The World: Have scam ads been eradicated from awards?

By Arun Sudhaman, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 07 August 2009 12:00AM

Scam entries were down in number at Cannes this year. Is it due to harsher punishments or economics?

This year's Cannes Festival may have been more notable for what didn't happen than for what did. Fewer glitzy parties, a dearth of luxurious yachts and precious little of the traditional debauchery that had come to characterise the event.

Another absence, to the untrained eye at least, was scam advertising. This year's Cannes appeared clean, particularly in the key press and outdoor categories where it tends to proliferate.

According to the Cannes Lions chief executive, Philip Thomas, this outcome was by design. "We talked a lot to the jury presidents and they were very keen, in this difficult economic year, to say that it's genuine work for genuine clients," he says. "I think it's becoming a thing of the past."

Thomas must hope this is true. Earlier this year, the Dubai Lynx Awards - also owned by Cannes Lions - was shocked by one of the biggest scam scandals to emerge in recent times. The Qatari agency FP7 was stripped of its Agency of the Year title after it emerged that several of its award-winning ads, including those purportedly for Samsung, were never commissioned by clients and never ran. The legitimacy of another of its campaigns, for HiGeen mouthwash, was also questioned.

For Thomas, the punishment meted out to FP7 helps explain why scam artists have gone to ground. FP7 is not the only agency to fall victim to this zero-tolerance policy. Last year, Cannes disqualified entries from TBWA\Paris and Epoch Films, after it became clear that the relevant ads had never been approved by Amnesty International and JC Penney, respectively.

The BBDO North America chairman and chief creative officer, Dave Lubars, who headed this year's press jury at Cannes, says the judges must also take some credit. Last year's press shortlist included almost 700 pieces of work, compared with fewer than 300 this time. "The charter we gave ourselves was: 'nothing fake'," he says.

Scam can be difficult to police. Cannes Lions does not, for example, ask for evidence of either client approval or media spend as conditions of entry. It is left to the organisers and judges to raise doubts about a piece of work's veracity, before it is then investigated. The loophole is obvious: if a judge from a specific country or region does not spot the fake work, it can proceed all the way to the podium.

The TBWA\Asia-Pacific creative-at-large, John Merrifield, a press judge at Cannes this year, points out that the jury "agreed from the outset to weed out the work that had a familiar smell to it". But he is equally clear about where the primary responsibility for policing scam rests. "A jury's role is not to police," he explains. "The festival's organiser should shoulder that responsibility, although they rarely do."

It is not too difficult to figure out why. There is the commercial imperative implicit in awards shows that must keep making money in a brutal economic landscape. Then there is the grey area that is the precise point where real work ends and scam ads begin. Tremendous work for tiny clients, what Lubars calls "trifle accounts" - the kind of ads that trigger a snigger and a knowing glance. Approved by companies that exist, and sporting genuine - albeit often miniscule - media spends. "Even more insidious is the work that's technically 'legal' but just as unethical," Merrifield says. "It's fool's gold."

One that falls into this category is an ad by Lowe Malaysia for the Land Rover Owners' Club. It was perfectly legal and won lots of awards but is a good example of big work for a small client.

Merrifield's observation may be true but it is tricky to combat. To clamp down on this kind of activity, categories based on media spend are often suggested. But, as Thomas points out, the global nature of awards shows makes spending criteria illogical. The rise of viral internet campaigns, meanwhile, also makes media schedules less critical to an entry's veracity.

Often, there are telltale signs to a scam. A client category that is not often known for developing world-class work. Beautiful art direction, stellar production techniques, and a tiny logo. "You can just tell," Lubars says. Others note that creatives have become smarter about where they take their spirit of proactivity, with pro bono charity accounts, in particular, being a popular destination. Last year, meanwhile, scam perhaps reached its logical conclusion when Roger Makak - a fictional creative developed by Saatchi & Saatchi Singapore and whose "work" included ads for Thai SPCA - topped Asia's creative rankings.

Indeed, it is often Asia and Latin America that are blamed for scam's rise, unfairly in the eyes of some. Lubars, for example, traces its birth to barbershop ads that his previous agency, Fallon, produced in the early 80s. Either way, those are the two regions where agency cultures are most often viewed as being compromised by "proactive" work in pursuit of awards. The reasoning is simple - these are areas of the world where client conservatism can cripple agency output; the only way for an up-and-coming creative to make his name, therefore, is to take matters into his own hands.

"There was a time when Latin America needed recognition from Cannes and the opportunities for doing that work were not available," the Neogama BBH president, Alexandre Gama, explains. "Some agencies started producing work for small clients to make themselves visible. As long as people here can have a successful career producing good work, the need for scam ads will be less important."

The Publicis Asia vice-chairman and chief creative officer, Calvin Soh, points out that the economic situation is already making scam an unaffordable luxury for many agencies. "Who really has resources to spare to work on non-existent clients? We have enough trouble keeping all of our existing clients."

Ultimately, it is easy to blame an industry culture that can view awards as an end in itself. "It's a perverse model," Sebastien Wilhelm, the creative director at Santo in Argentina, says. "Ours is a highly frivolous industry."

"The whole thing has become corrupted," Lubars admits. "To me, these should be tools to look at how people are solving complicated problems. That was the original spirit of these shows."

And a look at Barack Obama's Titanium Lion-winning presidential campaign offers a glimpse of the rewards on offer for serious, substantial work.

DEBUNKING THE OUTRAGE OVER SCAM ADS

Neil French, former worldwide creative director, WPP

"Was Cannes virtually scam-free? Well, it depends on how you define 'scam'. I know for certain that a large proportion of this year's winners were for clients who couldn't possibly afford the media costs of running the work. Does that make them scams? If you delve into the murkier regions of the shortlist, it becomes near-hilarious.

"Frankly, I don't give a damn. Personally, I've been lucky enough rarely to have had to produce work like that, always dealing directly with 'proper' clients.

"But junior creatives don't have this luxury. Hence the need to shop-window their talent for, let's call them, 'shadowy' clients. In my view, this is not important; we all like to see great ideas and images, just as we enjoy the bizarre clothes trotted down walkways at fashion weeks, and weird 'concept' cars at motor shows.

"Back to Cannes. Truly scammy ads for tattoo parlours still have to be financed by the agency, as do most of the extortionate entry fees. So last year, managements couldn't afford the luxury. No surprise, then, that the shadows in the Palais were less noticeable.

"But amid this apparent orgy of holier-than-thou self-congratulation, has no-one noticed the general trend towards bizarre art direction rather than simple ideas, or, perish the thought, persuasion? I find this far more disquieting. I suspect we may be bailing with teacups while ignoring the fact that the boat is on the rocks.

"In the end, though, it's only advertising; nobody dies, eh?"

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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