So by now you've probably all seen the awesomeness that is the Agency.com Subway pitch fiasco from the past few days. It's funny, and it's a lesson in agency hubris, and it's a demonstration of the worst mistakes in viral advertising.
The story so far:
Act I - New York interactive shop Agency.com gets invited to pitch for the Subway sandwich account. Pitching agencies are suggested to include a video of the team.
Act II - They decide to not only make a video, but to post it on YouTube. A video of themselves pitching. And it's amateur. It's staged. It's painful to watch. They look like total dicks.
Act III - Various ad industry press trash it. Hard. And not just the writers - read all the reader comments posted on these sites, as well as on the actual YouTube video. It generated a lot of strong opinions.
Act IV - Within 24 hours, spoofs by other agencies start rolling in. Like this one and this one. Somebody even makes t-shirts. Must be a slow month.
Act V - Within another 24 hours, Agency.com launches a blog detailing how widely their video has been viewed and discussed. They take the "any press is good press" angle, and claim to have started a debate in the industry about what exactly makes something viral. "Let’s just say we wanted to prove how we could reach our target audience at the lowest possible cost." Which is fine - after all, I'm discussing it - but to be honest it all comes across as a bit lame and desperate, like they're trying to recover and spin the whole thing.
So OK - is it successful? Some of the debate has been around whether this is really viral or not. That seems misplaced to me - we're all passing it around and discussing it, so by definition it's viral. They've definitely acheived notoriety, and gotten a lot of attention. People are certainly talking about Agency.com a lot more than they were a week ago. The saga even has its own Wikipedia entry already. Now the ultimate test of success, of course, is whether they win the Subway account, or win any other new business from this newfound fame. And that no one can know yet.
But at a deeper level, is it successful at showing they know what they're doing? Here's what they say on their blog: "We decided to put it all out there and show them what we actually are: Bad actors. Lousy haircuts. Good agency." But on this evidence, they don't look anything like a good agency (although it should be said they are actually a decent shop, and have done some good work). Yes, they created a message that spread virally. But they seem to have screwed up everything else.
They ignored the client instructions (the pitch video was supposed to be 5 minutes, this is 9 - and they made it public). It looks like they misunderstood their target audience: isn't the target the Subway marketing team, not the whole ad industry? I can't imagine the Subway marketing team is happy about their brand name being used by an agency for blatant self-promotion, and their pitch process all of a sudden becoming public. And the creative product itself - the video - just isn't very good, nor is it bad enough to be knowingly funny. It's just mediocre, and takes itself way too seriously. So, you have to think these guys either didn't really think through what they were doing (and post-rationalized once it went so big), or knew what they were doing and just really misjudged their objectives. Publicity and notoriety are fine, and trying something different in a pitch is a time-honored tradition, but is tons of negative commentary really what you want when you're trying to impress a new client? Judging by the vast majority of comments, this is not putting them in a good light, and not making them look like someone you'd want to work with. I don't believe they really thought through what they were doing.
At the end of the day, I think they've shown an understanding of the worst kind of viral advertising: notoriety for no greater purpose. That might be fine if you're a 14-year old making a video, but not if you're a brand. Think about it this way: if we recommended to a client an idea that would get them discussed by thousands of people and raise the awareness of their brand, but at the same time would make the brand look stupid, have most of that discussion be negative and not necessarily even lead to any sales, think they'd go for it?
We'll see what happens.
Update: Is there a chance for redemption?