He’s back…

Has it been ten years? It seems like only yesterday that Crispin Porter & Bogusky and the Barbarian Group unleashed Burger King’s risqué digital critter, Subservient Chicken into the cyber sphere, changing the marketing landscape forever.

No overstatement, for here was a web born oddity that challenged the way marketers interacted with consumers. Subservient Chicken was stupid by design, entirely digital and immensely provocative, especially within the advertising community. Ostensibly touting BK’s chicken sandwiches, Subservient Chicken lived on a microsite, where one could make him do various naughty things. If I remember correctly the Chicken possessed a bondage vibe, implying Tarantino-esque behavior.

A hit with the chicks…

Personally, I don’t recall the specifics but I do know it made Burger King and especially CP&B famous. Whether consumers actually gave two shits about SC’s antics, he/it became part of the conversation, driving more attention and commentary than almost anything else in Adland. Everyone at every agency had an opinion, many unfavorable. “Where was the brand?” the old guard screamed. “Why on earth would BK want a nasty chicken promoting their food?”

On and on the uproar continued. Through it all, CP&B flourished. The more the critics bellowed the more famous the campaign became. Instead of defending itself, the agency shrugged off all haters, if anything encouraging them more. Burger King corporate may have flapped its wings, freaking out. But they were powerless in the face of all this attention. Bad ink truly became good ink. And for a major advertiser like Burger King the notoriety was a game changer.

Notoriety. From that point on, CP&B’s mission to make brands famous (or infamous as the case may be) became a notion that countless other advertisers now had to take seriously. Online discourse, especially via social media, became relevant to marketing.

CP&B went on to make one award-winning campaign after another, incorporating then-new platforms like Facebook to do it. As a follow-up to the perverted Chicken, the agency introduced us to the Creepy Burger King. An equally loud and persistent racket ensued.

Where’s the beef?

Clients flocked to the agency for something similar. Every creative person on Earth wanted to work there. For many years CP&B was the center of the marketing universe, envied and reviled at the same time. I can’t tell you how many meetings I was in where the Subservient Chicken was brought up. Like it or not, the campaign was in a league with Nike and Apple. Eventually, and controversially, BK and CP&B would part ways (the heat in the kitchen was just too hot) but SC’s impact in Adland can still be felt.

A decade later, Burger King, via work from a trio of other agencies, is bringing back its risqué’ mascot. Will it have the same effect as before –in Adland, at award shows and on popular culture? I don’t think that’s possible.

For a look at the new campaign as well more history, here’s the story in AdAge.

I want to be like you! Me too!

I remember when companies (ad agencies among them) used to frown on their employees using work hours to “play” on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Cursory emails were sent out regularly reminding staff of their obligations to the company. HR constantly admonished workers about rules and regulations, both inside the company and out. Disciplinary actions were often implied. If employees saw fit to dawdle on line they risked being let go. Given the very recent history of social media this is not ancient history. We’re talking one or two years ago. In many cases one or two months.

But the times they are a changing. Now corporations (especially ad agencies) are scrambling for competency in the very same social media platforms they used to shun. Classes are being offered. Intensive and expensive classes like Hyper Island, which I recently attended. As headlines about Facebook and Twitter dominate the media, senior managers everywhere are scrambling to get with the program as opposed to get rid of it. We are putting “digital at the core.” We are “getting social.” The great, wonderful irony is that the twenty-somethings who grew up with this stuff are now the ones being looked to for driving company growth. The hipster CEO has replaced the once prevalent stereotype of the geeky IT guy. Remember those hilarious SNL skits? Not so funny anymore.

Or is it? The ongoing frenetic transformation reminds me of that Doctor Seuss story where the Sneetches keep placing stars on their bellies and then removing them, based on the fear of being deemed out of place, out of touch and just plain uncool. In real life the moral is not so ambiguous: the star-bellied Sneetches are cool. The rest of us can only line up to “follow” them and be their “friends.”

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Web pioneers bring a shovel…

At our last agency director’s meeting a question was put to senior management: What are we doing to improve (as an agency) with regard to social media? In reply, one of us remarked on thought leadership we were sharing, providing examples of various programs being implemented across the network. Another brought up a fantastic new “platform” idea currently in development for a client. And there was the new ACD we hired who specializes in social media. He starts in January. We of course mentioned him.

But, to be honest, none of us really answered the question. Just what are we doing to improve with regard to social media? The closest anyone got to a legitimate reply was our President, Jamie King. He said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Quite frankly, since we are all pioneers in social media we are learning as we go.”

Oh, Pioneers! That’s what we are. What a wonderful way to couch our agency’s naiveté. Lest you think I’m pointing out a soft spot in our integrated approach, I’d ask you to reflect on your own agency’s acumen in the social media space. Because the “we” Jamie was referring to is not just my agency. “We” is your agency, too. “We” is you. For we are all pioneers and we are all learning as we go.

Think about it. The experts and gurus of the Internet got their first computers 20 years ago (give or take), many much later. The inventors of Facebook, Craigslist, You Tube, Amazon and just about every dot com are not only still alive, they are still working. They are still pioneers, still learning as they go.

In my opinion, they (and we) are only writing the third chapter of Earth’s digital history. First came science: the hardware and the codes. Then came the land grab -with everybody rushing to own a domain. Remember AOL and Like it was yesterday.

Chapter three is the “social” phase: where blogging replaces journalism and social networks TV; where millions upon millions watch “virals” of kittens playing with themselves; where frantic 50 year-olds pay cocky 25 year-olds umpteen dollars to design pages on Facebook…

In other words, there is not a protocol on how to do social media because there is barely a precedent. We learn as we go.

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-Special thanks to George Parker (Adscam/the Horror!) for finding the hilarious photo pictured above.