'We made this ad for five bucks and I bet you can't even tell.'

- Stickman

The concept of Stickman doesn't sound like an iconic advertising idea. Strip away the nostalgia, the history and the laughs and what you're left with is a stick drawing with an annoying voice and a bottomless pit of dad jokes. At best, it seems like a plan B, C or maybe even further down the alphabet that the advertisers joked about as an alternative to the epic movie-quality ad they actually wanted to make.

And yet, 10 years ago, a pair of young creatives from the ad agency FCB (previously called DraftFCB) boldly walked into the marketing department at Foodstuffs and introduced the team to New Zealand's answer to Slender Man – an ad that would come to perfectly capture Pak'nSave's role as New Zealand's affordable grocery store.

At the time, creatives Billy McQueen and Chris Schofield would have been unaware that the faceless entity they unveiled would become one of the most recognisable characters in New Zealand advertising. Since his conception, Stickman has passed through the hands of 30 different advertising creatives, who steadily added to the ever-growing canon of jokes, which have always been delivered in Paul Ego's widely imitated nasal drawl.

The early Stickman ads didn't feature the character speaking, opting instead for the voice-over approach, with Ego acting as an omniscient narrator to the character walking through the yellow world. The exact moment at which Ego transitioned into Stickman is disputed among the historians at FCB, but it's widely agreed this move allowed the character to flourish.

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A few Stickman favourites over the years. Credit/FCB

However, 10 years is a long time in advertising and with each passing year and every new joke, the pressure has grown on the creatives to keep the Stickman magic flowing with fresh material. And although Stickman is often ridiculed for his corny one-liners, the standard of his joke telling has come a long way since his debut in 2008.

"The bar is pretty high now," says Peter Vegas, an FCB creative who's written a few Stickman lines in his time.

"We're the current custodians of Stickman. You're conscious that you're working on something that Kiwis love and you want to keep making it good."

No one wants to see Stickman die under their watch, says Vegas.

Part of the reason why Stickman's 2D tombstone has not yet graced Kiwi TV screens is due to the enduring belief Steve Bayliss, the outgoing GM of marketing at Foodstuffs, has had in the character during his seven-year stint at the business.

Asked whether he'd ever been tempted to replace Stickman with an alternative creative device over the years, Bayliss responds with an emphatic "No".

He explains that while Pak'nSave accounts for only 15 per cent of overall media spend in the grocery category, Stickman has a 30 per cent share of Kiwi minds – which is essentially marketing speak for the enormous popularity of the character.

"For every 50 cents you spend, you get a dollar worth of value," says Bayliss.

"If you changed that, you'd have to be institutionalised as the biggest numpty that ever lived.

"It's hard to find those devices and icons that can endure for so long. When you do find them, there's nothing more soul-destroying than an agency or marketer throwing them away for the next novelty."

Advertising campaigns such as "Should've gone to Specsavers", Snickers' "You're not you when you're hungry", the Old Spice Guy and even the Briscoe's Lady took years to embed into the consciousness and only became iconic because they were given the time to get there.

What these campaigns also show is that an established platform doesn't stand in the way of creativity but rather offers a vehicle to push the bounds, try new things and develop a character. In continuously chasing ambitious disconnected ideas, advertisers might win a few awards along the way, but businesses aren't built on trophies.


International research by academic Peter Field shows long-term campaigns with a so-called "fluent device" (aka Stickman or the Briscoe's Lady) are 23 per cent more likely to achieve market share gain and 22 per cent more likely to achieve profit gain than campaigns that don't have one.

Another benefit, perhaps most defined in the example of Stickman, is that the ads are cheap and quick to deliver.

"One of the marvellous things about it is that Stickman does his own stunts," jokes Bayliss.

"There has never been a health and safety claim. I reckon we save thousands of dollars each year by not having to fill out health and safety forms. Probably the most expensive part of production is risk assessment forms."

This means Pak'nSave is able to quickly turn around topical ads that tap into the big issues New Zealanders are talking about. Whether it's the flag debate, a rugby tour or a weekly promotion, Stickman is always on hand to offer his dry analysis of what's important to Kiwis.

He's also become something of a prolific guerrilla marketer, wiggling his way into ambush campaigns centred on the America's Cup and the Lion's Tour, despite Pak'nSave not having any commercial association with either event.

Bayliss picks the America's Cup ambush campaign as one of his Stickman favourites, largely because of the large gap between the idea and the campaign finally coming to life. In fact, he still partly blames himself for jinxing Team New Zealand by pushing for the campaign when they were leading 8-1 in 2013.

"After four long years, we finally got to do it," he says.

More recently, Stickman has also parlayed his TV charm into digital, appearing in Tinder campaign over Valentine's Day.

Bayliss says Stickman had no shortage of matches over the course of the day.

The bigger question, however, is whether the next Pak'nSave marketing manager swipes right on the long-running ambassador. As Bayliss departs the business to work on a novel, he will be leaving Stickman to a successor who might want to change things up at the business.

So, what would Bayliss do or say if Stickman was abruptly dropped into the nostalgia bin where all great ads go to die?

"I'd think about coming back to save him," responds Bayliss with a cheeky smile.