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Anatomy of an Ad: How HSBC brought the Yangtze River to Gatwick Airport

Celebrating HSBC and WWF’s conservation work, ‘A Living River’ brings China’s 6,300km Yangtze River to the 194m-long Gatwick Skybridge.

18 months ago, HSBC and its creative agency J Walter Thompson London set about working on an ambitious task; bringing the sound of China’s 6,300km long Yangtze river to Gatwick Airport’s Skybridge, a passenger bridge linking Pier Six with the North Terminal.

The idea was born as a way to celebrate the work of HSBC’s Water Programme and 15-year partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The bank had also just been asked by another long-running partner, Gatwick Airport, to come up with a unique solution to fill the £110m glass bridge.

The space itself proved to be the main driver of JWT’s decision to make it an audio experience for the seven million people a year who pass through. “We looked at video or lighting to bring it to life, but people are rushing. The only real way to tell the story was through sound,” explains board event director Tom O’Donnell.

Pitching the idea to HSBC was not an entirely smooth process. The brand’s marketing boss Chris Clark jokes that, because the idea was so unique and something the agency had never attempted before, when it came to selling it all went really badly.

To achieve this, Ryan designed an array of microphones which would record the river at a specific position, and then a corresponding speaker for each which would be angled exactly the same.

“Each speaker is playing its own viewpoint, like a camera,” he explains. “This isn’t just a recording, it’s a bit like a computer game soundtrack in that it’s not linear but responsive and evolving all the time. What we didn’t want was just a single recording. That would have given us control but we wanted it to have a life of its own.”

Picking the points of the river to record was a relatively simple process. “I basically spent a few weeks on Google Earth looking at points I thought represented the diversity of the Yangtze. I wanted slow and rapid moving water and a nice spread of urban versus rural as well as wildlife, people and machinery.”

35 locations were chosen in total, with Ryan, O’Donnell and his team flying out to China for five days to record. When they arrived, they were struck by how deeply the industrial revolution has travelled into the heart of rural China, and quickly realised it was almost impossible to record anywhere without capturing the sound of modern life. Ryan initially tried to edit out the machine, smartphone and motorbike noise, before accepting that it’s everywhere and so had to be included.

And it is, along with the sounds of the cranes flying overhead, water running through the Tiger Leaping Gorge, fishermen hauling in a catch, people passing by Shanghai’s Bund walkway and even the singing of Hun, the group’s tour-guide on the five-day excursion.

Both Ryan and O’Donnell agree that the biggest challenge on the project was installing it in the airport itself. With the Skybridge open to passengers 20 hours a day, there was only a small window in which to fit 160 speakers and rig over 60km of cable to achieve the immersive effect.

To make it as smooth a process as possible, a replica of the Skybridge was built in a barn in Essex where most of the sound checks were performed before being transported to Gatwick. But it was still incredibly complicated to get the sound right because the glass structure changed the acoustics so significantly.

The end result is exactly what JWT and HSBC envisioned. Experiencing it for the first time, Clark said he was completely blown away. The installation will remain in place for the next year, with the possibility to extend and update the sounds to reflect moments in the Chinese calendar – for example, at New Year passers-by might hear fireworks.

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