How Saatchi & Saatchi’s Toyota social media disaster unfolded

Toyota’s now disastrous foray into social media offers a demonstration of what skills an agency needs to play in that space.  

It’s now obvious that PR expertise is not an optional extra that ad agencies having a bit of a dabble in social media can do without. Although advertising has always had the potential to be controversial, for social media that possibility grows exponentially and that risk needs to be controlled.

And as Saatchi & Saatchi has demonstrated, it now goes without saying that you actually need to understand social media before you start. You can’t start learning on the client’s time.

For Toyota, I still think that running a live social media pitch with the five competing campaigns was a good thing. Even without this week’s events, it will have learned a lot. And by doing it in the public arena, the entire marketing industry got to learn too.

Where it went wrong was in giving too much leeway to an agency with little apparent social media experience and seemingly too little risk control to accompany that.

As an aside, it was interesting to note that another agency on the shortlist was Oddfellows, a long term partner of Toyota. A traditionally based agency, Oddfellows didn’t have the hubris to claim to be able to understand social media on its own. It partnered with social media agency The Population.

Saatchi & Saatchi apparently decided it could fly solo. Rather like many media planners think they’d make a good creative, I wonder if Saatchis thought social media was easier than it was.

It began to go wrong for Saatchis very early in the process. For starters, a film competition is such a tired idea. There was no twist. The brief was simply: make a film featuring a Yaris, and win a relatively small amount of money.

The accompanying Facebook page felt that it was being moderated by somebody who had just discovered the internet, and was catching up on the last few years’ memes. It posted links to the likes of the OK Go treadmill music video, the Johnnie Walker Robert Carlyle ad and “Guy catches glasses with face”. All great virals, but also familiar to anyone who’d spent much time online in the last year like the target audience. It didn’t position the Facebook group as somewhere to go to catch the latest and hottest.

No wonder then that as rival agencies’ Yaris campaigns began to get up stream, the Clever Film Comp got stuck on the grid. Facing the embarrassing prospect of no entries, the agency abandoned the idea of genuine user generated content, and with it what many would consider social media authenticity.

It forwarded this email to production house contacts:

From: Rob

Subject: Clever Comp

Hey creative people

I’ve got something that you’ll (or your housemates, brothers, sisters, artistic friends etc will) be interested in.

It’s a film comp in aide of promoting Toyota Yaris.

“A film comp? I don’t have the time!” you may say, but listen up. So far, NO ONE has entered and it has been open for more than 10 days and closes 1st December. Voting is done on hits and comments so if you’re in first you have a huge advantage. And you don’t have to make an ad, just put a Yaris in somewhere a la the ‘number 8′ or ’spring’ in Tropfest or something

First prize is $7,000. $3,000 for second and $1,000 for 3rd. At this stage, you could enter a picture of your cat playing in his kitty litter and win 7 grand.

Details are in the attachments. If you win, I’d love an all carbon fibre road bicycle for Christmas.

Cheers y’all.


As a result, this skewed the entries. If you promote the competition as an ad agency to your production house contacts then what you’re going to get back are slick would-be commercials, rather than short films. This was, as we now know, to prove important.

It certainly suggests that by this point the agency’s aim was to avoid the embarrassment of having very few entries for its contest, rather than to run an authentic, engaging competition.

When The Brand Shop’s Peter Bray wrote a guest posting for us on the contest, he placed the campaign in fifth place. He asked:

“Perhaps the account management and build was put together by interns? The Twitter followers are embarrassingly low, as are the number of Facebook followers. It seems a scattergun approach was used to build participation. Twitter appeared to be used for little purpose, as did Facebook, so why these platforms were even implemented has to be called into question. A social media campaign doesn’t have to use either Twitter or Facebook; there is no need to try and be everywhere. So combining the fact that the budget seems to be overly stretched, together with the dated mechanic and low level of participation means this campaign comes in fifth. Saatchi & Saatchi are definitely capable of better.”

As it happens, Saatchis haven’t returned calls on this issue throughout the process and certainly not since the crisis erupted (I believe PR practitioners would have their own views on the wisdom of that approach), so I don’t know for certain what the seniority of those involved actually was.

Even at this point, although it was becoming embarrassing for Saatchis within social media circles, it wasn’t the end of the world for the brand. Toyota had probably more than learned $15,000 worth of lessons about Saatchi & Saatchi’s social media savvy, which justified the budget.

But then came the key, bad decision. The ten most viewed and commented upon entries went in front of a jury. We don’t know who was on it, except it included mainly Saatchi & Saatchi staff, at least one Toyota representative, and they were “from the demographic”.

I suspect they weren’t given any kind of specific brief about Toyota brand values (or indeed reminded of the terms and conditions of the contest, which implied that non squeaky clean films wouldn’t be accepted). I wonder if there was even anyone senior in the room.

They selected the controversial ad we now know all about. And on December 6, just before 10pm, they posted the name of their winner to Facebook, and the timebomb began to tick.

It took nearly seven days to explode.

On Sunday afternoon I was in the office, clearing the decks for what I expected to be a busy week for other reasons. We’d written several times about the social media pitch, and I idly wondered if they’d announced their winner yet.

So I followed the link. I could not believe what I was seeing.

Wearing my journo hat, it was instantly obvious that by picking it as their winner, Toyota had endorsed the content. The comments on Facebook and on YouTube probably amounted to a couple of dozen at that point, but they all made the same point – it was sexist and offensive. And because it was made by a production house, it looked like a well made ad, not user generated content.

I started to write the story. And I called Toyota’s social media marketing boss Todd Connolly at home. When I put it to him that people were reacting against it, he was relaxed. He talked about how well made it was – which is true.

A marketer rather than a PR man, he saw it as user generated content. We had a cheerful chat even after I flagged up that I thought this was going to be a big deal. I suggested he looked at the comments, which he hadn’t seen and I suspect nobody else had been monitoring either – certainly there were no moderator responses.

I don’t think he realised that journalists and the public would not see it simply as user generated content once Toyota had selected it as its winner. Why would he? That relies on having the advice of a PR practitioner, who as far as I can see hadn’t been involved in that process.

I posted the story. A few minutes later, the first blogger to link to the story, Philip O’Neill, memorably referred to it as “abuser generated content”. It was a phrase which was to go global.

Within an hour or two the penny began to drop at Toyota. The video was taken down.

However, even at that stage I don’t think that those behind it actually understood that it was causing genuine offence to the public.

One of the comments that evening read:

“One minute Mumbrella and Burrowes are praising advertisers and particularly Toyota, who seem at least to have had a crack in the social media space, then Burrowes is shit-canning them in the next breath. Christ! Get a life! Try creating something for once rather than leeching off others’ ability and criticizing them. It must have been a very slow day in the Burrowes household. There are worse things on the net than this. Maybe Tim needs a good pounding.”

It’s funny how often the subject of unwelcome coverage story complains about how it must be a slow news day.

Although the video had been taken down, as they always do, copies began to pop up on YouTube.

At about the same time on Monday The Punch carried a robust opinion piece from David Penberthy and theage.com.au wrote a lengthy news story. (Interesting to note the differences in approach – Penbo was generous in his link back to Mumbrella. The Age story was based on our material apart from a new Toyota comment at the end, but behaved as if it was breaking the news. Last time that I wrote about Fairfax being bad link citizens, there were lots of cross denials. Interesting to see little has changed.

The story spread to other Aussie news sites. Then by Monday night the British news titles were covering it. Yesterday the Aussie papers and US media get in on the act. And this morning, it’s getting coverage on some of the large global ad blogs.

StreamGraph of Twitter propogation. Hat-tip: @ianlyons

StreamGraph of Twitter propogation. Hat-tip: @ianlyons

A big part of the problem is that if the public don’t read the story properly, it looks like a real ad.

By midweek, I began to feel a bit for the Toyota press office, which is more used to setting up journo test drives than crisis PR. During conversations, it became clear that they still had not been properly briefed by the marketing team and didn’t really understand what had happened.

Spokesman Mike Breen described the competition to The Age: “I’ve talked to the guy who looks after the social media side of things, and from my understanding the competition was run by Saatchi & Saatchi. It asked for individual production houses to pitch for what you would put together for a commercial for Yaris, and so one of these agency production houses produced this film that was then put up on a website.”

In later conversations with Mumbrella it became clear that the PR team was under the impression that the ad had only won a stage of the competition, and there were four other film making challenges still going. My impression is that Toyota (whose comms team have attempted to be nothing but helpful during this entire affair, by the way) has yet to nail down their message.

Going back to the cause of this, a big part of the issue is a cultural one. This could have happened to many ad agencies other than Saatchis. Culturally, very few are genuinely active and involved in social media. There are also few ad agencies who really understand PR. It’s hard to understand how social media really works unless you do it. There are only a handful of ad agency people who also have a genuine social media profile.

If they want a piece of the social media action that will have to change. They will need to start learning about it for themselves rather than using their clients as guinea pigs, or they will need to find partners who do.

In the end, it wasn’t social media that created this disaster for the brand – it was the lack of social media savvy.

Tim Burrowes


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