The Social Media Report #6

A look at the week's news at the intersection of social media and society

Welcome to the latest edition of The Social Media Report, a review of the week’s developments in technology, digital and social media. In this edition we take a look at a case of mistaken identity for the ad industry on TikTok, and a rundown of my must reads from this week.

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The week in review

Grads hold ad industry hostage over TikTok. A bit of fun to start off this week, and a lesson in how powerful social media can be for the reputations of brands, budding creatives and the social networks themselves. This Wednesday, I saw a story emerge on social media, where a pair of London-based graduates named Alex and Oli had launched a stunt, under the guise of the Very Serious Partners, where they took hold of some of London’s biggest advertising agencies’ TikTok accounts, posting a series of hostage-style ultimatum videos to announce that they will not release the TikTok accounts until they are offered a placement. The profiles taken by Alex and Oli included some of the industry’s biggest advertising agencies, such as BBH, Adam and Eve DDB, and Mother.

What first caught my eye here was just how did these grads do it? The Very Serious guys had essentially searched for unused and unregistered TikTok accounts that resembled the brand names of the ad agencies they were applying for jobs at, and simply registered the accounts themselves. This is called cybersquatting, and it’s very common on social media, as it’s quick, easy and it costs nothing. But for some reason, the ad agencies in question all missed a trick, and were all inactive completely on TikTok.

By Wednesday evening, Ad Week had written up a story about this stunt, and chatting to colleagues we agreed that we would consider offering Alex and Oli a placement at Battenhall, but we didn’t think they were looking to work in social media (even though this was a stunt on TikTok, but more on that in a moment). They were very obviously after roles in mainstream media advertising.

So we turned the tables, and thought, wouldn’t it be funny if we joined in, and played Alex and Oli at their own game. We looked for a TikTok account name similar to theirs, with the plan being to cybersquat theirs just as they had done for the ad agencies. Then lo and behold, the very username they have on Twitter, @veryseriousltd, was unregistered on TikTok, so we set it up. We then made some videos, dressed our new TikTok account up with some light-hearted demands (‘if u want ur account back, email’) and finally we put up a tweet in the same style as Alex and Oli’s. We did all this without planning it on Wednesday evening.

Here’s what the press had to say about what played out:

By 9am Thursday morning, a group of my colleagues joined me for a video call with Alex and Oli, and we had a good laugh, talked about our offer to them, and let them carry on with what I was sure would be a very busy day of big ad agency negotiations for the guys.

This was all a bit of fun, but in the process of seeing it through I made a couple of quite telling observations.

  1. Where’s ad land on TikTok? How were SO many ad agency TikTok accounts unregistered? Other than paying for space, is the advertising industry sleepwalking in social media still?

  2. Nothing much changed: most agencies didn’t take control of their TikTok profiles, and those which did, remained silent. From what I could see, only VCCP responded publicly to Alex and Oli’s tweets, but their @vccplondon account is still being held hostage. Most engagement and excitement around this stunt came from social media and PR agencies, it seemed. I saw on Wednesday that Media Monks was one of the agencies that Alex and Oli had taken a TikTok account for, and now the @mediamonks TikTok account doesn’t exist, instead there’s one named @mediamonks_x_tt. Perhaps a stern letter was sent by Sir Martin’s people? Or maybe a job offer’s in the post? Then the account for agency Who Wot Why, @whowhotwhy, which appears in the bottom left hand side of Alex and Oli’s videos, is now stripped of content and has no information relating to the cybersquatting stunt. In general, it looks like none of the agencies involved publicly offered a placement to Alex and Oli, and I can confirm first hand, it’s not impossible within hours to decide to make an offer and say that publicly. And I wasn’t the only one who did it either.

I have been analysing the social media activity throughout this, and how it has affected the brands involved. I saw 11 advertising agencies’ TikTok profiles taken by the guys at Very Serious. The techniques they used to take the profiles ranged from misspelling the brand’s name, adding an underscore, or just a straight cybersquat, which means registering a social media handle because the company that it relates to simply hasn’t done so. For all these agencies, it should be noted, I could not find a single active TikTok account, which means the guys as Very Serious managed to find a good number of major advertising agencies totally inactive on TikTok.

Out of the 11 agencies whose accounts were taken, eight are still being cybersquatted, two have been cleaned (ie still in the same place but the previous content stripped out, suggesting the agencies are now in control of their own accounts) and one account has been removed. I carried out an analysis of the 11 agencies’ TikTok profiles, see below:

The lesson here is simple. If there is a major social network and you work in advertising, own your brand. If you don’t someone else will, and it’s way more hassle to tidy up your reputation online if you leave it too late.

I asked Alex and Oli to let me know how the discussions went with the 11 agencies, as I was curious to understand how they dealt with this stunt. They told me:

“About 60% of the agencies we targeted responded. Most agencies wanted to schedule follow-up calls and others replied saying they weren’t running placement schemes at the moment. All of them were really enthusiastic about the stunt.”

The enthusiasm is great for Alex and Oli. What I find extremely telling here is which agency TikTok profiles changed, and how. Then the fact that eight out of 11 are still in a rather embarrassing state for the agencies in question is a ratio worth noting.

You can keep up with how things develop on Twitter where myself and the guys at Very Serious have been sharing updates. As you will see, I offered them a placement at Battenhall, and we’re talking directly about how and when that might work out. Watch this space.

My must reads from this week

On to the most interesting stories that I have been reading this week.

  • Social network Parler hits #1 spot: the ‘free speech’ version of Twitter hits top spot in the download charts.

  • Can AI used to make social media safer: Facebook trial of AI to re-order content moderation queues and prioritise most serious issues on the social network.

  • Twitter’s new wave of content moderation: 300k tweets were labeled misleading and 456 covered with a warning message by Twitter through the US election.

  • Political commentator becomes top streamer on Twitch: after over 80 hours of live streamed election coverage, Hasan Piker has become the most popular channel on Twitch. ‘His marathon election-night stream has been viewed more than 4.5M times and had more than 225,000 concurrent viewers.’

  • Emergence of tracking devices in the workplace: Medium’s own tech blog One Zero looks into the widespread emergence of contract tracing of businesses on their staff.

  • How the Telegram app fuels global protest: how a 22 year old in Poland is using Telegram to orchestrate massive democracy protests in Belarus.

  • Zuck tells FB staff Biden has won: while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has told employees that Biden has won the US election, but as the BBC’s specialist social media disinformation reporter Marianna Spring points out, there are still ‘Facebook groups overrun with viral disinformation about voting and rigged elections- bubbling in social media feeds for weeks + promoted by public figures. Groups removed for threats, but not disinfo.’

  • TikTok wonders about US ban: ‘TikTok says the Trump administration has forgotten about trying to ban it, would like to know what’s up.’

  • Four Seasons Total Landscaping: cringe moment of the week when the Trump campaign called a major press conference last weekend located at what organisers thought was the renowned luxury hotel. It was in fact at a local landscaping yard on an industrial estate which then itself tweeted now everyone’s favourite comedy Zoom background.

  • mmhmm launch: at The Apple Event this week my newest client’s CEO Phil Libin popped up and said ‘mmhmm helps people be less boring on video.’ After building a cult following in private beta mode, mmhmm has now launched and it a lot of fun. I actually made my video response to the TikTok stunt above using mmhmm. Disclosure, again, mmhmm is a client.

Two podcasts to listen to

A blog by me on working sustainably in a virtual world

  • This week we saw green shoots emerge in the UK, with news of potential national availability of COVID testing, and Pfizer’s vaccine too. However soon the world begins to return in parts to how it used to be, this pandemic I believe will have a lasting impact on how we work. I have been working with colleagues to put in place structures, perks and help to ensure we protect ourselves lockdown burnout. Here’s my blog post about it.

The Social Media Report is written by Drew Benvie, founder & CEO of Battenhall, The Drum, CIPR and GDXA’s social media agency of the year 2020.

You can follow The Social Media Report on Twitter at @TheSMReport.

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