six continents. To see people in Beirut or Shanghai doing the same thing we did in New York speaks to the fact that as human beings, we’re not that different.
With marketing campaigns hitting places like YouTube and Flickr, how do you think marketers can learn from what you do?
One thing that people really respond to about the missions on our Web site is that there is no inherent message behind them. I think it’s more powerful to let people draw their own conclusions. I get contacted all the time by marketers, and more and more I’m seeing marketers who are doing events that are similar to what we do. A lot of times they end up ruining its potential for popularity by being too heavy-handed with their branding. People are not going to want to pass around something that feels like a commercial. They want to pass around something that’s truly an awesome and innovative idea.