Groupon CEO: We Placed Too Much Trust in Agency for Super Bowl Ads

Andrew Mason Says Group-Buying Site 'Turned Off Part of Its Brain' When Working With CP&B in Aim to Be 'Edgy'

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Talk about adding insult to injury.

As if CP&B's breakup last week with one of its biggest clients, Burger King, wasn't bad enough, it also was publicly slammed by another marketer -- which just happens to be one of the most-talked-about companies in the world right now.

Timothy Hutton in controversial Super Bowl ad.
Timothy Hutton in controversial Super Bowl ad.

It seemed to be a rapid change of heart. After defending controversial Super Bowl ads created with CP&B, Groupon CEO Andrew Mason is now blaming CP&B and himself for trusting it as an ad partner.

In a Bloomberg BusinessWeek profile last week, which noted Groupon has stopped working with CP&B, Mr. Mason said he placed too much trust in the agency "to be edgy, informative and entertaining, and we turned off the part of our brain where we should have made our own decisions. We learned that you can't rely on anyone else to control and maintain your own brand."

The premise of the ads was to take well-known causes and tweak both the cause and the role of celebrity spokespeople. The in-game ad made light of the plight of Tibet and starred Timothy Hutton.

That about-face and, more bitingly, the underlying assertion that it fired CP&B, is riling some execs at the MDC Partners' crown jewel, which by some estimates accounts for more than one-third of the holding company's revenue. For one thing, people familiar with the situation say the agency's contract with Groupon was only through Feb. 28, and it's disingenuous to say CP&B was dismissed. Groupon's TV schedule has run its course and no further ads are planned, a Groupon spokeswoman said.

It's also surprising, given Mr. Mason's post-game defense of CP&B's history of edgy advertising. "The firm that conceived the ad, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, strives to draw attention to the cultural tensions created by brands," he wrote Feb. 7 on Groupon's blog. "When they created this Hulu ad, they highlighted the idea that TV rots your brain, making fun of Hulu. Our ads highlight the often trivial nature of stuff on Groupon when juxtaposed against bigger world issues, making fun of Groupon."

The situation illustrates a classic tension in marketer-agency relationships: Clients say they want to take risks, but later realize they weren't ready or can't stomach the criticism associated with them. And CP&B is nothing if not a risk-taker, known for ads that reap miles of PR, even if they stir up controversy.

Among its executions in that vein: Burger King's "Whopper Virgins," which conducted taste tests of the marquee burger with folks who had never before tasted one, such as Thai villagers. It also launched the Domino's campaign in which the pizza maker admits its pies had historically been terrible, before touting a reformulated version.

Andrew Keller, CP&B's CEO, had only this to say to Ad Age last week: "We signed on with Groupon on a project basis and produced the work that we agreed upon. They are incredibly smart marketers, [we] felt privileged to work with them and look forward to their continued success."

Groupon declined to comment on Mr. Mason's change of heart toward Crispin, but it's unlikely we'll see much mass-market advertising from it in the near term. A Groupon spokeswoman told Ad Age it hasn't yet decided if it needs an agency going forward.

If and when Groupon does hire a new creative agency, we having a feeling it'll stick to the safe choice.

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Contributing: Kunur Patel

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