Agency.com Viral Video Begs Question: Is Bad Buzz Good?

For a video that runs under 10 minutes, Agency.com’s response to the request for information for Subway’s interactive account packed quite a wallop. Uploaded to YouTube on July 31, it departs from the usual “meet-and- greet” credentials video to show the shop’s employees preparing a viral video as they look to understand Subway’s business.

The video ignited an immediate, mostly negative reaction, after industry blogs linked to it. “Too long. Uninspired. And highly unfunny,” said one commenter on Adfreak, Adweek’s blog. “Attention ad agencies. Don’t. DON’T. DO NOT DO THIS,” headlined Adrants.

The reaction from the ad industry kept rolling in—much of it negative, though some gave kudos to Agency.com for showing courage by putting itself on the line and stirring the pot. Thus began a debate over the nature of viral advertising and whether all buzz is good buzz.

By mid-afternoon Friday, the pitch video had gathered nearly 35,000 views, with a user rating smack dab in the middle with 2.5 stars. Good or bad, the video definitely took on a life of its own. It inspired remix versions, a mock response from Coudal Advertising in Chicago, a soundboard for mixing sound bite highlights, an eBay auction of a young Agency.com creative’s faux hawk and a send-up T-shirt. Dozens of blogs wrote about the pitch, recording hundreds of comments.

The reaction raised a question: Can a viral campaign be successful if many of those spreading the message are mocking it? After all, many commenters said the video is at best painfully boring and at worse made Agency.com look ridiculous (in it, ecd Tom Ajello fist-bumps a colleague and says, “If we roll, we roll big”; new business development director Lance Williams tells creatives, “Corner office, now”).

Creating such visceral reactions was the whole purpose, claims Ajello. The pitch was aimed at a target audience that’s opinionated and prone to hyper-criticism: the ad industry. The video itself is secondary, only a prop to create a conversation. “You gotta know your target and you gotta stoke the fire,” he said.

Not everyone is buying what Ajello is selling. “I thought it was boring,” said one creative director. “I only watched the first three minutes.”

As the week went on, a vocal minority cropped up to declare Agency.com’s polarizing video ingenious—even subversive. “Today’s marketing and advertising environment is totally turned on its head, and now is the time for experimentation and prototyping,” wrote Karl Long, a blogger who runs Web marketing firm Local Zing.

Long and others took the “scoreboard” tack, pointing to rising YouTube numbers and blog comments as proof that Agency.com succeeded, even if unintentionally. In this way, it is reminiscent of General Motors’ professed happiness over its Chevy Tahoe viral effort, which gained attention for its consumer-generated anti-SUV ads, or Snakes on a Plane, which gained a large following based on the silliness of the title.

Ajello says the entire point of viral ads is the need to “freefall” and quickly react as an idea is mixed, mashed and mutated. On Wednesday, it set up a Web site, www.whenwerollwerollbig.com, to celebrate the debate. “You’ve got to be quick as hell,” he said. “If you’re not, you’re irrelevant.”

The ultimate arbiter in the debate, Subway, declined to comment, although a rep said the brand’s ad exec had seen it and the reaction. A cut in the review is expected later this month.

“If they win, it will be a genius move,” said one agency CEO. “If they lose, it will keep the joke going for another week, and then nobody will remember.”