Lessons from the Coinbase creative kerfuffle

—The Twitter tiff was good melodrama for the ad world, says Ron Tite. But it was really about two important requirements for productive relationships: Respect and rewards—

One of my all-time favourite Super Bowl spots is E*TRADE’s “Monkey,” which aired in 2000. For most of the spot, a chimpanzee wearing an E*TRADE T-shirt—flanked by two plaid-wearing gents straight out of real people casting—danced and clapped atop a rusty garbage can to the song “La Cucaracha.” That’s it.

It ended with supers: “Well, we just wasted $2,000,000. What are you doing with your money?”

In a sea of horses, dogs, and celebrities portraying Greek gods, it’s often the simpler spots that have a better chance of cutting through the nachos.

Not surprisingly, when I saw Coinbase’s “Less talk, more Bitcoin,” spot with its bouncing QR code, I had a similar reaction. I wasn’t alone.

The commercial was reportedly so popular that the traffic generated by viewers scanning the code temporarily crashed the app. Put on the Coinbase face-paint and hold up that #1 foam finger, right?

No. After what transpired this week, I’m not such a fan.

As any ad geek knows, on Feb. 21, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong tweeted his back story to the ad, claiming they had been pitched a bunch of standard Super Bowl ideas by an agency, but that he didn’t like any of them. He claimed his team brainstormed, came up “with a bunch of wild ideas,” and created the ad “last minute.” And here’s the kicker: “No ad agency would have done this ad.”

Cue the record scratch.

Kristen Cavallo, CEO of The Martin Agency, responded: “Except an ad agency did do that ad.”

Sharing the pent-up frustrations of agency professionals around the globe, Cavallo reminded Armstrong that her agency presented a similar idea to Coinbase last year— even providing the dates and citing presentation page numbers for his reference.

Attempting to come to his rescue, Coinbase CMO Kate Rouch added fuel to the fire by introducing Accenture Interactive into the plot. “The fit with our creative partner Accenture Interactive (AI) was seamless—so much to that extent our CEO actually thought we were a single team when presenting work.”

The CEO didn’t know Accenture Interactive was at the table? I’m calling bullshit.

There is more drama in the twitter exchanges than in the final season of Ozark (I know, I know… there are seven more episodes). It has everything: The cocky billionaire CEO, the mystical allure / con of crypto, the outdated demand for spec creative, a professional “break-up,” the presence of a disruptive force to traditional agencies, and more. Lots more.

But what is it really about? I think it’s two things: Respect and reward.

The Respect Part

About 10 years ago (while at another agency), I presented creative in a pitch. As the global AOR, we worked on most—but not all—brands for this client, and we willingly pitched for a small brand assignment in the portfolio. I was proud of the work our team developed and I was honoured to present it.

We didn’t win the pitch.

I accepted the decision and looked forward to seeing the winning campaign… until I saw it. Because the spot I saw was the exact spot we presented in the pitch, just executed by someone else.

At first, I was livid. But if I’m really honest, I was hurt.

See, it wasn’t about the money, or the credit. And it wasn’t about missing out on press, awards, or a great case study. Our team thought we were trusted advisors to a client who valued our perspective.

We felt like we were one team (client + agency) that collaborated on finding the best ways to grow their business. When we found out that they didn’t feel the same, it was really disappointing.

The worst part? Seeing our spot without knowing I would. One simple open and honest conversation was all that was needed to right this wrong. Respect isn’t siding with an agency every time. Respect is having an honest conversation when you don’t.

I know what I felt seeing that spot during Murdoch Mysteries. I can only imagine how Cavallo’s team felt when they saw it during the Super Bowl, and I’m glad she spoke out for agencies.

The agency-client dynamic has changed. With multiple specialty players, fewer retainers, the growth of in-house, and more decisions-by-data, agencies aren’t the advisors we used to be. But we’ve seen similar changes between agencies and production partners: Agencies have in-house capabilities, utilize outside content creators, and have generally been forced to ask production partners for more, for less.

The entire marketing ecosystem—content, media, creative, production, tech, and clients—is filled with talented and dedicated people trying to figure out their role in a world that continues to evolve. The only way forward, regardless of what side of the fence you’re on, is with respect.

For the most part, clients are ethical and collaborative people. But ask around. Most agency vets have at least one similar story to what unfolded on Twitter this week. As do clients. Many clients have felt wronged by agencies they thought were partners, too.

In the case of Coinbase, this wasn’t a client disrespecting a partner. It was an arrogant CEO disrespecting the efforts of other professionals. It wasn’t just bad for agencies. It was bad for clients too, because in the end, it means less trust and respect in the system and the work will suffer.

The Reward Part

We may not all need awards, promotions, high-fives, or even adulation from our grandmother telling her friends, “Sarah did that TikTok video!”

We all, however, want to do great work that is fun and fulfilling. We want to exceed expectations, even if we’re not brave enough or brilliant enough to know how. I don’t know that there’s a better feeling than seeing something and thinking, “I helped create that.”

To experiment with a new platform, to explore a human truth, to make a gutsy call, to have a eureka moment, to find the budget, or to work beyond the allocated hours long after everyone else has gone home, requires way more than money.

It requires an individual who genuinely wants to do it because they believe in what they’re doing and, more importantly, who they’re doing it for.

The marketers and agencies that get the best work and the most dedicated teams are the ones who don’t just throw around the word “partner” during compensation discussions. And they’re certainly not the ones who steal ideas, fail to acknowledge contributions, and don’t own a mistake.

Beyond the moral glow, the reward for treating people with respect is better work. More fulfilling work. More progressive work. More business-growing, holy-cow-we-did-it work. When that happens, we’re all inspired and we grow as a community.

Brian Armstrong may have cheated his way to a Super Bowl winning ad, but I doubt he’ll get there again. What team (internally or externally) is going to push for one more idea when they can expect to be treated like that?

Some see crypto as a huge leap forward. For marketers and all the agencies that support them, this was a big step backwards. Thanks to Kristen for reminding all of us that we need to be better. She was the only one who took a step in the right direction.

(Coinbase ad taken from USA Today’s 2022 Ad Meter)

Ron Tite is founder and chief creative officer of Church+State