Coinbase’s CEO Didn’t Credit an Agency for Its Super Bowl ‘QR Code’ Ad. It Was a Huge Mistake

“No ad agency would have done this ad.”

That’s what Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong said on Twitter when he shared the backstory for how the company’s famous Super Bowl commercial, which pictured a floating QR code and not much else, came to be.

Except, it appears that an ad agency did do this ad.

This is a story about the most famous commercial from this year’s Super Bowl, the creative process, and what to do when you make a mistake.

In his tweet thread, Armstrong explains how an outside ad agency pitched Coinbase a variety of ideas that he didn’t like, indicating they were too much of the same old thing. Eventually, says Armstrong, the team went back to an original idea of putting a QR code at the end of the ad.

“Since we were almost out of time we decided to just make the whole ad a QR code,” Armstrong tweeted. “Team came up with the DVD screensaver theme, and commissioned a cool song from Com Truise (whose music I like).”

But it was what Armstrong said next that’s getting him into trouble.

“I guess if there is a lesson here it is that constraints breed creativity, and that as founders you can empower your team to break the rules on marketing because you’re not trying to impress your peers at AdWeek or wherever,” Armstrong shared in another tweet. 

“No ad agency would have done this ad.”

Soon after seeing Armstrong’s thread, Kristen Cavallo, CEO of advertising firm the Martin Agency, tweeted a reply. Cavallo claimed that the famous commercial was actually inspired by presentations in which her agency showed Coinbase “ad concepts for the Super Bowl with floating QR codes on a blank screen.”

Soon after that, Coinbase CMO Kate Rouch chimed in with her own tweet thread, in response to Cavallo’s.

In her thread, Rouch claims that multiple agencies (including the Martin Agency), pitched campaign ideas including QR codes. However, according to Rouch, none of the ideas from Coinbase’s partners were conceptually what the company was looking for, and so they “remained on the cutting room floor.”

Only, the story doesn’t end here.

Rouch said it was a firm Coinbase did partner with, Accenture Interactive, the digital agency arm of professional services firm Accenture, who came up with the idea of inserting the QR code in the popular “DVD screensaver” meme. “The meme as a conceptual underpinning was creative genius and a unique use of the QR code and was what unlocked our [Super Bowl] success,” Rouch stated.

“The Coinbase team and I deeply value our partners,” says Rouch. “The fit with our creative partner Accenture Interactive was seamless–so much to that extent our CEO actually thought we were a single team when presenting work.”

About 12 hours after his original thread, Armstrong then tweeted the following: “Although we didn’t work with a traditional ad agency I’d be remiss not to mention the creative firm we worked with who actually created the ad, commissioned the song, got the clearances etc etc. Honestly, felt like we were all one team so I didn’t fully realize it, thank you!”

Obviously, there’s much more to the story than we can glean from a few tweets. Nonetheless, there are two major lessons we can derive from this account.

No company is an island.

In his original tweet thread, Coinbase’s CEO called for his team to receive the credit for what turned out to be a great Super Bowl ad. Nothing wrong with that.

But what Armstrong failed to recognize is that the creative process is a collaborative effort. 

The Coinbase ad was simple and clever, and it appears that many hands went into creating it. Whether the ad agencies (like the Martin agency) who pitched ideas including QR codes should be considered part of that creative process is a point for debate. 

But you know who definitely did play a major role in creating that ad, according to Coinbase’s own CMO?

The ad agency that Coinbase worked with, Accenture Interactive.

Of course, Rouch’s tweet credited Accenture Interactive, and that’s a good thing. 

But that leads us to our second lesson…

If you’re wrong, you have to make it right.

While Armstrong’s subsequent tweet delivered a public thank you to the “creative firm” who actually created the ad, the 12-tweet thread still lacked a few things.

  • apologized
  • credited Accenture Interactive by name
  • admitted that it was indeed an ad agency who helped create the Super Bowl commercial 

First, Armstrong could have apologized — simply for not mentioning Accenture Interactive from the very beginning. And if he felt really remorseful, he could apologize to all who were part of the creative process that went into building a great Super Bowl ad, including any who weren’t Coinbase employees.

But while saying sorry is a start, it’s not enough. 

By crediting Accenture Interactive, Armstrong could have helped his partner gain more exposure and potential clients. By withholding credit by name, Armstrong doesn’t do Accenture any favors.

Finally, for some reason, Armstrong doesn’t consider Accenture Interactive an “ad agency,” despite the fact that the company lists itself as being in the Marketing and Advertising industry on its own LinkedIn page. 

This was a point Cavallo elaborated on in a LinkedIn post.

“I understand multiple agencies can arrive at a similar idea,” Cavallo wrote. “I objected to the dismissive tone of the thread and the denigration of ad agencies. I felt compelled to respond to the bravado of, ‘No agency would have done this ad,’ because in fact, an agency did. The purpose of my response was to stand up for agencies and creatives, and the value we provide.”

Of course, it’s not too late for Armstrong to do any of these three things. And maybe that’s the most important lesson behind the Coinbase Super Bowl ad story:

All of us will get things wrong. When we do, start with an apology, and finish by doing what you can to make things right.

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