How An Accidental Reply-All Email Spawned A Commercial

It’s a nightmare faux pas we all worry about, and that some of us have committed: The private, sensitive or frankly offensive email that you send after inadvertently clicking “reply all”. But ads, like art, sometimes imitate life.

Such is the case with one of Sunday’s Super Bowl ads that will inspire watercooler post-mortems on Monday, a Bridgestone spot called “Reply All”.

The prehistory for this ad stretches back four years ago, to when Bridgestone first started doing Super Bowl ads with The Richards Group, a Dallas-based agency.

“It’s a big, big honour – the biggest stage in the world,” says Bill Cochran, a Richards Group creative, of the Super Bowl. “The way my agency does it, because it’s such a big stage, is it lets everyone in the building work on it.” That figures to something like 100 to 150 creatives all competing to land potential on-air spots.

The first two years Bridgestone worked with the Richards Group, Cochran and his partner Patrick Murray “couldn’t even get out of the starting gate.” There were rounds and rounds of internal pitches even before taking them to Bridgestone – only to see the finalists denied. Cochran and Murray languished in the outermost brackets.

“By the third year, we were determined to get something out of the first round. Lo and behold, we wrote a spot, and it started making it through the rounds. We were excited any time we got a positive note.” The spot not only was appreciated within the agency; Bridgestone itself loved it, and went with it. It aired in the first quarter. “Whale of a Tale,” about a couple of dudes speeding down a pier with an orca in the backseat of their car, was an instant classic, named one of the top 10 ads CBS and Time.

And here the story really begins.

A few months after the Super Bowl, the agency announced it was time to begin coming up with spots for the subsequent year. “We were coming off a real high,” continues Cochran, adding that “never in a million years” did he and Murray imagine they’d sell another ad. “The odds are just so long, with so many working on ideas.” In early summer, different creative teams began working on ideas.

Cochran decided that in order to get himself and Murray psyched about competing for the next Bridgestone ad, it would be a good idea to write a sort of “locker room talk” email about what all the different groups were up to. “I started breaking it down by name – the teams that I thought were really gonna bring it, as well as some teams that I thought we didn’t have to present against.” (Put less euphemistically, teams that didn’t seem like real competition to Cochran.) “It was pretty much unedited thoughts from my head,” a frank, uncensored email from one friend and close coworker to another. It had the sophistication and tone, he roughly estimates, of a 13-year-old boy drawing up a list of girls he had crushes on, and girls he didn’t like.

Cochran drafted the email and clicked “send”. Only, completely unawares, “instead of sending it to just my partner, I sent it to the the entire list of all creatives.”

A few minutes later, Cochran got a puzzling email from a friend – not his creative partner – about a strange email Cochran had just sent out.

“All I know is just the blood completely rushed out of my head. I felt lightheaded. I – all I wanted to do was wish it wasn’t true, wish I could stop it.”

Soon, he was the “agency laughing stock, talked about in front of and behind my back. Everyone laughed as I walked by”. Six hundred Richards Group employees worked in the building. Cochran estimates that the email reached most of them within minutes. “I had a chance to walk by every single person who I had named in that email.” The creatives he admired or envied, the creatives he looked down his nose at, and somehow worst of all, the creatives he hadn’t deemed relevant enough to even mention – he had to face down each and every one.

That night, he didn’t sleep. “I just had to keep getting out of bed to walk around, I felt so bad.”

He wondered, for a time, if he would be fired. But he wasn’t. And when the next day came around, he realised he still had a job to do. At the next pitch meeting, Cochran knew that only one thing would be on people’s mind as he spoke, and that he “might as well walk through the fire and address it”. As a sort of self-effacing joke, he floated an idea of a spot called “Reply All”.

The more he and his partner thought about it, though, they realised that the idea had real potential. He and Murray “decided to see if we could turn lemons into lemonade, as they say”, and develop an actual spot concept based on Cochran’s faux pas. “It became the idea that there’s those two buttons, separated by just a few millimeters on the computer screen, but the difference is light-years apart.”

And to Cochran’s amazement, the concept he and Murray came up with won over his colleagues, and finally Bridgestone. The ad airs this Sunday, a phoenix from Cochran’s own digital ashes.

“I feel unbelievably fortunate, as a writer who loves advertising, to have the opportunity to have a spot two years in a row, he says. “Now I can’t sleep because I’m so excited to see the spot.”

Here’s a teaser for the ad.

Though he won’t confirm the details, Cochran says that it’s a “fair speculation” that the full ad might involve the unfortunate emailer hopping into a car to ensure someone, or multiple people, don’t read that wayward message. Bridgestone is a tire company, after all.

And now, on the eve of his second big night, how must those competing teams who didn’t make the cut feel—especially after losing out to the idiot who sent out an embarrassing email about the competition to the whole company?

“There’s got to be some scuttlebutt,” says Cochran. “But I don’t know about it, because those people are smart enough not to send those emails reply-all.”

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