Airbnb CEO Blames TBWA for S.F. Campaign That ‘Embarrassed’ the Company

By Patrick Coffee 

Readers will undoubtedly remember a story from October in which quite a few residents of San Francisco expressed their outrage over ads created for Airbnb by TBWA\Chiat\Day L.A.

The out of home campaign was staged to push back against Prop F, a law which would have essentially required Airbnb to be classified in the same business category as hotels and pay all attendant taxes. Certain people understandably interpreted the ads’ “suggestions” about how the city should spend the millions that Airbnb already pays as, well, smug.

Prop F didn’t pass, and we have little doubt that Airbnb breathed a deep sigh of relief. But now the company’s CEO Brian Chesky wants to make clear who was to blame: his ad agency.


On Sunday, he spoke to Kara Swisher of Re\code for her decode podcast, and he was quick to tell her that he had nothing to do with the campaign–and neither, apparently, did any of his employees except for one person who shall remain unnamed.

Skip ahead to around 17:20 in the podcast to hear Chesky discuss the work. Here’s what he said:

“It was very ill-advised…there’s this notion that we aren’t paying our fair share of taxes.

Some people on the team decided they would have a billboard campaign to say we pay taxes, which doesn’t even sound like a good idea when you say it out loud, and yet they did it.

Somebody at an agency proofed this ad, one person in our company saw it. Very few people saw it. There was a lot of outrage…how could we have approved it? The problem was, we were moving so fast that we didn’t see it.

The moment we saw the campaign…we took it down immediately.

We were really embarrassed internally, so that was a problem.

It seemed like it was related [to the Prop F fight] and it was the worst of all possible coincidences. It made us look like jerks, and we’re not jerks.”

There may be some disagreement on that last point.

The silver lining, he then said, is that the company has 130,000 “hosts” in San Francisco who doubled as “brand advocates” and helped defeat the proposal so Airbnb doesn’t have to pay those extra taxes after all. “They ended up winning the ballot, not us…for us it’s more of a brand issue.”

Chesky didn’t mention TBWA by name, but we do believe it’s pretty rare to hear a client so directly diss its creative AOR on a public podcast that is quite popular within certain tech business circles.

H/T to Digiday for bringing it to our attention.