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Photograph by Peter Rad

The Mekanism Guarantee: They Engineer Virality

Its viral ad work runs from lowbrow to esoteric to downright scary — and that's all part of the plan. The machine behind Mekanism.

Spending time with the partners from Mekanism can be perplexing. I wake up after a night out in San Francisco with the crew to find the following scrawled in my notebook:

99 problems and a bitch ain't one
Nude suits
4 elf outfits
4 space helmets
8 Chinese girls doing blow

Searching for clarity, I call Katie Matson, who runs the New York operation for the production/ad shop. It could be one of two things, she says, "either an inventory of our storage closet or a shopping list for our Christmas party."

Turns out it is the latter, though I'm not sure the Chinese girls were really part of the plan. When I mention it to Tommy Means, Mekanism's founder and creative director, he's unapologetic: "Nothing pumps company morale like the four founders dancing at the holiday party in nude suits and space helmets." (fastcompany.com/nudesuits)

I first met Means and Mekanism president Jason Harris in October when they visited Fast Company's New York office. Their Web site had intrigued me — a collection of absurdist tableaux set against black backgrounds, which includes this description: "We sprinkle our love of good storytelling on viral campaigns, commercials, and branded entertainment to inspire measurable brand loyalty."

With only a small band of regular employees — just 40 staffers — Mekanism has built a reputation as marketing's twisted troubadours, with a particular talent for attracting the wandering eye of the fickle youth market. But "part of the misconception of Mekanism is that we're just king of the dick jokes," says Matson, who cuts her own hair and drives a convertible 1970 Chevy Impala. "And we are the king of the dick jokes — it's good to be king — but there is something much deeper happening."

In fact, while Mekanism is justly known for its fratty ribaldry, the company is behind the Web campaigns of some pretty sober clients. For Microsoft, it created a series of short features starring then up-and-coming comedian Demetri Martin that introduced 5 million people to ill-fated Vista; for Frito-Lay's Tostitos, the work was built around a not-for-profit group called NOLAF.org (National Organization for Legislation Against Fun) and pulled in 3.5 million views; and for Unilever's Axe, a series of short, saucy videos illustrating how the soap removes the residue of a louche lifestyle generated more than 6 million video views and more than a million visits to a Web site built by Mekanism. The company even got the X Games crowd to care about the Olympics with its "Can You Beat an Olympic Athlete" campaign, which pitted the likes of Michael Phelps, Lindsey Vonn, and Rafael Nadal against regular folks and celebrities in Hula-hoop and egg-toss contests; the spots drove chatter across blogs, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube and pulled in 4 million video views as well as coverage from The New York Times and the Today show — all without spending a dollar on traditional media.

"There isn't anyone else like us," brags Means, an Atlanta native who sounds like Michael Stipe, looks like a young Jack Nicholson, and has killed a wild boar with his bare hands (fastcompany.com/hogumentary). Means (his grandfather coined his own Ford dealership's slogan, By all means see Al Means) explains that while Mekanism bills itself as a production company, it's really a hybrid of an advertising agency, production house, and multimedia content factory that has dialed into the low cost of entry and pervasiveness of the Web. Mekanism's mission, he says, is not to overthrow the 30-second spot (they love TV dollars), but to place the Web at the center of all advertising, exploiting it to make marketing cheaper, faster, and more effective — across all platforms. "We are the model for what the future of an agency is going to look like," Means says.

At the close of our first meeting, I ask Means and Harris, "What is it about Mekanism that makes it different? And the answer shouldn't be viral marketing, because this magazine has been writing about that since 1996."

In a slightly Tourettian outburst, Harris replies, "We can engineer virality." Awkward silence. "We guarantee we can create an online campaign and make it go viral."

Rising to the bait, I propose a little wager: Prove it. If Mekanism creates a viral campaign for Fast Company, I will document the process from conception to launch — in the magazine to start and then online. We'll loose their baby on the world and see how far it travels, with readers right there either to marvel at its genius or mourn its genetic deficiencies.

As the elevator doors close behind them, I hear Means ask Harris, "What the hell are you thinking?"

This January, Ivan Askwith, director of strategy for the digital agency Big Spaceship, wrote an essay that got a lot of attention in the ad world. It was titled "Stop Spreading Viruses and Start Giving Gifts." Askwith had had enough of all this talk about virality: "Agencies and clients alike often talk about viral marketing as if it's something we choose to create. We describe viral as if it's an inherent quality we can design into our campaigns, or a deliberate strategy we can execute on." He dismissed as arrogant the notion of being able to make things viral. "Unless we want to spend another year burning time and resources in the pursuit of that belief, it's time to accept a difficult truth: Viral isn't a quality that we, as marketers, have the power to bestow." That same month, Advertising Age named Big Spaceship one of its five standout agencies of 2009.

Harris, who has the scruffy good looks of designer Tom Ford but with a trace of Tony Soprano aggression, begs to differ. When I ask him about Askwith's theory, he says, "It's totally bogus. Can you imagine walking into a client meeting and declaring, 'All right, new strategy: We're going to start giving gifts to your consumers'? It's ridiculous. Companies want results that can be quantified."

Askwith, reached by telephone, later agrees that there was "something a little soft in this analogy of giving gifts. The better way of thinking about it is that viral approaches succeed when they ... provide material that people can give to each other because they actually want to, not because they are compelled to."

Such is the dilemma for today's ad producers, whether they are hyperhip minishops or resource-rich giants. Every agency (and client) wants the alchemical tingle of taking a clever idea, some gigs of video, a few dollars, and watching the result sweep the globe — with every click driving the customer deeper into the experience, searing her retinas and subconscious with messaging she has actively selected. But most have little sense of how that actually happens, or the confidence to ensure that it will. Guarantees, in traditional advertising, are expensive. You want Grey's Anatomy's Nielsen-rated audience of nearly 12 million people? That's going to cost you $240,000 for every 30-second spot — production costs not included. And among those 12 million people, how many are actually watching versus TiVoing through or fetching a Ho Ho?

"Clients think that if we create a piece of content, then they will get their million hits," says Doner CEO and chief creative officer Rob Strasberg, who hired Mekanism for a Del Taco campaign in January. "They don't understand that the Subservient Chickens [the viral classic that got 450 million views for Burger King] and the like are the phenoms. In order to give that outcome some probability, you need to have a process, and Mekanism has figured out a way to plus the process."

But Mekanism's "plus" is more than an ability to churn out quirky videos. The company deploys a double whammy of demographically targeted content and a Machiavellian "syndication" strategy.

"Over the last three years, we've been doing viral campaigns where clients and their agencies would spend good amounts on production and then clam up on the media spend," says Harris. "They'd look at us and say, 'You're the viral guys, push a button and make it go viral. Isn't that why we hired you?' " Needless to say, there is no magic button. "But post and pray was not an option." (fastcompany.com/pushthebutton)

Hoping to remove prayer from the process, Mekanism built a system of alliances and an analytical approach that allows it both to target its consumers and assess the work's ultimate performance. "We do planning and research for each campaign leveraging social-media tools like Quantcast, Visible Technologies, and Visible Measures," says Harris. "We also tap our list of influencers, pairing the right tone and content with the right influencers. Ultimately, the goal is to get the right balance of reach and credibility."

As individuals become networks in their own right, the best-connected among them may one day (via their blogs, Web sites, and social media) rival ABC, CNN, or the Food Network in influence. But developing a legitimate online footprint requires those blogger/social-media types to have unique content to offer. Mekanism fed that need and, as a result, has built a cadre of devoted, high-profile, high-traffic Web personalities. Phil DeFranco's show on YouTube, for instance, is the seventh most popular channel on the site and has beaten both Larry King Live and The O'Reilly Factor in daily audience. "We give companies a fun way to engage new viewers with excellent click-throughs and exposure," says DeFranco, a frequent Mekanism collaborator. (He also notes that "some YouTubers in 2010 will make seven-figure incomes.")

"Influence," Harris points out, is a subtler notion today than it was when Malcolm Gladwell wrote The Tipping Point — largely because the Web has become a far more evolved and trackable means of exerting it. "Just six of the folks we work with have a combined monthly reach of 200 million people," he says. "This is not hiring guys in India to act like 16-year-old girls. These are target people with reach." By using Web analytics to break down demographic baskets ("18- to 34-year-olds") into more coherent, specialized subgroups, Mekanism has managed to identify the online voices those groups want to hear. So personalities like Sarah Austin, whose Pop17 blog — and its sponsors Ford and T-Mobile — has an insatiable need for entertainment, become gateways into specific online micro-climates. "Collaborating with Mekanism appeals to me because I could tell from their production quality and their team that they know what they're doing," says Austin, 24. "They give me opportunities to do cool stuff I wouldn't come up with on my own."

Austin's show runs four times a week, reaching 50,000 people per Webcast. "With the Internet, you get a level of focus you don't get in traditional media," says Jay Kenny, Microsoft's lifestyle marketing manager, who worked with Mekanism on the Demetri Martin campaign. "One of the things Mekanism does incredibly well is understand who they're trying to reach and how to reach them. You are actually speaking to the audience you are trying to connect with."

And the symbiosis that results keeps everyone coming back for more: When a Mekanism video (say) strikes a chord online, the blogger's audience and profile rise, her sponsors smile, and her payday gets fatter; meanwhile, Mekanism's work propagates across the Web, making its own clients happy. And because its crew of filmmakers, animators, and pop artists produces so much content for a single campaign, Mekanism can thin-slice it, feeding dozens of exclusives to dozens of specific sites — and tuning those initial placements based on whom the message is meant to reach, whether young women for Burt's Bees or twentysomething males for Tostitos. Mekanism also produces post-campaign performance metrics that allow clients a detailed look at the size and composition of their audience.

"The thing that sets them apart is syndication," says Doner's Strasberg. "They've built those relationships an ad agency can't necessarily build because for the most part people hate advertisers. As advertisers, we need help. It's amazing what they can do for the dollar and what they can do as partners." Strasberg had hired Mekanism to double Del Taco's 20,000 Facebook fans; Mekanism did it in two weeks (a month later the number hit 67,000). Mekanism even used 30-second edits of its Web videos as actual TV commercials, inverting the old model, cutting production costs by 50%, and making the Web the wellspring of the entire multiplatform campaign.

Mekanism's machine has gotten so good it apparently can even take a random comment and make it go viral. Mekanism lead writer Andre Ricciardi recalls a client presentation last summer where he was insisting on the importance of having a sticky URL for a new consumer product. "And this is true for any site," he told the room. "It doesn't matter if it's microsoft.com or hotchickspickingupdogshit.com. The name has to be memorable."

After Ricciardi sat down, one of Mekanism's syndication team leaned over and whispered, "I can have hotchickspickingupdogshit.com up by the end of the meeting." Ricciardi immediately began surfing on his laptop, pulled up some pictures, put them on a thumb drive, and passed it over. "Then we both linked to it on our Facebook and Twitter pages and forgot about it." Within four days, the site had been picked up by a couple of blogs that follow Ricciardi and his colleague in their perpetual quest for content, and had 15,000 hits. Today, there have been more than 2 million hits across an expanding empire of hot-chicks-doing-repugnant-things sites. "More than a thousand blogs have linked to us internationally," says Ricciardi, "and let me tell you, my parents are so proud." (fastcompany.com/andre2million)

"So General Mills found out there are a bunch of postcollege, out-of-work kids who are living on cereal," says Harris. "They normally target moms because that's who traditionally buys the cereal," he says. "But with their new market research, they came to us to help them" — he throws finger quotes — "exponentially monetize that demographic."

Working with lead agency McCann Erickson, Means and his team arrived at an idea for Golden Grahams called the Golden Grant Stimulus Package, a Twitter-based campaign focusing on job interviews gone wrong. As an added incentive, Mekanism would illustrate the best tweets in animated line drawings, like visual haikus, and put them on goldengrant.com and seed exclusive tweets to sites like funnyordie.com.

We're touring Mekanism's San Francisco HQ , housed in a loft building in South of Market. Downstairs, a darkened cube farm is home to rows of pixel jockeys creating spots. Past a sunlit perimeter conference room, I find assorted leftover props and sets: the beautifully art-directed candies used in a DKNY perfume spot aimed at teen girls (fastcompany.com/candicaine); a one-twelfth-scale diorama of a tract house populated by lizards, created for PepsiCo's SoBe ad, "On the Bottle," which twice hit No. 1 on YouTube (fastcompany.com/onthebottle).

We park for a moment in a recording studio complete with drum set, amplifiers, guitars, and keyboard. Harris, who plays in a band called Lucy (fastcompany.com/notaniroc), plucks his bass idly before walking me over to a Versailles-scale portrait of him and three other Mekanism partners. They are dressed like an anthem rock band à la Queen or Jethro Tull in a mishmash of period costumes, astride taxidermied buffalo. "I don't know whether this is cool or lame, but we like to think of ourselves as a band," he says. "Tommy is our lead singer and fearless front man, [director] Ian Kovalik is the digital pixie-dust-sprinkling flautist, Pete [Caban, the CEO] sets the rhythm on drums, and I help hold it all together on bass."

Lame or not, the formula is working. From 2004 to 2009, the little shop achieved 66% year-over-year growth, and in the worst economy in half a century booked $20 million in 2009 revenue, up from $12 million in 2008. According to Caban, the company is on track to bring in $25 million this year.

Mekanism's rogue style and consistent results have fostered an unusual devotion in its clients. On the Friday I leave San Francisco, Ben Stuart, an SVP for brand and digital marketing at Charles Schwab, has set up a margarita bar in Mekanism's airy lounge. Surrounded by an exquisite collection of midcentury teak and stainless furniture, Stuart expertly mixes and shakes for a growing line of thirsty young creatives eager to squander a Friday evening. I ask Stuart why it's not Harris and his crew serving cocktails to the people paying the bills. "These guys have been busting their butts and just produced amazing work for us," he says. "So I wanted to do something nice for them."

Two months earlier, Schwab brass had decided to launch its new $8.95 online trading fee and needed to roll it out fast; its primary agency, Euro RSCG, pulled in Mekanism, which has done two other campaigns for Schwab. Working with Euro's "Investors Rule" tag and its signature "Talk to Chuck!" dialogue bubble, Kovalik produced a series of ads that look like elegant, animated Chuck Close portraits (fastcompany.com/pixelpicture). "They have set themselves up for the velocity and the complexity of the emerging media landscape," says Stuart. As we speak, I witness Harris, not 10 feet away, executing a graceful keg stand, tap in mouth, to thunderous cheers — an act not lost on Stuart, who raises a margarita in his direction.

With the online universe becoming increasingly populous — and clamorous — companies are going to have to decide whether they have the stomach for the semisubversive ways of Mekanism and its ilk. Resolving the tension between courage and fear will often determine whether an online campaign goes supernova or implodes, becoming a black hole. Caban, a 10-year veteran of Macromedia, says, "It's almost like some of these more senior company executives don't understand the Internet, but know they have to be there, so they give it to someone junior — who is always someone younger. Then, when we come up with something provocative that is going to give them the results they want, it scares the hell out of the adult supervision."

Toyota, in its first experience with Mekanism, gave Means and Harris the go-ahead to create what amounted to a bunch of digital stalkers to promote the subcompact Matrix to young men. After going to the Web site, visitors were instructed to input a limited-yet-defining amount of a friend's information (cell-phone number, address, pet's name, favorite food) and then pick one of five characters (metal-band singer, Harajuku girl, English soccer hooligan, giant plushy fetishist, or conspiracy theorist) to begin a five-day period of harassment through phone calls, text messages, email, and videos. A typical situation started with a text followed by a pocket dial that lets the target know one of the characters is coming to crash on his couch, and gets increasingly more personal and alarming until the tension is popped with a phone call and video letting the target know he's been had.

"Toyota wanted something unusual, so we opened the door and Tommy and Jason went in and sold this idea. They are really good with clients," says Richard Bendetti, senior producer at Saatchi & Saatchi L.A. "They are not afraid of anything, and a lot of companies, including mine, are trying to catch up with Mekanism."

Before the campaign was even over, a woman had filed a lawsuit against Toyota and Saatchi stating she'd feared for her life and had resorted to sleeping with a machete under her pillow. Neither Saatchi nor Toyota would comment on the suit, which is still pending, but the campaign drew more than 4 million views. "At the end of the day," Bendetti says, "Toyota really liked it — but they were also afraid of it."

So what devious campaign would Mekanism come up with for Fast Company? Earlier in my San Francisco visit, I sit in on a 10-hour brainstorm, as some 20 Mekanism staffers and hangers-on — in person or via squawk box from the New York office — bat ideas around, with Harris serving as ringleader. After each proposal, he whiteboards the idea on the "wall of death," where it is both throttled and fertilized. The suggestions range from changing the magazine's name (cue publisher heart attack) to a concept called Long Live Print, where an origami artist carves an actual copy of Fast Company and turns it into a beautiful animation video. None of that day's ideas survives (fastcompany.com/ideafactory).

In the end, Mekanism came up with a handful of ideas it thought were worth presenting. We took a polite pass on "Fuck China" and "Business Jesus," but we found one we agreed to try (fastcompany.com/finalists). The experiment will begin any day now, and I'll be watching — and writing about it. Harris and Means know the stakes are high. "There is a massive amount of risk in this for us, which I kind of get off on," admits Means. "There is risk for everybody involved. We could look like rock stars — or it could kill our company." The fear, for the moment, is on their side.

Photograph by Peter Rad