Byline: Nick Summers
To be honest, it's not an ad that puts you in the mood for a burrito.
The spot for Chipotle Mexican Grill starts bleak and gets bleaker: the story of a farmer who becomes Big Agriculture, maltreating his pigs and polluting the water as winter descends. It's long, at two minutes and 20 seconds, and told entirely via stop-motion puppetry. There's no dialogue, only the spooky crooning of Willie Nelson. And the Chipotle logo appears just once, at the very end, on a truck pulling away from a farm returned to its roots, chickens pecking freely in the sun.
At any number of companies, the ad would have been killed for any number of reasons. It's unfunny. Political. Expensive to air.
There was also a chance that it was brilliant. So Mark Crumpacker, a career creative director who now heads the company's advertising efforts, uploaded the video to YouTube, rather than gambling on a pricey TV buy. He watched as the clip quietly but steadily went viral. The band Coldplay, whose track "The Scientist" Nelson covered in the ad, told its 18 million Facebook fans to take a look. Twitter buzzed. Food blogs, then music blogs, then advertising blogs all chirruped their approval. The message worked after all: Chipotle cares about sustainable farming.
Encouraged by the online response, Crumpacker ran the ad, titled "Back to the Start," in movie theaters nationwide. Field researchers brought back tales of audiences bursting into applause. YouTube views climbed past 5 million. All of this led, last month, to the burrito chain buying the first national TV time in its 18-year history. And during a Grammy Awards watched by 39 million people, the critical response was unequivocal: Chipotle's ad stole the show.
Unorthodox as it is, Chipotle's spot can be seen as a template for the future of great advertising. Ignoring conventional wisdom about what works in which medium--jokes on TV, wordplay in print, cats on the Web--the company focused instead on a single, piercing idea that works on all of them. And by using the Internet as a platform for testing worthwhile work, not just zaniness, Chipotle took the risk out of a risky piece of marketing.
Time was, advertising was a relatively simple undertaking: buy some print space and airtime, create the spots, and blast them at a captive audience. Today it's chaos: while passive viewers still exist, mostly we pick and choose what to consume, ignoring ads with a touch of the DVR remote. Ads are forced to become more like content, and the best aim to engage consumers so much that they pass the material on to friends--by email, Twitter, Facebook--who will pass it on to friends, who will ... you get the picture. In the industry, "viral" has become a usefully vague way to describe any campaign that spreads from person to person, acquiring its own momentum.
It's not that online advertising has eclipsed TV, as some industry pundits have predicted, but it has become its full partner--and in many ways the more substantive one, a medium in which the audience must be earned, not simply bought. Going viral is no longer a lucky accident or fringe tactic, but the default expectation of any ambitious campaign, on any platform.
"If it goes viral, it's ratification of it being good 'creative,'?" says Crumpacker, 49. "And if it doesn't, you're like, 'Oh, God, what did I do wrong?'?"
The global advertising industry is estimated at $500 billion, and if you are a human with the capacity for thought, you are aware that most of it is dreck. The ads that do break through the flood tide of pablum come, more often than not, from a shifting handful of hot agencies--the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryces of today. Some, like Wieden + Kennedy, have led the "it" list of creative firms for years; newer shops, like Droga5, Mother, and Johannes Leonardo, climb on or fall off based on their ability to convince clients that they can navigate the fractured way Americans consume media today. …