When Uber launched in London, in June 2012, it was a difficult time.
London had a well-developed transport system.
Aside from trains and buses there were 3,000 private car-hire companies.
Just one of those, Addison Lee, had 4,500 cars and turned over £90m a year.
And the ability to order a cab over a smartphone wasn’t by any means unique.
Hailo had 9,000 black cabs available on its app.
So London was a tough city to break into.
In the early days, Uber had 50 drivers doing 30 trips in 24 hours.
Its office staff consisted of three people – one of them was an intern.
The head of the London operation, Jo Bertram, tried everything to get publicity.
But the news channels just weren’t interested.
Who wanted a story about another private car-hire company opening up?
But then, in 2014, something happened to change that completely.
Uber’s biggest competitor put it on the map and gave Uber more publicity than it could dream of.
On 11 June, London’s black-cab drivers went on strike against Uber.
Black cabs blocked Lambeth Bridge.
Black cabs blocked the roads around Whitehall, Trafalgar Square and the West End.
There was gridlock in Westminster and Piccadilly.
Central London was brought to a standstill by 8,000 black cabs protesting against Uber.
It was on every news broadcast, on every TV station, on every radio station, in every newspaper.
For two years, Bertram had tried to get an interview – no-one wanted to know.
Suddenly her phone was ringing off the hook.
She did her first interview with Sky News at 6.30am, and 15 more after that.
Uber went from being a name no-one had heard of, to the hottest topic on the news.
Everyone wanted to find out why black cabs were so scared of Uber.
It came across that Uber was the future and black cabs were stuck in the past.
Cabbies didn’t want people to be able to hire private cars instantly, in the street, from their smartphones.
And they didn’t want black-cab fares undercut by a third.
The taxi strike had given Uber more airtime than it could ever have afforded, and more cachet than any advertising campaign.
Suddenly everyone wanted to use Uber – downloads of the Uber app jumped by 850%.
It seemed new, and fashionable, and smart.
Four years later there are 25,000 Uber drivers, more than black-cab drivers.
And another Uber trip starts every two seconds.
It now has 100 staff in its office, and operates in 15 cities in the UK.
All because the black-cab drivers did what Uber couldn’t do for itself.
By confronting a smaller opponent, they elevated that opponent – in the public’s mind – up to a position of parity.
Suddenly, Uber was seen as their only serious competition.
Which is why I always advocate to clients that the very best advertising will be a campaign that the competition will try to get banned.
That should be our objective: advertising that the competition tries to get banned.
Because if the competition isn’t trying to get it banned, it means it isn’t hurting them.
And if we aren’t hurting our competitors, what are we doing?
As they used to say in New York: "If it ain’t hurting, it ain’t working."
That’s how you spot a great campaign.
When you can provoke the competition into doing your advertising for you.
(Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three. This article first appeared on CampaignLive.co.uk)
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