by Leigh Tayler (@LeighAnneTayler) Advertising is a crazy industry to work in because as it combines two things which would appear to be diametrically opposed: the idealism and optimism of creative, and the pragmatism and bottom-line of corporate. But — regardless of how it works, why it works and if it, in fact, works — what these two forces without a doubt do achieve are moments where one or both sides of the boardroom table are left dumbstruck. Or, as I like to call them, “WTF?! moments”.

“Did I just hear that?”

Over the years, I’ve been at the pointy end of (or overheard) many requests or suggestions from both sides that are so breathtaking you can only respond by nodding slowly and impassively while internally screaming, “WTF is going on?! Did I just hear that?”

WTFs come in all shapes and sizes, and, not unsurprisingly, often involve budget realities and unrealistic expectations, from briefs for 360 campaigns on budgets that won’t stretch past a flyer drop at William Nicol and Sandton Drive or creatives, after being briefed on a 30″ TVC on a modest but doable production budget, reverting with a 60″ TVC set on the foothills of the Himalayas.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say one of my all-time favourite WTFs is when a client’s brief says something along the lines of “make my ad go viral”.

Now I must include a caveat: the notion of virality is not my problem as virality is just the 21st century synonym for fame, and advertising/content should always aim for fame because that’s where salience and all those good things that good advertising achieves comes from.

Fickle lover

But fame (and virality) is a fickle lover.

Any good agency worth their weight in Skittles is striving for fame for its piece of work. Often, it’s very familiar with how to increase the probability of virality but, ultimately, it’s not in the hands of the brand owner or the ad agency — it’s in the hands of the viral vectors, otherwise known as the consumers.

It’s also important to acknowledge that often the things that go viral with regards to brands do so for all the wrong reasons. I’m fairly sure that H&M would rather not have gone viral for its “king of the jungle” sweatshirt. Gucci probably wishes 2019 had passed by with no-one mentioning its brand, let alone mentioning it in the same sentence as “black face”.

And the biggest WTF of “make it go viral” is that the things that go viral — really viral — are the things that you might not want your brand within 10 feet of:

  • The outrages or injustices — political, environmental, social
  • The personal and shady
  • The inane or irresponsible
  • The inflammatory
  • The faux pas or bloopers
  • The off-the-cuff and spontaneous
  • The kittens and miniature goats in PJs (maybe those are fine)

Brief accompaniments

However, if “make it go viral” persists as an expectation, then there are some things that need to accompany it on the brief — starting with bravery, removing tick boxes and ending with creative freedom/licence.

Ideas that go viral for the right reasons aren’t safe. Ideas that go viral have as much chance of catching fire as they do of dying without a spark — it all depends on the mood of the viral vectors in that 10 seconds your brand pops up on their screens. Ideas that go viral happen in real time; they leverage the conversation of the moment; they react to things that consumers are reacting to. Ideas that go viral don’t need to be complicated or deep’ they just need to be on point.

Perhaps the moral of my story is that let’s stop the WTF moment of “make it go viral” and just assume that your agency wants it to go viral, regardless of whether the brief explicitly asks it to — and, if that’s what you want too, then make sure you have your big girl/boy pants on ’cause going viral isn’t for the fainthearted.


Leigh TaylerLeigh Tayler (@LeighAnneTayler) is the strategy director at Joe Public United. During her career of more than 12 years, she’s worked in just about every imaginable category and has fostered a well-rounded and instinctual approach to strategic thinking that she applies at every level, from big brand concepts to last-mile moments of truth.

“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.

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