A (very) Brief History of Virality

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Virality. It kind of hits a different nerve now right?

As a virus spread through the world, leaving many of us forced to be locked inside with nothing but the screens of our phones as a connection to the outside world – virality led to, well… virality.

The over-saturation of social media posts, especially in the video sphere, meant that many ‘experts’ in 2018/2019 began to predict some sort of ‘end’ to the viral video. Seemingly, the internet had broken up into niche subcultures with little unification. Enter: COVID19.

In 2020 the fractured internet began to crave unification and mass interaction to find an escape from the four walls of lonely bedrooms across the globe. This led to a reconfiguration of virality, that manifested in many different ways – for example, that awful video of celebrities singing to us; but, also much broader effects like the HUGE acceleration of the TikTok user base.

Virality certainly isn’t anything new. Whilst it is a buzzword to describe videos on social media – the first thing we should do is recognise its looooong history. We can learn a lot from it.

The 19th Century

Ahhh the 19th century. The cardboard box has just been invented, Mary Shelly publishes Frankenstein and Van Gough paints the Starry Night (and cuts off his ear 👂) Wait…, what do you mean TikTok wasn’t around?

In the 19th century, mass amounts of people began to migrate from farmlands and rural areas to the growing cities. Fractured smaller village societies began to combine to create larger communities (much like seen with the impacts of Covid19 on socials) of like-minded ‘city people’. Not only was this movement somewhat viral in itself, but it also created the first set of opportunities to reach a huge amount of people in one go (instead of just within your local village). Art and literature all came more accessible, widely spread and viral.

As this urbanisation rapidly commenced, there was a huge fear of people ‘losing themselves and their identities in the modern city’ (sounds a lot like social again 🤔) – leading to loads of social and scientific theories of imitation, contagion and suggestion. A huge interest peaked in ‘crowd psychology’ (this is still well used in some marketing) – which studied how ‘rational humans’ were turned into reckless automations.

Whilst, not the entire blueprint for virality on social platforms, a reminder that the history of virality is long and complex can lead to out of the box creative thinking – harking back to the good old days of… Thomas Edison? 💡

Chain Letters

Fast forward to the early 20th century in Denver, Colorado. The first known chain letter was sent by an unknown trend-setter who claimed their letter originated from the biggest influencer at the time – The Pope.

This letter was sent around Denver and encouraged the population to send it forward, and donate money. Whilst, obviously, this is some sort of fraud – it is probably one of the earliest examples of some sort of social virality.

This old-ish trend took off and was remediated in many different forms. From scary urban-myth letters (Carry on reading! Or you will die, even if you only looked at the word warning! Once there was a little girl called Clarissa, she was ten years old….) to very serious issues of fraud and scams. Chain letters may have an old origin, but they are a great example of this ‘crowd mentality. A lot of the time, we know Clarissa isn’t going to kill us (we hope) but people sent it forward anyway to be part of a social movement.

This sort of virality has been reconfigured over and over again from those strange emails we all got as a kid to those weird Instagram and TikTok posts about Bloody Mary 🩸. Although, we can also see it in less spooky things like the very recent Instagram trend of sharing a picture of your dog to ‘plant a tree’ (lol) – or even tagging multiple friends in giveaway posts (although its best if your brands dont pretend to be The Pope – or Bloody Mary for that matter).

The Golden Age (of YouTube)

Finally… the good old days. This was the time where there was a new viral video every few days. Meeting up with friends and family irl often prompted conversations anchored around “Have you seen that Old Spice video” or chatting about that kind of weird aggressive panda advert.

Obviously, we can not talk about the Golden Age of Youtube without acknowledging the viral behemoth: Friday. Often described as the worst YouTube video ever made, Rebecca Black’s magnum opus was the second most disliked video in 2011 just missing out on the top spot of Justin Bieber’s Baby. Despite this, Friday was the most-watched video on Youtube that year. What can we learn from Friday? Well, firstly going viral isn’t ALWAYS a good thing – and at this time people launched videos into the viral sphere through ‘hate-watching’. It’s a classic case of being ‘laughed at’ rather than laughing with. But hey, it works?

On the other side of the spectrum (laughing with) there is Charlie Bit My Finger. A video uploaded (originally) purely for the joy of a family – it soon became a force to be reckoned with. It was reported that the Davies-Carr family made over £100,000 in advertising revenue from the video alone. And the latest update? An NFT of the video was auctioned off in May 2021 for $760,999.

What was the difference between these two videos? Rebecca Black’s video was hated due to its cringe overproduction (both sonically and visually). Whereas, videos that were better received, especially in this era, were funny and candid home videos (Think the same vibe as You’ve Been Framed). It seems the more production and human mediation involved – the worse the reaction. It was kind of a tricky place for brands to enter and they had to tread carefully.

(sidenote: Rebecca Black re-released Friday recently)

Trying to get a Slice.

It’s now 2015 – and all across the world viral videos are being shared and remixed. Most importantly, people are pouring buckets of ice-cold water over their heads – raising over $220 MILLION for charity. You couldn’t even log on to Facebook without seeing all your loved ones, friends and enemies soaking themselves for charity.

What made the ALS ice bucket challenge so successful? In a nutshell: Its seamless combination of social media pressure, competitiveness, low barriers to entry (literally just a bucket and a camera) led to more than 2.4 million videos circulating on Facebook.

The challenge also echoed one of the previous viral movements we explored – chain letters. Through a mix of mass interest and individual identification, part of the ALS challenge was to identify and ‘tag’ potential candidates. Much like sending forward the story of Clarrissa the dead girl forward, people felt compelled to extend the virality themselves. Never underestimate the power of a participatory campaign! Giving people the opportunity to remix and remediate a viral campaign leads to reach and creativity.

But the search for virality doesn’t work for everyone – and this next campaign led to the death of over-produced virality. When Kendall Jenner offered a Pepsi can to a police officer to solve the tension at a protest, it went viral for all the wrong reasons. Twitter users expressed distaste for the clear attempt to create an overproduced, fake-‘woke’, and tone-deaf ‘pop culture moment’. As sites like Twitter and Reddit became more active, people became less and less happy with overproduced content – and became happier and happier to voice their opinions.

What started with Rebecca Black, quickly became part of the general public’s hatred for overproduced, clinical and corporate attempts at virality.

Here lies manufactured virality.

Rest in Peace.


Unless? What’s this? A new challenger approaches?

TikTok completely re-invigorated the viral video. By taking aspects of the most successful viral campaigns – viral videos on TikTok are often casually produced and candid, invite remixability and remediation from the audience and think quite deeply about crowd psychology; TikTok has become the new breeding ground to head to if you want to try and get viral.

Yeah, it’s still hard work and requires some (Spin) creative geniuses – but there doesn’t seem to be a better time to give it a shot!

But, listen, we aren’t going to give all of our secrets away in one singular blog post. So keep your eyes peeled on our Instagram for the very best TikTok tips. And who knows… maybe there will be some useful stuff posted here soon?


🚀 Make your content remixable.

🧠 Take inspiration from past examples of virality.

🎉 Overproduction is not good! So, watch out!

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Cannes Lions: Fresh Takes from a Young Jury Member (and What They Mean for Your Brand)

Every year, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity brings together the brightest minds in advertising. This year, I had the incredible opportunity to be part of that energy, reviewing over 50 entries from the UK Young Lions.

As a judge, it was inspiring to see the next generation of creative firepower. But it wasn't just about spotting the "next big thing." The insights gleaned from these entries hold valuable lessons for established agencies and brands alike. Here's what stood out:

The Power of Fresh Perspectives:
Big agencies are known for their frameworks and processes. While these ensure consistency, some entries felt a bit…uninspired.  In contrast, the most exciting ideas often came from the most junior creatives. This is a powerful reminder that fresh perspectives can breathe new life into established brands.

Brand Brilliance:
The talent on the brand side was phenomenal.  It made me wonder: are these brilliant minds being fully utilised in-house?  There's a goldmine of creativity waiting to be tapped into.  Agencies and brands should work together to create an environment where brand voices can truly shine.

The Extra Mile Makes the Difference:
The entries that went the extra mile truly shined. This isn't about bells and whistles, but about a genuine commitment to the idea. Don't be afraid to push the boundaries and invest the time and energy to bring your vision to life. It shows.

Standing Out from the Crowd:
Unique ideas are rare gems. There were a few entries with near-identical concepts.  Breakthrough creativity requires taking risks and challenging the status quo. Don't settle for "good enough."  Strive to be truly remarkable.

Less is More:
Killer presentations are clear and concise.  Ditch the word clutter and focus on crafting a compelling narrative that showcases your idea's potential.

The Dream Team:
The true magic happens when exceptional copywriting meets eye-catching visuals.  Brands that can foster strong collaboration between their creative teams will be the ones that stand out.

The Future is Bright:
Being a Cannes Lions judge was a humbling experience.  The talent pool is overflowing with potential.  It's an exciting time for the advertising industry, and I can't wait to connect with these Young Lions in June with the Spin team.

What does this mean for your brand?
The insights from the Young Lions competition offer valuable takeaways for established brands:

  • Embrace fresh perspectives: Don't be afraid to tap into the creativity of your younger team members or partner with agencies that encourage out-of-the-box thinking.
  • Empower your brand team: Your brand ambassadors have a deep understanding of your audience and a unique voice. Give them the space to contribute meaningfully to your marketing strategy.
  • Invest in your ideas: Don't settle for mediocre. Give your team the resources and support they need to bring their big ideas to life.
  • Seek out unique solutions: Challenge the status quo and don't be afraid to take risks. Stand out from the crowd with truly remarkable campaigns.
  • Foster collaboration: The best creative results come from strong partnerships between copywriters, designers, and brand strategists.

By embracing these lessons, you can unlock the full potential of your brand's creative spirit and achieve Cannes-worthy results, even without entering the competition.

Spin hires two directors from We Are Social to bolster its leadership team

London (9th January 2024): Spin, the leading social media agency, has appointed two seasoned directors having lured them from current industry leader and competitor,
We Are Social. Lee Murray joins as the new Finance Director, and Alyssa Drysdale steps into the role of Client Services Director.

Lee Murray boasts an impressive tenure of over a decade at We Are Social, where he most recently held the position of Commercial Controller. On the other hand, Alyssa Drysdale brings to the table 8 years of expertise from We Are Social, with her most recent role being Business Director, and a previous stint at Fieldworks as Head of Social Media.

Both Murray and Drysdale cited Spin's remarkable growth, and the strength of its talent, culture, and client roster as their main reasons for making the switch. Their extensive experience is expected to be a significant asset to Spin, further solidifying its position in the industry.

Alex Bodini, CEO of Spin, expressed his excitement about the new appointments, stating, “Bringing Lee and Alyssa into our fold marks a significant milestone for Spin. Their exceptional track record, leadership skills and industry expertise are exactly what we need as we embark on our next phase of growth. This is a testament to the strength of our agency, and it’s a clear signal that the tide is shifting in the industry." 

Lee Murray shared his enthusiasm, saying, “I am thrilled to be joining Spin at such a pivotal time. The agency’s momentum is undeniable, and I am eager to contribute to its continued success.” 

Alyssa Drysdale also commented, “Spin has a unique and forward-thinking approach to social and marketing which I'm incredibly excited to build out further alongside the fantastic team. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits all in social, and now more than ever, clients need truly reactive and social-first thinking, which is something that already sits at the heart of the agency. I look forward to working closely with our clients to apply this thinking and ensure they reach their full potential through social.”

These strategic hires represent a significant coup for Spin, as it successfully positions itself as a formidable player in the social media marketing arena. Both Murray and Drysdale will play a critical role in the leadership team, steering Spin through its ambitious growth trajectory.

10 Things I Learnt At LEAD 2024

Spin recently had the pleasure of sponsoring LEAD 2024, an event hosted by the AA, IPA and ISBA. It brought together the worlds of politics and advertising in a dialogue that was both timely and necessary. The event certainly surpassed our expectations, so I thought I’d share the ten key takeaways from the day:

  1. 2024 is a critical year. Over 2 billion people will be voting in elections this year, which has huge ramifications for the future of democracy.
  2. The UK isn’t in the best light at the moment, despite a 0.8% growth forecast, 90% of UK firms feel that the UK is a negative place to invest. Yes - you read that right.
  3. We are, however, the second-largest exporter of services in the world - something which I think often gets overlooked when we look at our key industries.
  4. Immigration, when viewed through a commercial rather than political lens, is a big issue - and many businesses are very worried about the new salary thresholds coming in April.
  5. The UK is one of the most ‘highly intense’ advertising markets in the world - very competitive and arguably over-saturated.
  6. “If you can’t charge a premium, you don’t have a brand” is a good way of summarising why advertising and brand matters, with point 5 in mind.
  7. Advertising, despite some negative impressions, is an essential cog in the free market to keep prices down (when all other prices are going up), allowing us access to news, content, and journalism.
  8. The UK ad market grew by 6% last year - worth noting in a time when it felt like budgets were being cut across the board. 
  9. Gordon Brown, a man who I thought was dour, and to be honest, depressing politician, was probably the best public speaker I have ever seen in my life. Practice makes perfect.
  10. Creative industries are growing at twice the rate of the rest of the economy - so let’s give them more credit.

Reflecting on LEAD 2024, it's clear that this year marks a significant moment for the advertising industry. The discussions underscored the importance of not only driving economic prosperity but doing so in a manner that is trusted, inclusive, and sustainable.

As Spin, we're proud to have been part of such a forward-thinking event. Our commitment has always been to ensure that we contribute positively to the industry's evolution. Here’s to a year of embracing change, driving innovation, and building a future where advertising is a cornerstone of a prosperous, equitable society.

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