Are we missing the bigger marketing lessons of the FYRE Festival fiasco?

It showed how influencer marketing needed to evolve – but there were bigger marketing failures we need to learn from too

April 30, 2019

Are we missing the bigger marketing lessons of the FYRE Festival fiasco?

As an event marketer, I watched a large portion of the Netflix documentary, FYRE: The Greatest Party that Never Happened, from behind the sofa cushion. My reaction was akin to watching a horror movie, every new twist creating a jolt of shock and fear through my bones. It felt like my deepest, darkest nightmares were coming to life on-screen. I couldn't stop myself yelling at the TV: pleading for somebody in this story to point out the obvious, stand up for common sense, take a different decision – and start taking responsibility.

Extreme? Not when you consider what I do for a living.

Every event manager spends nights lying in bed during the build-up to a big project, mentally running through all the potential things that could go wrong. It’s why we create event strategies, build in a plan B (and C, D and E for that matter!). Sometimes you can't plan for disaster. I've had the venue roof cave in the night before a conference, storms leave trees blocking access routes, volcanic eruptions prevent keynote speakers attending. On all of these occasions, though, the challenges were unexpected and created at the last minute. This was not the case when it came to FYRE - they had plenty of warnings!

My experience told me that something very different was happening where FYRE was concerned. It wasn't an act of god or unpredicted chain of events that created such a marketing disaster. They knew what was coming with time to correct the errors. The problems in this story weren’t just a case of bad planning, or influencer marketing out of control. They were far more fundamental marketing issues – and that’s what we should be learning from the story.

Primary responsibility for FYRE has to come down to its driving force, Billy McFarland. If you were generous, you’d say that he had a big idea and enthusiasm that enabled him to market the idea of an exclusive music festival on a private island, without ever having a strategy to deliver it. If you were less generous, you’d call him a compulsive liar and a fraudster. McFarland doubled down on what quickly started to look like a pyramid scheme, extracting more money from investors, betraying the faith of his employees and the people of the islands, and then disappearing and leaving others to face up to the consequences.

One man alone couldn’t possibly have created a disaster on the epic scale of FYRE though. He had lots of help. And when the event went up in smoke, it was easy to point the finger at the celebrity influencers who had persuaded so many to buy tickets. The mainstream and marketing media argued that the likes of Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid had irresponsibly promoted an event they had little knowledge of, taken McFarland’s money, and not been transparent about how little they really knew. FYRE has since become a parable about the dangers of influencer marketing – and what happens when Instagram meets reality.

However, I think this misses the point badly. Those celebrity influencers were just one element of the marketing ecosystem that created FYRE. In my view, they might actually have the least to answer for. They were paid to amplify – and they amplified very effectively. The real problem lay in the story they were asked to tell. That has implications for many different aspects of marketing – and they’re implications that are much tougher to face up to.

Why FYRE could be the making of influencer marketing
In the immediate aftermath of the FYRE meltdown, with class action lawsuits pending against the celebs who first endorsed the festival, it felt like we were watching the rapid extinction of influencer marketing as an advertising tactic. In fact, the opposite was about to happen.

If anything, FYRE stoked even greater interest in the reach and impact that influencers can generate. Budgets for influencer marketing are increasing as tactics become more sophisticated, and transparency and authenticity have risen dramatically up the agenda. The Advertising Standards Agency in the UK changed its rules on influencer marketing in September 2018 to insist on transparency when influencers are paid – and has been cracking down on those breaking the rules since. The talk among celeb influencers is of due diligence, seeing their role as partner brands rather than as paid promoters. They’re aware that their credibility ultimately depends on which organisations they decide to work with – and how transparently they work with them.

FYRE painfully knocked off the sharp edges of influencer marketing and brought about a rapid maturing process. This includes progress on benchmarking and measurement, which shows the value of more authentic approaches such as micro-influencer tactics on LinkedIn. There’s been growing awareness of the dangers of prioritising reach over actual influence, and follower numbers over credibility. Influencer marketing still isn’t as measurable and transparent as many would like it to be – but it already feels like it’s come a long way since FYRE.

The seven lessons marketers need to learn from FYRE
FYRE though, wasn’t just a case of celebrity endorsement gone rogue. It was a far more fundamental failure of event marketing, of content marketing, and of social media marketing. Learning the lessons from it will therefore involve asking some tough questions about how marketers use these tactics. I’m not sure that enough of these questions have been asked yet.

Lesson 1: Don’t let the content overtake the marketing
Amid the fallout, it’s been easy to forget that FYRE Festival was originally conceived as an epic piece of content marketing. It was designed to demonstrate the capabilities of the artist-booking app that McFarland and his business partner Ja Rule were developing in parallel to the event itself.

One of the tragedies of the story is that a booking app for musicians feels like a fundamentally compelling marketing proposition in its own right. It probably didn’t need a ridiculously ambitious content marketing moonshot to promote it. Early in the Netflix film there’s a brief mention of a different content idea: a simpler, smaller, exclusive gig for music industry insiders that would showcase the app’s line-up of talent. If only they’d stuck to that!

The fundamental problem with the FYRE Festival was that, from the start, it made almost no logistical sense as a festival. It didn’t add up in terms of an event – as the piece of content it was meant to be. It only made sense as an aspirational dream to sell at scale and generate as much heat and publicity as possible. That’s always the risk when content marketers don’t take the content itself seriously enough. It’s just that the results when promise meets reality aren’t usually quite this disastrous.

Lesson 2: There are ethical implications to storytelling
It’s easy to be seduced by the art of storytelling – FYRE was always a great story. McFarland told it on the stages of Web Summit and in the pages of Rolling Stone: how he and Ja Rule had spotted an abandoned island once owned by Pablo Escobar when flying over it in a plane they’d piloted from New York; how they’d decided to buy it; and how the whole, crazy inspiration for a different kind of festival started from there. You can just feel how addictive the little embellishments to this story became as people kept adding them in.

When marketing and content agencies came on board they used their skills to help tell the same story through a slick promotional video showing Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Hailey Baldwin swimming through turquoise waters and cuddling cute piglets on a beach. The trouble is, making a story compelling doesn’t take away the responsibility to keep it real – especially when it’s a story that’s going to be used to persuade investors to put in millions of dollars, or persuade festival-goers to advance thousands. When the story becomes the product, there are big ethical and legal implications for marketers in how much of it is fiction. I don’t think that the marketers behind FYRE Festival ever really faced up to this.

There’s some debate over whether the social media and content agencies involved in FYRE bear a share of the responsibility as well. In the Netflix documentary, the social media agency Jerry Media and the production company Matte Projects both argue that they were as misled by McFarland as anyone, and had no idea what was really going on. Some have questioned whether this is the whole story, though – and pointed out that both of those agencies were involved in creating the Netflix documentary. Could the documentary itself be another example of storytelling in action?

Lesson 3: Details matter
Sometimes it pays to let the details get in the way of a good story. That detail about the planned location for FYRE being a private island owned by Escobar wasn’t strictly true – nor was the claim that Billy McFarland now owned it. The real owner had asked him to play down any association of his island with drug running. FYRE’s marketers ignored this. As soon as the festival’s heavily promoted launch video announced it would be happening on Escobar’s former playground, the owner pulled the plug. Now this was a festival without the location it had built its promise around.

FYRE was struggling from the start – but I can’t help thinking this was the point at which its fate was properly sealed. It guaranteed that whatever venue the organisers found would bear no relation to what festival-goers had been promised.

Lesson 4: When transparency is your enemy, you’re no longer marketing
Perhaps the most shocking and self-destructive aspect of the FYRE story is the way that the marketing team insisted on sticking to the story right up to the day of the festival. This involved editing maps to make a disused bluff on a bigger island look like the private hide-away they’d initially promised. It involved editing tweets and deleting comments that asked inconvenient questions about logistics or accommodation. It involved claiming the ticket allocation had sold out and that there were only luxury packages available (at a far higher price point), when no accommodation really existed apart from some Hurricane relief tents. Throughout, FYRE Festival treated its community of customers as a captive audience to be squeezed for financing purposes. Leaks of the truth led to witch hunts. Transparency was the enemy. When that happens, you’re longer marketing – you’re engaged in a cover-up.

There’s an implied irony in the Netflix film that, had the bad news been allowed to escape, FYRE Festival might have staggered to some sort of end-result. Expectations could have been managed down. Costs could have been sensibly controlled. A rough and ready experience (the only experience FYRE was ever going to be) could still have been delivered. But here’s where the flaw in the festival kicked in. Nobody was incentivised to deliver an authentic experience. The marketing was everything. Reality never received a high enough priority.

Lesson 5: Don’t confuse charisma with culture
The glimpses the Netflix documentary provides into the working culture at FYRE provide a clue as to how this state of affairs came to be. McFarland managed by charisma – not by culture. He was the visionary that everyone was meant to admire and listen to. He was never interested in building a culture that involved paying attention to the opinions of others. Employees were excluded, kept in the dark, issued with instructions that lacked much context – and then dropped when things got tough.

Lesson 6: If it’s built on social, it can be destroyed on social
One of the ironies of FYRE’s use of social media marketing is that nobody remembers the beautifully designed ‘orange tile’ campaign that launched the event via a small army of influencers. But everyone remembers the tweet that put the final nail in the coffin – the slices of cheese and toast in Styrofoam that the promised deluxe catering had become. That came just a few hours before the festival was finally cancelled.

Lesson 7: There’s no such thing as consequence-free marketing
All marketing has consequences. When the marketing is effective, the consequences should be positive all round. However, for that to happen, marketers need to have developed a genuine proposition based on a value exchange – one that delivers both for customers and for the business itself.

Nobody involved in FYRE ever showed any interest in these fundamentals of marketing. The only consequences they were interested were those benefits they believed they would gain from the hype around the event. Value for the customers or investors was never part of the formula in the planning or the execution.

It’s this failure of marketing fundamentals that I believe is the real lesson of FYRE – and the real lesson of that documentary I watched peeping over the cushion. Laying the blame on influencers is really just a case of framing the messengers. The story of the festival that never happened is really a story of marketers taking no responsibility for marketing. They never took their core content seriously, and never paid any attention to developing a proposition that could deliver value for both themselves and their audience. It’s as if they thought that the ability to create social media buzz did away with the need for these things.

They were wrong. And that’s the lesson we should all remember.