Groupon may be one of the fastest-growing consumer internet companies ever, but when it came to introducing itself to consumers on television, it learned a harsh lesson: developing a successful television ad campaign can sometimes be more difficult than building a wildly-successful business.
After its Crispin Porter + Bogusky Super Bowl ads flopped, Groupon faced a consumer backlash and industry criticism from those who wondered how a company that is doing so well could go so wrong on the biggest advertising stage in the universe.
After the backlash, Groupon CEO Andrew Mason defended his agency, noting that CP+B "strives to draw attention to the cultural tensions created by brands".But after giving it some thought, and perhaps realizing that Groupon isn't in the business of creating "cultural tensions", Mason decided that CP+B did Groupon wrong.
The ill-conceived ads? "We learned that you can't rely on anyone else to control and maintain your own brand" and "we turned off the part of our brain where we should have made our own decisions" he says. The not-so-subtle translation: CP+B messed up, and we never should have allowed it to happen.
It's an odd change of heart, and an odd argument. Groupon decided to retain CP+B. Groupon decided to trust CP&B. Groupon approved the campaign CP+B created. If there are decisions Groupon didn't make, Mason isn't dropping any hints about what they were.
Sadly, Groupon's agency experience isn't exactly atypical. Many companies that engage an agency walk away disappointed. But who is at fault when that happens?
The answer depends on the circumstances obviously, but if a client doesn't trust its agency or have the chutzpa to speak up when it's not sure about something the agency delivers, it should only blame itself for poor results.
After all, the end of the day, consumers don't really care who creates ads. Groupon had the ads created and bought media to promote it, not CP+B. Even if, for argument's sake, everyone in the industry agrees that CP+B was way off the mark with its ads, that doesn't help Groupon.
Instead of blaming agencies for ill-conceived ad campaigns, companies need to enter agency relationships understanding what they entail and what they require for success. Three tips for doing that are:
Treat your agency as a second brain
Hiring an agency doesn't mean that you should perform a self-lobotomy. An agency can provide ideas, insight, feedback and creative execution. But there's almost always a role for the client in those things too, so it's better to think of your agency as a right-hand man and not the CEO of Advertising.
Remember that no agency is perfect
Agencies produce a lot of great work, and they produce a lot of not-so-great work. Predicting how an ad campaign will do is sort of like predicting what the weather will be like on this day 100 years from now: you can try but it's probably not worthwhile.
As such, no company should go into an agency engagement believing that an agency has the secret formula for ad alchemy, it doesn't.
Companies hoping an agency will perform miracles on their behalf and whose leaders won't speak up when they have doubts are liable to learn this the hard way.
Pick the right agency for the right reasons
When it comes to hiring an agency, some fits are better than others. In the case of Groupon, CP+B looks like a good fit. After all, both are known as quirky organizations.
But that's superficial and Groupon clearly wasn't asking the right question: "Is CP+B the right agency to introduce Groupon to the national mainstream market in a big way via television?" Probably not.
Picking an agency because its culture or personality most closely resembles yours can be a huge mistake. The better strategy: pick the agency that identifies your real needs and seems best capable of helping you achieve them.