Creativity Isn’t King After All: The truth behind Youtube’s Ad of the Decade

20 months ago I was sitting around a table with a dozen senior ad creatives and CDO Ivan Perez-Amendariz from CP+B (Ironically top ad agency of decade). We were discussing how to tackle a seemingly impossible mission from Turkish Airlines: make the most viral ad of all time.

Fast forward to last week, “Kobe vs. Messi: The Selfie Shootout”, was voted the top YouTube ad of the decade. I don’t take this lightly — it was throned among top 20 ads like Little Vader, Old Spice, Volvo Epic Split, OraBrush and other legends that I’ve looked up to and studied for, well, a decade.

This is how we stacked up against the top 5 in terms of total views:

  • Kobe vs. Messi: 140 million
  • Little Vader: 62 million
  • #LikeAGirl: 57 million
  • Epic Split: 79 million
  • Real Beauty Sketches: 65 million

It wasn’t even close. Mission accomplished, right?

Now I’ll tell you how we did it.

But first, a quick disclaimer: Keep in mind there were a hundred people that made this campaign a huge success, and I was just one of them. Every puzzle piece was important. But in all humility, I believe my puzzle piece is why Kobe vs. Messi is #1 and not just top 20. In a minute you’ll see why.

In that war room, walls caked with storyboards, moodboards, I took a huge risk of sticking my foot in my mouth and debunked a myth.

“Sorry, if I could interrupt… You could come up the best creative concept in the history of mankind and it still won’t get you the most viral ad of all time.”

Everyone looked at me, confused. A couple creatives looked morbidly excited for the beating I was about to take. After all, I was just a mid-senior level Social Media Supervisor, and I was most certainly talking out of place. But Ivan was smiling; we had prepared for this.

A few months before, Ivan had given me the green light to research the underpinnings of viral video and evaluate if and how we could utilize it for one of CP+B’s dozen fortune 500 clients. I had met with dozens of vendors, attended conferences, consumed hundreds of articles and books. The reason I had gotten the gig at CP+B in the first place was because my own personal viral video, through which I learned much about the mechanics and fuel of virality. CP+B had reached out to me to license my video for a Kraft campaign and that was all the intro I needed to get the job. I had first person experience with how it worked and Ivan allotted me the time to put science and strategy behind it for a brand scenario.

Amidst my day job of being primarily a Facebook pixel pusher, we had tried to make it work on a couple clients beforehand, but it never panned out. My evangelism was yielding no converts and looking grim. Then Turkish Airlines served us the golden goose on a silver platter with a solid budget and I dare to say we were amongst the most prepared in the world for the opportunity. And we had Kobe and Messi. And millions of dollars. And a huge TV buy, for whatever that’s worth…

BUT we showed the room that no single video on YouTube with Kobe or Messi in it had over 10 million views other than the previous Kobe vs. Messi. We showed them the surprisingly basic tactic and data behind why that video had broken 100 million views and the ways we were going to break a higher quality and more meaningful 130 million with the same budget, employing many new tactics. I can’t give away all the secrets, but here are 8 big ones.

1: Creative

We told the creative team what kind of broad elements this video would need to grease the share button. It needed to be unexpected. It should center around a major cultural reference point to drive comments and chatter. An element of competition would give fans a clear reason to share. There was a slew of other recommendations. Not all the recommendations made it in.

The selfie concept was the winner. After all, it was Oxford’s word of the year in 2013, something everyone could relate to universally. The concept would push Kobe and Messi to their acting limits, get them to do things they hadn’t done on camera before, things that were beyond their usual persona.

2: Partners

With buy-in from the creative team and Turkish Airlines we put together the partner dream team — the Avengers of viral video. Ricky Ray Butler of Plaid Social Labs, Cameron Manwaring/Tim Staples of Shareability, Rob Sandie of VidIQ, Alex Debelov/Jon Jacques of Virool, Kimberly Kovacs of Izea, and of course, Google. It took the expertise of each to make it happen. We filled in the gaps ourselves.

3: A Social Moment

We created a massive social moment, throwing a large percentage of resources into the first 48-hours of the campaign to dominate share of voice.

4: Video optimization

We baited the YouTube algorithm in every non-rule breaking, honorable way possible. This included but was not limited to what we call velocity, how quickly a video climbs in views, with paid traffic, paid credible engagement, data-backed optimizations for title, tags and description, thumbnail strategy, etc…

5: Press outreach

We created a press frenzy in every major country in the world, enticing editors in their native languages.

6: Ad Buying

We bought a very strategic and effective mix of inventory and targeting across channels, publishers and mediums. Secret sauce stuff.

7: Influencers

800+ YouTube influencers talked about the video, most paid, some organic. A dozen celebrities Tweeted. Hundreds of trending videos were feeding ours because of the pre-established influencer network.

8: Critical Mass

This was probably the most comprehensive viral seeding and distribution campaign to date. The synergy of all tactics combined is very likely why it won ad of the decade. The impressions and recall value was insurmountable, people had both seen it and remembered it.

But here’s the kicker.

The video didn’t win any creative industry awards. Adweek nailed it, calling it “less of a critical darling, but a juggernaut of views.” Not to discredit it completely, as it was an incredible, well-executed and ambitious creative production, but there’s data showing that the world did not regard it as the most creative of the top 20. Kobe vs Messi garnered more than 1.5 million social shares. But many of the others garnered more than 2 million social shares, meaning they had more “true” virality, more organic sharing.

Kobe vs. Messi didn’t win because of Kobe and Messi, it didn’t win because the selfie shootout, it didn’t win because of the production or the creative.

Kobe vs. Messi won because of distribution.

Lesson learned?

You can create the most incredible, beautiful, mega-contagious creative in the world, but without distribution, it will never reach its potential. It’s kind of disheartening, and for creatives, it’s quite a hurtful reality that most either don’t recognize or cognitively decide to ignore. That’s bliss, right? Not for the other viral videos that could have and should have been #1. Not for that creative team. For the next 10 years, the throne is in Istanbul.

Here’s the takeaway for getting something shared. Whatever you spend on creative, always spend at least 3X that on distribution. Otherwise, it’s not worth creating and you are wasting your client’s money. The internet is littered with big-budget, fortune 500 commercial productions with view counts in the tens of thousands. It’s embarrassing. It’s a shame.

Here’s another takeaway. Almost all of the viral ads you’ve seen weren’t actually “viral.” Well, at least not in the way you think of viral. 100% true virality was my firstviral video in 2011. One Facebook post led to 10MM views, MSN homepage, Good Morning America and Tosh.0 interviews. That one Facebook post was the only distribution.

But brands don’t get to play in the 100% true virality sandbox. Brand involvement immediately decreases virality, no matter how good the concept is. Brands have to work harder, they have to pay to play.

I know from firsthand sources that the following video views came from at least 80% paid media: Dollar Shave Club, Winner Stays, Old Spice, Orabrush and Dove Real Beauty Sketches. The new meaning of “viral” for brands is 1) share rate and 2) earned media. Any share rate above 1.5% is good, anything over 2.5% is phenomenal, meaning 2.5% of people that viewed the video shared it somewhere on social media. Any video with more than 10% earned media, or unpaid views is pretty amazing.

Great creative acts as a powerful multiplier, but it isn’t a prerequisite. It just means you get a higher return on your media investment. And of course it will affect the recall and behavior of the viewer post-view. And your creative is completely make or break in getting press, although even that can be overcome occasionally with distribution strategy.

While this truth makes “viral” video a little less sexy, a little less magical, the flip-side is that it means that it’s predictable, it can be planned for and guaranteed. You know, kind of like traditional media.

But “viral” media strategy is far more complicated than buying a slot on primetime TV. And the upside can be huge IF you know how to hack the system.

This story doesn’t end with Kobe vs. Messi — as many one-hit wonder viral video stories do. A while later, I left CP+B, along with the creative team, Danny Streadbeck and McKay Hathaway. We started One in the Chamber, putting all the previously mentioned services under one roof and becoming the first comprehensive, one-stop shop for brand viral video.

It’s been a wild ride. We’ve already worked with some amazing clients. We’ve grossed $1MM+ in 10 months. But more importantly we’ve learned how to attribute direct response ROI, proving that viral video works. One video (with a modest budget) has already yielded more than $600k in revenue — and continues to deliver a monthly 6 to 1 return.

We’ve been able to replicate the Kobe vs. Messi scenario every month and continue to perfect the craft of making great ideas reach their viral potential — at all budget levels.

It’s not black magic. It’s not black hat. It’s not even experimental anymore. It’s the future and it’s leveling the playing field for those willing to learn how to work the system.

Click here to get in touch with us at One in the Chamber.