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Coinbase Agency Culture Super Bowl

Making the case for Coinbase: why this fight isn't so black and white


By Dan Cullen-Shute, Worldwide CEO

March 1, 2022 | 7 min read

Creature founder Dan Cullen-Shute is all too aware of how pitches can thrust at a concept without delivering an award-winning idea. Was this what happened with Coinbase’s Super Bowl ad?


Coinbase’s Super Bowl commercial has sparked a wider discussion in the ad industry

Wasn’t it bloody wonderful to see advertising standing up for itself?

Masters of self-flagellation and under-charging for proprietary nose-removal tools developed by the undervalued pointyheads in our pioneering Face-Spiting division, it was impossible to see Kristen Cavallo, chief executive officer of the genuinely brilliant Martin Agency, taking Coinbase’s chief exec to task the other day without punching the air.

Genuinely, it gave me a proper thrill. About fucking time, too.

Once that thrill had passed, I clicked on a few links, and tried to work out what was actually going on: see, I’m definitely in the minority in the world of advertising (UK advertising, at least), in that my favorite bit of the Super Bowl is the Super Bowl. I’m also quite fond of the bits of Christmas that last longer than 90 seconds and don’t have sleigh bells for a backing track, but that’s for another time.

So, while I was busy being disappointed that the Bengals hadn’t managed to turn the Rams over (I’m a Seahawks fan, for my sins – for those uninitiated in the ways of the NFC, that means I hate the Rams, whether I want to or not), and then massively over-excited that the half-time show had plundered the music collection of my awkward rural adolescence, I didn’t pay much attention to the ads. Until I was reminded – a few days later – that that was sort of my job, actually, thank you very much. And so I got on with it, and got slapped in the face with the Coinbase scandal, and applauded Kristen along with everyone else.

And there are some bits in the whole thing that are genuinely distasteful. The chief exec using an ad made by an agency to slag off agencies as a whole? Yeah, that’s scummy behavior. The get-out being that ‘the marketing team was so in sync he didn’t even realize they didn’t all work for him’? I’ve not come across, ‘I’ll be honest, I don’t even know who works for me’ proudly put forward as an excuse for being a bit of a dick before: ‘sorry for being a bit of an arse, it’s just that I’m a bit of an arse’ is a line so breathtaking in its shamelessness and honesty I can’t even imagine Boris Johnson using it, which is a pretty low bar.

But then it got interesting. Kate Rouch, Coinbase’s chief marketing officer, entered the debate, and claimed/explained* (*delete according to where you work) that multiple agencies had shared QR code ideas with Coinbase, and that it wasn’t until another agency, Accenture Interactive, brought the idea of fusing the floating QR code with the old ‘will the DVD logo ever hit the corner of the screen’ meme did the magic happen. And the thing is, I agree. A floating QR code (which, FWIW, is all Mr CEO implied the ad was) isn’t an idea. It’s certainly not a good one. But I’m inclined to agree with the chief marketer when she says ‘the meme as a conceptual underpinning was creative genius’ – I mean, that’s not how I’d have phrased it (my writing style is somewhat less formal, as you may have noticed), but it would have meant the same thing.

A floating QR code is a piece of tech: a floating QR code that nods to a (genuinely) iconic piece of popular culture, in a way that speaks to (sorry, but it’s true) the now fully-grown power-nerds that I suspect reflect Coinbase’s core customer base, and drives action? Yeah. That’s pretty great thinking.

It’s important to say that I haven’t seen pages 19-24 or 11-18 of either of the decks Cavallo referenced: but if they were just ‘smart ways of using QR codes’ and had no reference to DVD screensavers, then, personally speaking, I think Coinbase is in the clear on this one.

None of which is to say, of course, that Cavallo is any less of a hero for standing up in a civil, measured and smart-as-fuck way to a chief exec that had gone out of his way to make himself look/sound awesome, and to diminish and belittle the industry I’ve given my professional life to. She is, and I wholeheartedly and unreservedly applaud her for it. Maybe if there were more principled, confident and brave people like her in charge, there would be fewer clients who are comfortable behaving badly, disrespecting agencies and, yes, stealing ideas (it’s happened to us, more than once, and it sucks).

But I think she was talking to a much more important point than a broken pitch process or IP theft (she herself has said that her tweet wasn’t about IP): I think she was standing up for an industry that’s too often cowed and afraid to be proud to stand up for the work it does, the skills it has, the spectacularly talented people it has in it, and the value that that can bring to our clients and, yes, to the world.

Do I think Coinbase nicked the Martin Agency’s work? Don’t know. Wasn’t there. Haven’t seen the decks. But in this instance, I have a feeling they didn’t, because I – thanks to this brilliant industry I work in, and the brilliant people I work with – know that the difference between one thing and another, ostensibly similar thing can be vast, however small it may initially appear. The genius is in the detail, as they say, and in this instance, Accenture Interactive appears to have brought the detail – a fact left entirely unacknowledged in the original thread.

Do I think we’d be a better industry for everyone within it, and for everyone that works with it, if there were more leaders prepared to put their neck on the line for the people that work for them and the work they do? Abso-fucking-lutely. Regardless of where the genius lies, sometimes the detail is less important than the bigger picture.

Coinbase Agency Culture Super Bowl

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