What You Learn From a Career in Viral Video

Michael Krivicka reflects on the realities of fakery

Michael Krivicka, co-founder of renowned viral video agency Thinkmodo, recently launched a new business still focused on hidden-camera pranks and other stunts.
Courtesy of Michael Krivicka

On this week’s episode of the Adweek podcast, “Yeah, That’s Probably an Ad,” we talk to viral hitmaker Michael Krivicka, co-founder of the recently closed video agency Thinkmodo.

Thinkmodo has been one of the marketing field’s most celebrated shops in recent years, crafting viral hits for a wide range of movies and creating bizarre (often fake) inventions that leave viewers wondering whether to believe their eyes.

Now launching a new business called WhoIsTheBaldGuy—still focused on hidden-camera pranks and other share-worthy stunts—Krivicka sat down with Adweek to talk about how he got into viral video, the stories behind some of his agency’s most famous work, and just how “real” those reactions actually are.

You can listen to the entire interview by subscribing to Adweek’s podcast or streaming it below, but we’ve included a trimmed version of the conversation and examples of the work here:

Adweek: It sounds like you are at a kind of transitional moment. What has happened with Thinkmodo? Where are you right now in terms of a business?

Michael Krivicka

Michael Krivicka, co-founder of Thinkmodo and founder of WhoIsTheBaldGuy: Yeah, so after an almost eight-year run, a very successful run with my business partner, James Percelay, we’ve decided to close it down and kind of pursue new directions individually and try different things that we always wanted to do. That just happened in July.

We founded Thinkmodo in early 2011, when we were nobodies. We just sort of positioned ourselves as the kind of disruptors, you know, “We’re here to shake things up.” Two guys with absolutely no advertising background, but just filmmakers with great ideas. It was a risk we took, and then we just kind of took it.

It was a learning curve for about a year or two to find ourselves, who we are, what we’re going to do, what makes us different, why should people come to us as a digital agency. It was a mix of luck and hard work, but we kind of established ourselves as the guys behind some of these pranks that became our signature, our portfolio—these very elaborate hidden-camera pranks that we’re known for today.

So what was your background?

I was a video editor. I edited for a number of a postproduction houses in New York City for over 10 years before I became very active in the social media sphere around 2005, when YouTube was born. I was a blogger at that time, and I would write about advertising ideas. I would write about crazy ideas that I wished I could see in TV ads or, posters and all kinds of out-of-home and digital kind of marketing initiatives. And I just felt like there was an edge missing.

I built a pretty solid base on my blog, which was called Who Is the Bald Guy—that’s sort of become an alias. Then, instead of writing (my marketing ideas), I decided to do low-budget video versions of them with the help of my sister and friends. I started shooting a lot, until one of them went viral. It was a video called “Nude It.” It was about a fictional iPhone app and that sort of an augmented reality app that when you point your iPhone at people, it shows them naked. It basically removes their clothes in real time. So it was something that just hit a nerve, a got a lot of traction. I think Mashable was one of the first sites that picked it up, and then Huffington Post, and it just kind of spread virally and that’s where I knew I’m onto something. It was like, oh, this is cool, and if I can do this again and again, maybe there’s a way to do a business model around this.

Around that time, I met James (Percelay). We met in a bar, we had a few beers, and we started discussing, “Hey, can we combine our skills, our backgrounds, our different mindsets and put something together to shake things up in the advertising world?” His background was more scripted comedy. He was a very successful, very experienced, very resourceful guy, and he could open a lot of doors that I wasn’t able to open at that time. I was a nobody. I was just this kind of rogue social media kid. So we figured out, it just made sense, let’s combine these things, let’s start something. And that’s how it started.

From there, how did you get into pranks? Do you remember what the first prank you pulled off was?

It actually happened before Thinkmodo was launched. It was a pilot I pitched to WeTV. At that time, Bridezillas was a really big show they had. I went to them because I thought they were a really good fit for this show idea I had, which was basically a mix of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and The Perfect Proposal. There was this team of proposal experts and they use hidden cameras to capture that magic moment and help a guy like me who might not have the right resources and also budgetary restrictions, but he has a really cool idea and they help him pull it off.

What happened is that I couldn’t find anybody with a great proposal idea. So I actually ended up being the guy proposing to my now wife. It was my real proposal, and my idea was to stop time. It was kind of inspired by the Grand Central freeze done by Improv Everywhere.

I applied that mindset to my proposal, and I tricked my wife into showing up in this restaurant that we rented out. All the people who were there had instructions to basically freeze what they’re doing when I would walk in and snap my fingers. It was this really elaborate marriage proposal, and it was never the intent that I was going to be the guy to do it. But I did it and hidden cameras captured the whole thing.

Was the Telekinetic Coffee Shop Surprise you did for the Carrie reboot your first big marketing hit?

The Telekinetic Coffee Shop Surprise happened in October 2013. We shot it at the end of that summer, and Carrie was released that year. It did really well, hit all the YouTube charts, won Webby awards and Shorties and stuff. So it was a really cool thing that kind of put us on the map.

But the one big one that we had before that was for a movie called Chronicle, directed by Josh Trank. The movie was about three teens with superpowers, and one of their superpowers was that they could fly. So we recreated that in real life. We had these human-shaped drones that we flew around New York City and we just kind of capture it with the New York City as a backdrop. And it became this unbelievably amazing thing, but it was a video that was very dangerous to produce because I think we broke a few rules at that time. It promoted Chronicle, which opened, against all odds, as the No. 1 movie at the box office.

After Telekinetic Coffee Shop and Devil Baby (for 2014 horror movie The Devil’s Due), we kept working with those hidden-camera pranks. Unfortunately, every time we have a mega hit, you know, something that really hits 10, 20, 50 million views, for some reason everybody assumes that’s our new standard. That’s very bad. So we always were happy that it happened, but then we’re so sad that, you know, we need to tell future clients is that this is by no means a standard, this kind of impact. It happens, and it’s great, but you know, let’s bring it down to reality. Let’s bring it down to earth a little bit. Let’s go, like, 10 million.

Have you noticed changes in how easy or difficult it is to get your videos to spread?

The word “viral” has gotten a really bad rap over the last few years because there are so many shady kinds of third-party players now. Basically, if you have the right budget, you can make anything go viral, let’s put it that way. I can record myself shaving my head for 10 minutes, I can put it online, and, if I have the resources and the right network of bloggers or, you know, use companies like Virool or so many kinds of other seeding companies—I don’t quite understand how it works, but they’re basically able to guarantee and generate very specific metrics in a specific timeframe, and that just kind of tells you that that’s clearly not the right thing.

"The word 'viral' has gotten a really bad rap over the last few years because there are so many shady kinds of third-party players now."
Michael Krivicka

We were always up against that. A lot of people assume “You must be using something, there’s no way, how can you guarantee it without paying for it?” That was part of our business model. We never guaranteed it. And when we did have a flop, we had a flop. We stood by it. We didn’t push it out, we didn’t buy the YouTube views. We said, “We fucked up, this didn’t work, this was the wrong thing.” But instead of looking at the one thing that went wrong, we looked at the 10 other things that went right. We pride ourselves with having a really great batting average. So yeah, it was all organic. Always.

Going back to Telekinetic Coffee Shop Surprise, what’s the backstory on that clip?

I’m so happy you asked that, because this was one of those projects we call a “shelf idea.” A lot of times when we work on something, there’s ideas that are born in that process that they don’t quite fit what we’re doing. So we put them on a shelf. And this was one of those things that was a shelf idea we’d had for about a year.

A year later, we saw the first trailer for Carrie and that’s when we all went: “Holy cow, this is it. This is that thing, this is the right fit.” Let’s call Sony and let’s tell them we have a great idea to promote their movie. So we did that. We call the svp of digital marketing at that time and we say, “Hey, we’re Thinkmodo and we’ve got this really great viral video idea to promote this new movie.”

And they were basically like: “No, no, no, no, no. This is not how it works. We call you, you don’t call us. And we’re like, “Yeah, we do things differently.” We were the disruptors, you know, the cool guys.

And while we had this person on the phone call, he says, “You know what, since we’re all here, what is the idea?” So we told him this, and at the end, there was a pause, and he says: “You’re right, that’s a great fucking idea for a movie. Let’s do it.” And they gave us a budget. It was a very easy sell-through, and that was our first time we did something for Sony. They were super happy with it and we’ve done a number of very successful things for Sony Pictures since then.

The last thing we did for them was for Spider-Man: Homecoming. He dropped down in a Starbucks to grab his coffee when his name was called. We had a great relationship with them, and they were always super happy with all our camera pranks.

You did “Devil Baby Attack,” which was for The Devil’s Due, and Telekinetic Coffee Shop Surprise for Carrie kind of back to back. So you had these two mega hits right in a row. What did this do for your business?

It did great things. That probably was that time where we stopped pursuing work. I know it sounds cocky, but we were just flooded with requests from all kinds of brands.

(Actually,) the first thing that happened was that we were flooded with requests from people in the industry wanting to work for us. I’m talking top-notch, super-qualified people, creative directors, copywriters. I mean, big ad agencies. They would be like: “I’m ready to quit my job. I want to work for you guys because you guys get to do whatever the hell you want.” That was always a thing that everybody would say. “You don’t have to deal with anybody above you. There’s no food chain to go up. There’s no traditional kind of ad agency structure.” We had to turn them all down because they don’t fit what we were doing. They were super qualified, and we had to find a very nice way to turn them down. We’d say: “There’s nothing wrong with you. You do amazing stuff, but you just don’t fit what we do. We don’t need a copywriter. We’re not from the Mad Men era.”

Then the other thing that happened, which was also interesting, was that brand clients came after us—traditional brands that have been around for many, many years. And once we started pitching them, they would say: “Wait what is this? This is too crazy. This is outside of our comfort zone. This is a little edgy are, this is dangerous stuff. There’s no way this gets approved.” But we were like: “Yeah, but let’s go viral. You gotta step outside your comfort zone. Let’s go have fun!” And then it just kind of ended there.

In the entertainment field, they were just so open. They’re just so flexible, you know?So that became our niche. The crazier, the better, you know. That was, that was our thing.

How “real” Are your videos?

So first we have to make a distinction between what is a prank and what is a hoax. A hoax is something that tricks the viewer. A prank is something where the viewer is in on it and understands what is going on, he’s watching the people being pranked.

So when we do an invention concept where we build a gadget, that is more on the hoax side because we’re now pranking the viewer, making him believe, “Is this thing real?” Is there really such a thing as a shaving helmet? It’s a helmet I put on, push a button and it shaves my head in 20 seconds. That was the first video we’d ever done. It did extremely well. The client wasn’t ready for it. It crashed their site. It was great.

The important thing is that it looks real, it’s believable, and that’s all there is. That’s all it takes to get people talking because it’s ultimately meant as a conversation starter.

With the prank videos, that was very real—very, very real. Even the reactions that we captured were real. There were moments that we staged, just to intercut and mix up the flow of things. Like, for example, I wanted to see dogs barking at something. That’s very hard to capture. So I staged at moment. We had a dog bark at one of our PAs doing something silly, but in the edit, it looks like that dog was there and you know, he was also upset.

But in terms of the other reactions where people flip out and run away scared, that’s all legit. That’s real. I can swear to that. There was no fake reaction video that we’ve ever done.

For Adweek’s full interview with Michael Krivicka, download the full episode of “Yeah, That’s Probably an Ad” on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

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