Why Cadbury’s ‘Gorilla’ ad nearly didn’t get made

When Cadbury launched ‘Gorilla’ in 2007 the brand was suffering after a salmonella scare, and despite the brand’s former marketing director admitting it was the hardest concept he’s ever had to sell, the ad went on to increase sales by 10%.

Imagine the pitch: it’s a 90-second advert, there’s no dialogue, we won’t show the product; instead it’s just a guy in an animatronic gorilla suit in an empty room playing the drums. Would you buy it?

Luckily Phil Rumbol, Cadbury’s then newly-appointed marketing director, did and ‘Gorilla’ has gone on to become one of the best known ads of the early 2000s. “When we heard the script I just remember myself and my team walking into the side room and grinning from ear to ear. I didn’t necessarily fully understand why but I knew in that instant we just had to do it,” he says.

Juan Cabral, who was with the agency Fallon at the time and came up with the idea, also knew it was something special.

“It was the best meeting of all time,” he says. “My colleague pressed play and [Phil Collins’] ‘In the Air Tonight’ started to play and I began to read the script. By the end I definitely knew something was happening, I didn’t know if it was good or bad but there was definitely a shift. [Phil and his team] went out the room for a second and when they came back they told me they loved it. We were all high on the idea.”

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Cabral’s original idea wasn’t actually intended to for an ad; it began as a heated discussion between colleagues. “We were discussing who did the best drum solo of all time, someone said, ‘it’s this one’, another said, ‘no, it’s this one’ and then I said, ‘no, no it’s definitely Phil Collins’.

“I started to tell them why. I said ‘He’s animalistic, he’s like a gorilla drumming’ and as soon as I said it that image of a gorilla stuck with me.” That night Cabral went home with a “burning desire” to write what he imagined would be a short film script. A week later Cadbury came to Fallon.

I spent so long selling hard and persuading people it was going to be great and there was so much expectation it was almost impossible to deliver against it.

Phil Rumbol

Rumbol had joined Cadbury a year earlier, tasked with restoring the nation’s love for Cadbury’s chocolate. The confectionery giant had been caught up in a salmonella scare in 2006 leading it to recall more than a million bars of chocolate so consumers were understandably a little wary.

“The brief was to get the love back to that lost generation and reconnect with the brand emotionally. I told the agency I wanted an ad that was as enjoyable to consume as a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate,” Rumbol explains.

He was convinced ‘Gorilla’ was the way to do it but it was a tough task convincing the rest of the company.

“They said, ‘so you want to make an ad three times longer than a normal ad, that doesn’t feature any chocolate and there’s no message?’ It was the hardest thing [I’ve had to sell] in my career,” he says.

Cadbury Gorilla

Despite some hesitation from Cadbury, Cabral was determined to make his vision happen and had already tracked down a gorilla suit. He’d also found an actor and taught him how to play the drums from inside the animatronic suit. “He couldn’t see a thing. There was a camera hidden inside the suit and he had to play while watching himself on the monitor.”

Getting the gorilla’s facial expressions right was even harder. “[There was] a remote control for the eyes and eyebrows and we were all communicating. I was going ‘eyebrow, left eyebrow, ear’.”

Cabral says he was “super happy” with the final edit, but he remembers Rumbol being less pleased.

“We showed the edit and he goes, ‘oh that’s shit. Juan that’s really bad, I don’t like it at all – it’s a three out of 10’,” he recalls. “I was devastated. But the next day he came back and said, ‘I showed it to my family and I was too brutal, my kids kind of like it so maybe it’s a six out of 10’.”

“I thought I loved it from the beginning,” says Rumbol. “It was only recently [that someone] corrected me. It’s a bit like childbirth, you forget the worst bits.

“I spent so long selling hard and persuading people it was going to be great and there was so much expectation it was almost impossible to deliver against it. I just kept thinking, ‘is it going to be as amazing as I said it would be?’”

The ad was put on the back burner, according to Cabral, who thought it was destined for the rubbish heap, until research came back showing an “overwhelming” response to the gorilla. And six months after the original pitch it made its TV debut during the live final of Big Brother.

We showed the edit and he goes, ‘oh that’s shit. Juan that’s really bad, I don’t like it at all – it’s a three out of 10’.

Juan Cabral

“It was pretty clear within hours we had something amazing on our hands,” says Rumbol. The ad was an instant hit and by the end of the weekend had gained 250,000 views on a then fairly nascent YouTube.

And the good news kept coming. Gorilla won a host of awards, including the Grand Prix at Cannes Lions and Cadbury saw a 10% sales boost. Phil Collins also prospered with ‘In the Air Tonight’ going to number one in every market the ad was shown. He even sent Rumbol a letter thanking him.

More than a decade later, it is still popular with the public too, with 24% of people selecting it as their favourite ad of the era in Marketing Week and YouGov Omnibus’s poll. And despite it featuring no chocolate at all 76% of people remember it’s an ad for Cadbury.

However, it was not the only animal-themed ad that struck a chord. A huge 91% of people remember Comparethemarket.com’s ‘Compare the Meerkat’ campaign – perhaps not hard given the characters are still around today. But when it comes to people’s favourite the gorilla wins by one percentage point.

Neither Rumbol or Cabral expected the success it went on to have and it has followed them both professionally and personally wherever they go. Cabral doesn’t go a week without it coming up (“I opened a bank account a couple of days ago and the woman helping me mentioned it”). And Rumbol says: “I hear of brands who go into agencies today and say, ‘give me a Gorilla’.”