Close-Up: Lessons learned from Mumsnet snafu

Beta co-founder Robert Campbell defends the agency's actions, while the industry gives its view.

We could write a book about the "Mumsnet incident". In one sense, we screwed up really badly. In another, we achieved our objectives. We certainly learn-ed a lot, though, and here are our observations.

If you're going to use advertising to launch an online brand/product/service, make sure you've got the relevant online communities onside before you "go live". You have to make sure they support and understand what you are doing and don't have an agenda of their own.

Be certain your advertising can't be misunderstood online. We deliberately left the question mark off the offending poster, "career women make bad mothers". Instead, we added a starburst that said: "Have your say." The Mums-netters either never saw this starburst or chose to ignore it. Many of them were complaining about the poster in their discussions online long before they had actually seen it on the street.

You need more resource than we had. When the Mumsnet community kicked off, we could have done with a whole team of bloggers ready to ride and direct the debate more positively. Mumsnet skilfully spun their side of the story out on to the internet and to carefully placed friends in the press. We could have done with a lot more people putting our side of the story out there, too.

Don't mess with Mumsnet. It is like wrestling with an octopus. There is huge diversity within it. There are those with political ambitions as well as many looking for advice and support and everything in between. They can organise themselves very quickly. The conversation is relatively serious during the day and gets pretty wild in the evening - we found threads about wife-swapping, gangbangs, "bumsex" and drugging babies with alcohol.

Anonymity is a massive issue. More than 200 anonymous abusive posts, mainly directed at Garry (Lace, founding partner of Beta), were taken down by Mumsnet.

Should we have threatened Mumsnet with legal action? Given the extraordinary number and abusive nature of the posts, and the lack of speed at which Mumsnet took them down, yes, without question. We removed the threat as soon as Mumsnet started operating within its own guidelines.

So, how can we change? Our conclusion is we need to be ready to work on a "real-time strategy" basis. The "Mumsnet incident" absolutely demanded that we should be able to respond in real time - something that both ad agencies and clients are not very good at.

This was made particularly difficult because the Outdoor Advertising Association is a committee. There is no single decision-maker. It struck us that we needed a very clear sense of who we are and what our objectives are as an organisation to stand a chance of dealing with a situation like this effectively. The team needs to be empowered and capable of representing the brand or organisation without asking for permission from its bosses.

We have been asked the question: has the "Mumsnet incident" done lasting damage to Beta? It's hard to say. We were kicked off a pitchlist last week as a result of Mumsnet's protests. And it is scary to have a group of people e-mailing your clients demanding they fire you.

We learned a lot. And next time we'll do it differently. And just to set the record straight, no, we don't believe career women make bad mothers.

- Got a view? E-mail us at

PLANNER (and mum to be) - Amelia Torode, head of strategy and innovation, VCCP

"It's naive of any agency to think that because they've started a conversation, they can control that conversation. Whether that's through legal threats or advertising tools.

"With real-time advertising, if you get it wrong, you just have to hold your hands up and say that you're wrong as soon as possible. And you have to realise just how easy it is for this sort of thing to happen.

"It was astounding to watch it all happen in real time, though, from the first reaction to the haiku about Garry (Lace)'s penis size."

AGENCY HEAD - James Murphy, founding partner, Adam & Eve

"In this industry, we're only just getting used to our peers criticising us, so when it's members of the public, it's totally alien.

"For that reason, any time you're trying to court controversy through social media, you have to plan everything down to the very last detail. It looks to me that the decision to send legal letters was down to the fact that a back-up plan had not been formulated."

CREATIVE - Russell Ramsey, executive creative director, JWT

"With Beta's campaign, you'd have expected them to realise that the line 'career women make bad mothers' would have caused problems. They were naive if they didn't have a pre-arranged agreement with the client to take it down quietly if it received too much bad press.

"When you do get a backlash that you don't expect, though, you should just accept it and remove the problem as quietly and easily as possible. It's not worth being indignant, as an agency is never going to come out of it well just for sticking with the moral high ground."

AGENCY HEAD - Cilla Snowball, chairman, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

"The campaign was to show the power of posters to drive people online and provoke discussion, which the 'bad mothers' treatment certainly did.

"For the agency, any suggestion of 'a misunderstanding', any hint of going legal with Mumsnet, any apology that was anything less than swift, public, abject and sincere was going to fuel the fire, not fix the problem.

"But the key postmortem question is one of judgment and establishing why the ad got cleared to run. It's patently horrible, untrue and offensive and should never have seen the light of day.

"If you want to provoke a debate, provoke a worthwhile, positive one, not a hostile one."


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