Inspiring or Insulting? Lyft’s Unusual Offer to Small Shops in Its Review Gets Mixed Reaction

Some are not amused

The ride-hailing service Lyft is offering a slot in its search for a lead creative agency to a small shop that can prove its worth. And some firms are responding with a smirk, a shrug and a "no, thanks."

In offering what the company is calling a "wildcard" to a small agency, Lyft wants underdog contenders to shoot 60-second in-car videos that express "pure, unadulterated Lyft spirit, whatever you think that may be." The videos are due in five days.

To Tod Seisser, co-founder and chief creative officer of Grok in New York, the contest smacks of marketers such as Doritos that crowd-source ads, "except this time the crowd is small agencies." He's "not crazy about 'give us free ideas' contests," he told Adweek, "especially if the prize is just the ability to give more free ideas" in a pitch.

NSW/Swat CEO Richard Kirshenbaum called the video contest a gimmick.

"It's a clever idea for somebody right out of school" to pursue, Kirshenbaum said. "But is it really interesting to people of experience and quality who know what they're doing? The answer is 'absolutely not.'"

Others questioned the focus on agency size and why Lyft, a scrappy competitor of the dominant Uber, is predominantly considering bigger shops.

"It's kinda funny that a small, new-world, underdog brand would have that old-world perception, that big equals better," said Jamie Barrett, co-founder of barrettSF in San Francisco. "It assumes small agencies are less likely to have a good idea than big agencies, doesn't it?"

Mark DiMassimo, CEO at DiMassimo Goldstein in New York, found Lyft's move to be a "classic first-time client mistake, only more interestingly executed." He added that the company has "gone for the big and hungry ends of the spectrum, but completely missed their sweet spot—the smaller, independent powerhouses that focus on growth-stage companies."

Pereira & O'Dell New York managing director Cory Berger gave Lyft credit for breaking the mold of the typical search. But he still advised caution.

"It's important that any such exercise isn't just for the sake of being different, but works as an added element to uncover a side of an agency that the traditional process can't," he said. "If the goal is to find the right partner, this probably shouldn't replace the agency's larger body of work that best represents who they are and why they might be a good fit."

The unconventionality of Lyft's ongoing search may rival that of the infamous 2009 Zappos creative review.

Back then, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh invited 22 agencies to meet with him at his company's Las Vegas headquarters. For the shops, it amounted to a long-shot bake-off, before Zappos eventually got down to the classic three finalists and in the end picked Mullen.

Lyft, via its blog and two public relations representatives, is suggesting that its brand befits a big agency, even though the company is only three years old and has used shops on a project basis in the past.

"We've already sent out requests for proposals to several large, impressive agencies, as organizations in our position traditionally do," the blog post said. "But since doing things the traditional way has never been our style, we've decided to mix up the RFP process."

Lyft also posted this explanatory video, on both the blog and YouTube:

Yes, the company recently raised another $530 million in funding at a valuation of $2.5 billion, but the jury is still out as to whether it can become a world-class marketer. Its first chief marketing officer, Kira Wampler, arrived just six months ago. 

Wampler was CMO at real estate website Trulia and before that, vp of marketing at photography platform Lytro.