There used to be a day when young ad agencies could make a name for themselves doing edgy campaigns for small clients who didn’t have any money. The idea was that the agency would comp all the creative work, so long as the client would go along with the agency’s bold campaign idea. Thus the client would attract attention to his or her business, and the agency would attract attention to itself. The advertising community would take notice; the agency would get a rep as a hot shop, a place the best creatives in town wanted to work. (Little did the creatives know this was bad for their pocketbooks. “The place everybody wants to work” didn’t have to pay them as much as the places they had to grind out trade and industrial copy for gray clients in small towns all across the Midwest.)

Sometimes, if the agency was smart enough and the work was good enough, the strategy paid off. The poster child for this approach was Fallon McElligott Rice, a Minneapolis agency started in 1981 with a very simple mission statement: “To be the premier creative agency in the nation that produces extraordinarily effective work for a short list of blue chip clients.” FMR

Part of FMR's famous print campaign for Rolling Stone--named as one of Advertising Age's Top 100 campaigns of the century.

got there quickly–but they started small, with attention-grabbing posters for a local hair salon using the likenesses of famous people with famously bad haircuts. Imagine a poster of Albert Einstein and a headline reading “A bad haircut can make anyone look stupid.”

Today, the opportunities for agencies to do breakthrough creative work are abundant, but success is far more elusive. We’re living in an age in which anyone with a keyboard and Internet access can publish copy that can be read around the world. Any schlub with an iPhone can shoot a video, post it on YouTube, and, if it’s funny or shocking or inspiring enough, receive hundreds of thousands–millions–of hits. Amateur videos, produced for nothing, become worldwide sensations. Affordable, easy-to-use technology has made DIY auteurs of us all.

So most hungry young companies don’t need ad agencies. They can produce crazy, successful campaigns cheaply, all by themselves. The public relations megaphone that is social media gives them free distribution of their messages. It’s a good time to be an entrepreneur with vision and guts.

Meanwhile, big companies who do still work with ad agencies want in on the action. They want their agencies to produce “viral videos” for them, to create relatively cheap videos that will get them millions of views without having to pay for television airtime.

Possible? Of course. Probable? Not unless the client is willing to give up control, just like a hungry startup.

Anybody can set out to make a viral video. But you can’t force viral: your video either spreads or it doesn’t. On the Internet, the people decide.

And the minute it starts selling, it stops spreading. Your corporate video is not going viral. Your TV spot is not going viral–unless it’s funny or shocking or inspiring.

Which means that your conventionally funny video is not going viral: it has to be hilarious. Your sweet little TV spot is not going viral: it has to make people weep. The only video that has a chance of catching fire is the video that’s exceptional.

Tom McElligott, FMR’s creative genius, understood. According to Reference for Business, “FMR put the art of advertising above practically all else, even a client’s comfort level. McElligott once told an Inc. magazine interviewer that his intention was to ‘give clients the sort of advertising that makes the palms sweat a little, that makes you a bit nervous,’ adding, ‘In my opinion, at least, these are the only ads worth running.'”

Most big clients aren’t willing to do palm-sweating creative. Many of them might contend that taking big creative risks would not be appropriate for their product or their image. I might not disagree–but I’d advise them that their videos will not be going viral. Unless you’re willing to truly shock or move your audience, you’re not going to get thousands, let alone millions, of views.

As we keep saying: it’s about the content. If it’s remarkable, millions of people will see it. If it’s conventional, it will garner the same tepid response conventional creative work has always received.

Meanwhile, we’d love to help you, regardless of the size of your budget, produce video that goes viral. How far are you willing to push it? Are you willing to go past amusing to hilarious? Will you get to shocking, or stop with provocative? We’re standing by.