Fyre Festival: a timely warning for marketers to do their homework?

Fyre Festival: a timely warning for marketers to do their homework?

We couldn’t let the recent bout of Fyre Festival flame-fanning go by without a brief comment – but not on the shady behaviour of the organiser, or on the brutal lessons on accountability Ja Rule received from the populace of Twitter. That stuff is gripping of course, but we’re most interested in what it means for the marketers in the story.

In case you missed the original 2017 coverage as well as the recent Netflix and Hulu documentaries, Fyre was touted as an uber-festival to rival Coachella, held on a private Bahamian island and heavily promoted by various Instagram influencers and models. In the end, the event turned out to be a non-existent mess that left a lot of people angry and out of pocket.

Jerry Media – deleting tweets and not taking names
US marketing agency Jerry Media were tasked with running the social channels for Fyre. The agency, who had previously developed a reputation with their @f*ckjerry Instagram account, were also involved in the making of the Netflix film, Fyre. So it wasn’t surprising that the documentary paints them, via talking-head interviews with CEO Mick Purzycki, as another helplessly misled party pulled into the mess by their client.

While Jerry Media admits to deleting tweets and blocking Fyre Festival ticket holders who were seeking help on social platforms, it insists it did so at the behest of the Fyre organisers. Eventually, according to the Netflix film, they held their hands up, refused to continue with the debacle and were asked to hand the social logins back to Fyre.

But at what point should an agency take back control when its client goes off the rails? And was there a way, with the benefit of hindsight, that Jerry Media could have avoided being involved in the disaster altogether?

Blamestorming and due diligence
Questions about due diligence have been raised since the documentaries aired, most of them focused on the influencers and models whose Instagram promotion helped lend the festival its rich-kid appeal. Some have said they think the big hitters, including Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner, should be sued for helping mislead consumers. Others feel that nobody could have predicted the way things turned out – and that it’s unfair to throw blame at anyone but the organisers.

Jerry Media are facing some backlash after the documentary, mostly from comedians who say the @f*ckjerry account steals professionals’ jokes, as well as profiting from the misfortunes of those caught in the Fyre-storm. But did they really turn a blind eye and fail to spot warning signs?

Well, there were clues. If you look at the leaked slides from Fyre’s pitch deck, you quickly pick up that the whole Fyre project leans heavily on big names from the entertainment industry, but offers no data to back up its business case or even factual examples of success to date – barring a lot of social buzz. There’s a rudimentary revenue model but no evidence of market research to justify it.  It’s all concept, no business plan.

Faux businesses and corporate fraud
The Fyre case is a little reminiscent of The Shed at Dulwich, an imaginary restaurant that was propelled to the top of TripAdvisor’s London rankings, seemingly by sheer chutzpah. Vice journalist Oobah Butler used paid reviews, a constantly-busy ‘booking line’, and his own foot masquerading as a ham hock to build buzz to a national level.

At one point he was approached by a PR firm looking to represent the restaurant, and received a Skype call from an executive eager to snap up a headline-worthy new client. Mercifully for the company, Butler pixelated out the representative’s face in the Vice video report on the hoax – but the trap, which after all had convinced the national press as well as hundreds of restaurant-goers, could have left the agency with metaphorical egg on its face.

Clients whose product or service is built on an empty cushion of hype are one thing. But what about when that client’s product is actively causing harm? For example, what became of Mediacom, the agency who helped Volkswagen promote its ‘clean diesel’ claims ahead of the 2016 emissions scandal? They may not have come under fire for being complicit in the fraud, but they lost out on business as a result of being linked to the scandal. Notably, the automotive giant hired a new global agency for a complete rebrand after the scandal broke, eager to leave the past behind – and by extension, its former agency empty-handed.

What can you do to avoid wildcard clients?
Sometimes, being linked with an ill-fated or even malpracticing client is just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For example, it would have been extremely difficult for VW’s agency to gain access to the level of information that would have tipped them off about the emissions scandal in advance.

It’s also easy to sympathise with the PR agency who wandered into the path of Vice’s fake restaurant hoax. To all intents and purposes, they played it by the book, kept an eye on emerging trends and followed up a promising lead that just happened to be an elaborate prank.

Jerry Media? Well, the jury is out on whether they acted against their values and put money ahead of ethics in taking on the Fyre account, or in sticking with it as long as they did. Certainly, they could have asked more questions about the client’s business plan and heeded some of the warning signs that even a casual observer can see in the investor pitch deck, but it’s possible that they acted in good faith, and maintained their relationship with the client out of a sense of misguided loyalty.

Whatever the motivation though, being prepared to follow their client’s lead to the extent of deleting tweets and blocking defrauded customers is problematic. It breaks Twitter’s policies on not using the platform to further illegal activities for one thing. It also reflects poorly on the agency’s leadership and initiative, and it’s a situation that might have been avoided if they’d had some basic rules in place for drawing boundaries with their clients. For example, sticking to best practices on social media transparency, and upholding a basic level of customer care.

Here at the tree, we’re interested in helping clients make authentic connections with their markets, and turning real stories into compelling content. If you’re looking for an agency partner with nous as well as talent, get in touch.