Inside Chive’s bad-good social campaign

Berners Bowie Lee has just released what it candidly describes on its LinkedIn page as “by far, the worst work we’ve ever done.” Founding partner Michael Murray agrees, admitting that the social campaign for Toronto plant store Chive as “really bad work.”

It’s true that the Instagram ads promoting Chive’s 50% off sale tick just about every box on the bad ad checklist: Terrible line readings, stilted dialogue, cheesy ’80s synth music, awful lighting, weird jump cuts, etc. etc. “[It has] all of the subtle, horrible details,” said BBL co-founder Devon Williamson.

It’s the type of work that has the potential to tarnish the reputation of a one-year-old agency still trying to establish its credentials. Except, of course, it’s all done with an eye towards speaking to ad-savvy consumers who are bombarded with “perfect” advertising on a daily basis.

Bearing the unwieldy title “Very, very, very genuine testimonials from the Chive sale,” the social campaign is intended as a spoof of one of the most used—and Murray would say abused—tools in advertising: The customer testimonial.

“They do all the things sale ads can do, but they’re just making fun of this ridiculous notion that we’re still meant to believe testimonials in an age when we all know they’re fake,” said Murray. “If we want to find the real truth, we can Google it.”

Marking Williamson’s directorial debut, the social ads were created over three days using (non-actor) friends of Williamson and Chive owner Todd Newgren. Williamson instructed them not to memorize lines, and provided direction like “Hold the plant like you hate plants” or “Hold the plant like you’ve never seen a plant before.”

The agency also withheld the proper pronunciation of some plant names, and deliberately created awkward line breaks on the cue cards in order to produce the stilted delivery that characterizes the campaign.

Bad ads are pretty much a hallmark of small business advertising, a product of small budgets and a lack of marketing savvy. But BBL and Chive owner Todd Newgren have cultivated a consistent tone for the one-year-old brand that Murray characterizes as “cheeky and self-aware.”

“It’s not going to be for everybody, but we think the people who get it will find it really funny,” he said. “That’s who we’re really talking to. We look at [Chive’s advertising] from a creator mentality. We know we haven’t got incredible budgets, we know we can’t hire amazing directors and we know it has to be done quickly, and we know that we’re competing against all of the interesting things on people’s social feeds.

“Instead of thinking like advertising agencies do and [trying] to make it perfect, we think of it like creators—how can we do something that people will think is cool, get across what we want to get across, and use all the tools that are immediately at our disposal, like phone cameras and really bad actors, and turn them to our favour.”

Recently named “Best new plant parlour” by Post City’s city blog TRNTO, Chive capitalizes on the recent houseplant boom. It’s also a brand conceived in the social era that knows how to use the channel to create a distinctive tone of voice, an approach that has earned it nearly 14,000 followers on Instagram.

“Todd gets people going into his store complimenting his social media, which has never happened to me on any other brand,” said Williamson. “It could be because they’re a smaller client, or it could also just be because he’s an entrepreneur at heart and he’s open to experimentation. As a client he’s quite unafraid to ruffle feathers.”



Chris Powell