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David Bently responds to's viral mishap

An i-boy exclusive: My friend David Bentley wrote one of the best meta-level critiques I've seen anywhere in response to's pitch for Subway's account and my posts on the subject.

David is currently getting an MBA at Imperial College here in London and has has years of experience in senior roles at places like AKQA and Online Magic, an agency that ACOM aquired in the late 90s.

I normally don't do "guest posts" on i-boy, but given David's credentials and the fact that his own blog is not yet online, I thought it would be a good idea.

Would you work at a company like this?

I think there are a few important points here:

The agency business is very simple. The role of an agency is to provide the best services possible to their clients within their particular field of specialism. They are appointed, all things being equal, on a variety of factors but most important is usually (outside of monetary considerations): capability and experience, understanding of the brand and the business issues of the company and overall client and agency chemistry. There is nothing more important at proving this than the pitch phase. Its a dance and difficult one at the best of times. If appointed to the account the agency works hard to build a relationship with the client and other stakeholders and to build a body of activity that solves the real business problems/objectives set by the client. With successful campaigns comes greater trust and stronger relationships. What underlines this process, like any other relationship building, is trust. Trust that the agency will understand, respect the brand/business. Trust that the agency will perform to the best possible standard. Trust that the agency will be a source of advice and guidance that is invaluable. The flip-side benefit for the agency is that 1) it gets paid appropriately for services performed and that 2) that ‘built trust’ within the client organisation will build a longer term relationship that in part secures future revenue stability and potential growth for the agency. Its that simple. Reality Check - it is a subservient relationship at the beginning. This performance by ACOM flies in the face of all of the above.

They produced an activity before they were even on the confirmed pitch list (I think I am right in thinking this was the credentials part of the pitch) that used the client brand in the way THEY THOUGHT was appropriate – yet it is not their brand to perform such tasks. They built an association – in the broader consumer marketplace - between their brand and the client brand before any relationship had been built. They released into an uncontrolled environment without the express permission of the brand owner. I could go on... But I fail to understand how this is going to further ACOM’s interests? If I were Subway (and even if I liked the viral piece) I would be compelled to reprimand ACOM for this activity. The entire activity exemplifies the fact that the company cannot be trusted with a client’s brand (a brand of considerable value), a lack of respect for a formal pitch process and as such ACOM must be considered a threat as an agent of the business. Frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if this entire activity has wider ramifications than losing the Subway pitch.

From the broader perspective I am somewhat disheartened that an agency of such profile and repute should make such a viral attempt. It reverts our entire industry back to 1997 where large companies were worried about giving significant business to ‘crazy funky webshops’. In 2006 we are in a different environment where media budgets are shifting rapidly online and now accounting for $10bn globally. We need to be professional and manage this business and to instil confidence – this activity does nothing of the sort. Is it any wonder that some of our finest digital alumni are taking senior jobs with traditional agency brands even though many are derided for not ‘getting it’? They may not ‘get it’ but they are respected and they sure understand client management and building long-term mature business relationships.

Notwithstanding the above as a viral activity it was must be considered a failure. Given that when WE talk about viral activities we talk about them from the standpoint of being part of a planned campaign. Behind that we have to set objectives. If we assume the objective of the activity was to win the Subway account then we can consider it a failure. If we consider it as a marketing campaign for Subway, it seems to be a failure because Subway is a bit part player in the activity and I walked away with little positive feelings towards the brand. If we consider the objective to be a campaign for ACOM then again I would argue it to be a failure. ACOM would look to gain exposure either to win new business or to attract new staff and as a leading company in the industry it would look to attract the best brands and the best people. I would argue that it will do neither. Successful viral marketing is not about the amount of buzz or chatter its about the outcome of that buzz and chatter and I don’t see much that is positive.

I see what they were trying to do and I applaud the idea of using a pitch process to prove your capabilities but they made one serious error. They thought that the process was all about them. What they didn’t realise is that it has nothing to do with them - its about the client, doing great work for that client’s brand and building a long-term and formidable relationship. That’s the way its always been and it isn’t going to change. ACOM know this – they have had a relationship with British Airways for 10 years. What possessed them to forget that? The fact is, if you are a supplier/partner/agency/consultant that threatens your clients business you will lose and so you should. Show your creativity yes; but do it respectfully and within the realms of professional business practice. There is no doubt that they could have done the same, proved their point, differentiated themselves and potentially delighted Subway without releasing it onto YouTube. All it would have taken was a little bit of extra consideration and a little humility.

Contact David Bentley: dbentley(at)

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Friday, August 04, 2006   permalink to archived copy   DiggIt  


Excellent piece from David. It is a worrying thing when that old agency arrogance of yesterday comes back with such a vengeance.

Another of my favourite quotes on this particular subject was "Choose an agency that understands the medium because they live in it, not an agency that has simply researched living in the medium".

I wrote my own piece about this before I found this one, but have to admit that David has said it an awful lot better
# posted by Blogger Aaron Savage : 4:36 PM, August 08, 2006  

Thank you for publishing that, George. And thanks for writing it, David; it cut through a lot of the fluff that ACOM's supporters were tossing around.
# posted by Anonymous Adam Rakunas : 1:28 AM, August 09, 2006  

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