Look East if you want to know where this year's big winner at Cannes will come from, Bob Scarpelli says. And he should know. The DDB Worldwide chief creative officer, who will chair the film and press juries at next month's festival, has been limbering up by heading the judging panel for the Asian Advertising Awards, otherwise known as the Spikes.
For the first time in the Spikes' 21-year history, an integrated campaign, for Panasonic's Oxyride batteries, took the platinum prize.
Deploying everything from TV to PR, the campaign, produced by Hakuhodo's Space Runner subsidiary, allowed the Japanese to follow a team trying to power the first manned flight using only dry-cell batteries. It finally took 600 such batteries to succeed.
"I have to believe this campaign is going to win at Cannes," Scarpelli says. "It engaged the public - that's real communication ... and magnificent product demonstration."
Another judge, Linda Locke, Leo Burnett's Asia-Pacific executive creative director, was equally impressed. "You really have to give the client kudos for committing to this," she says. "It could have been a huge embarrassment if it didn't take off."
The intriguing question is what Oxyride's win says about the Asian advertising industry. Significantly, it was Scarpelli's casting vote that resolved the judges' split between Oxyride and a mainstream TV campaign for Smooth E face cream, by JEH United in Bangkok.
"When the winner was announced, half the jury told me I was an idiot," Scarpelli smiles. "The other half gave me the thumbs up."
Dentsu's executive creative director, Yuya Furukawa, sums up the judges' dilemma: "If we selected Panasonic, the message would have been: 'As creative people, we should step into a new world beyond conventional methods and media, even beyond advertising.' If we selected Smooth E, the message would have been: 'The power of the TV commercial is still strong; it is the most emotional medium and the possibilities are endless.'"
Many in Asia-Pacific and beyond believe that, like the Spikes themselves, creativity in the region has truly come of age. "I believe some of the best work in the world is coming out of Asia," Scarpelli declares.
Rising standards are mirrored in the Spikes' reputation for rigorous judging. Out of almost 4,700 entries, the judges awarded just one platinum gong, alongside four golds, 38 silvers and 48 bronzes.
"It's not one of those shows where they throw away a whole bunch of awards," Mark Waites, one of Mother's founding partners and a member of the jury, explains. "To win a gold here you've really got to try hard."
Certainly, the awards present a picture of an Asian ad industry confident in its ability. "Asia has such a unique sense of humour," Andy McKeon, JWT's executive creative director for Australia and New Zealand, says. "It's more colourful and real than what you'll find in the US or Europe."
However, for Oxyride to take the top prize at Cannes would be an almost unprecedented feat. "The Japanese always do quirky stuff that doesn't follow a 'Cannes style'," Paul Catmur, Young & Rubicam's executive creative director for Australia and New Zealand, claims. "They do their own thing."
Nevertheless, the latest Spikes suggests there is still work to be done to get some sectors up to speed. Outdoor accounted for the largest number of entries (almost 1,000), but carried off the smallest number of awards.
"The jury felt the quality in outdoor was quite disappointing," Locke laments. "We tended to see posters and point-of-sale ads. Little transient, little ambient, little interactive."
The judges were equally unimpressed with digital entries. "We were all a bit underwhelmed," Mark Cridge, glue London's chief executive, comments. "With the giving of awards, we were fairly generous, to be honest."
Things were little better in the mobile category. "You always expect Asia as the region that is pushing mobile stuff, especially Japan and Korea," Fernanda Romano, Lowe New York's executive creative director and one of the judges, says. "But it was really hard to find something that deserved an award. I wish Japan had submitted more, too."
And the problem of "scam" ads persists. "It's time to move on from that kind of work and try to concentrate on real clients doing real work," Steve Henry, TBWA\London's creative chief, says.
Scarpelli, though, insists that the positives outweigh the negatives, adding: "Asia shouldn't really be worrying about award shows. It should be worried about building brands and about client relationships. The awards will come."