Marketer says he will never hire Grey unless ad agency returns awards won for ‘I Sea’ app

Grey Singapore Ali BullockA senior marketer has publicly declared never to use the services of advertising agency network Grey after the Singapore office’s award-winning app marketed as a new way to save stranded refugees was exposed as a fake.

In an open letter to the agency published on LinkedIn, Alastair Bullock, who is global senior manager, sponsorship and social media, for Hong Kong-based Formula One team Infiniti, said that he would not “entertain a pitch, submission or award” from Grey until the company returns the awards that it has won for the controversial ‘I Sea’ app.

“If I was a client of Grey Singapore, hell Grey Global, I would give them one chance to return that award and not resubmit anything next year. That would be a generous 24 hour deal. No excuses, no clever PR release. Just a simple return or they should not be working for me in any capacity,” he wrote in the post.

“As for any clients of Grey Singapore I say this: Push Grey to do the right thing and return this award,” said Bullock, who has worked in senior marketing roles at Wall Street Journal Asia, WWF, Motorola and Cathay Pacific.

“This is something that I feel cannot be ignored,” wrote Bullock, who made clear he was writing in a personal capacity and not on behalf of his employer.

I Sea app“I held back on writing this post for a few days in the hope that Grey Singapore might do the right thing and return the award they falsely won. Alas my initial disgust has now turned to anger,” he said.

Bullock posted the now-iconic image of a dead refugee child washed up on a beach, and wrote: “This isn’t someone passing out at Cannes from to much Champagne, this is no joke. It was a human life lost for the most tragic of reasons. Hope of a better life. And Grey won an award off the back of this.”

“Did the champagne and caviar have a salty taste as you celebrated your win? Imagine the salt consumed by people drowning… A truly horrid way to die. And how many died while you partied away in Cannes? Hundreds, thousands?”

“I guess we will never truly know as your app was a load of bullshit. Oh wait, it was in testing… Sorry, my mistake,” he wrote, referring to the agency’s defence of the app not working – that it was a prototype.

The ‘I Sea’ app has been withdrawn from Apple’s app store and heavily criticised by Migrant Offshore Aid Station, the client, which has distanced itself from the project. But the app won Bronze at the Cannes Lions last month.

Bullock raised the point that the ‘I Sea’ app had not gained clearance from the client, and had not produced a working version that would be effective in identifying refugees stranded in the Mediterranean.

“Tell me, how do you look your clients in the eye when you pitch? Actually how the hell do you sleep at night? Please feel free to meet me in person or email me and tell me directly. Really, I would like to know,” he said.

Bullock did, however, acknowledge the role of the client in pushing agencies to win awards.

“As clients we walk into agencies and as we glance across reception there is always (and I mean always) in the background the so called “shelf of awards.” We take comfort from knowing that you are successful at what you do. We pressure you to have these trinkets of success,” he said.

On the role of Cannes Lions, Bullock said that the festival should have retracted the awards it gave to Grey Singapore for the app. “I am not sure what is worse, Grey not returning the award or that it was not taken back by the Cannes jury. This is possibly the saddest moment our industry has faced.”

“Cannes,” Bullock said, “has cancer.”

“Time to cut it out and let us hope we can recover. There is so much good work, both commercial and CSR that we should highlight. And rightly so.”

“But by not taking back this award, the jury, organisers and attendees of Cannes are as implicit in this disgraceful entry as the person who decided to submit this so called app for the award in the first place.”

“Change will only come if we the clients and fellow creative agencies take a stand against this,” he said.


  1. Mike
    5 Jul 16
    10:04 pm

  2. Was chatting about this to an Indian pal of mine…she was deeply embarrassed that her country was being so poorly represented by the deeds of this agency. Singapore is a melting pot where we welcome all qualified people who have something to offer. I hope it’s not too much to ask that they conduct themselves with the integrity worthy of Singapore company.

  3. Depressing
    5 Jul 16
    11:23 pm

  4. Its a tragedy that a few of these disgraceful people are shaping the reputation of the advertising industry as whole….like we need any more bad publicity. These people arent fit to be in advertising or work in singapore.

    Hope more people, both clients and ad execs will speak out….so we can make it clear theres no place for cheaters in this industry.

  5. Grey's black mark
    6 Jul 16
    7:28 am

  6. It’s praiseworthy that a client is prepared to vote his disgust with his budget.
    Of course this would have some impact on the creatives involved if they cared about anything other than their fragile egos.
    Business never features high on their list of priorities.
    What I can’t understand is why the ceo & business leads are willing party to this international debacle?
    Either the creatives actually run the agency or the suits are planning to leave?
    Just don’t put Grey on your cv.

  7. not every one is to blame
    6 Jul 16
    10:07 am

  8. what about the creatives working at grey singapore who have nothing to do with that app? don’t put the blame on all grey employees because of a handful of individuals and an inexistant. we have been blamed, labelled and it has become almost impossible for us to find a job outside of this office.

  9. Grey's black mark
    6 Jul 16
    10:25 am

  10. @not everyone is to blame

    Sorry but nobody is gonna know the difference between the guilty few and the collateral staff at Grey.
    Work with a few shit-for-brains and the stink lingers on the innocent too.
    When a client withholds their budget, everyone suffers.
    Dem’s the hard truth.

    The only way out is for grey to return the bronze- after all it’s only a frigging bronze-no biggie, or throw the scammers under the bus by naming & shaming them to protect the innocent and save grey’s rep-(rep? Ha!).

    Grey’s HQ high level defense of this stupid non prize demonstrates how desperate and deeply the scam cancer has taken root in their senior leadership.

  11. Glass Half Full
    6 Jul 16
    3:11 pm

  12. First of all it’s an industry issue. Grey is the one that was unfortunately caught in this. I have worked in 5 agencies in Singapore and all of them do pro bono and 99% of them are fake, one off or never done. So lets not condemn just Grey. All the ECD’s in Singapore have pro-bono on their CV’s. The same creative guys who are now thrashing Grey have done scam and won. It’s kinda hypocritical. Makes me laugh. Most of the awards run on pro bono entry money!

    Now lets separate the idea from the execution. On an idea level, it’s a great idea. The execution failed. Can we all collectively make this idea happen? Instead of being armchair activists if we can make it happen, it would be a great contribution by the ad world to the larger world.

  13. Clients Beware
    6 Jul 16
    3:33 pm

  14. What’s absolutely alarming is when people who become Chief Creative Officers solely on the back of of their scam awards stand up to advise clients on how to do real advertising.

    Would you trust a person who’s only flown flight simulators to fly a real plane? Or a general who’s only commanded military exercises to fight a real war? Then how do you trust someone who only shines on scams to perform creatively on real briefs?

    Having a conversation on real work with these men and women shows that their brains only work in the area of scam ideas which require no discipline. Real work demands many skills from a CCO…the ability to instantly size up a problem and know what the brief should be….to instinctively know what works and doesn’t.

    Scam CCOs and ECDs do not know how to differentiate between these things….in fact they don’t really care ….and end up giving poor advice.

    That is why most clients handle agencies like a pair of disposable gloves: interacting with them only when they have no other choice… and getting things over and done with as soon as possible.

  15. Clients Beware
    6 Jul 16
    4:17 pm

  16. A real-life example that shows when CCO’s demonstrate little knowledge of the processes that govern high stakes real advertising:

    You might remember the case of the CCO who recently criticised a Singapore Stat Board’s advertising for not being creative enough. This statement showed how far removed this individual was from the process of real advertising….no idea of how stat boards work, how many stake holders there are…and the complicated relationship between them.

    Anyone who had appropriate experience with real ads would have known better than to speak….and he was rightly (and hastily) rebuked by his superiors.

  17. @Glass Half Full
    6 Jul 16
    10:28 pm

  18. That sounds like something Ali would say.

  19. Update
    6 Jul 16
    11:07 pm

  20. Looks like they have returned the bronze lion, but the press statement makes them sound like a bunch of whiny children.

  21. Sam
    7 Jul 16
    12:30 am

  22. @ Glass Half Full

    From your post, it’s clear you’re from Grey….or just trolling and pretending to be.

    If it’s the former, you should stop this crap immediately because you are making matters worse for your agency.

    A little admission and apology goes a long way, but being wrong, arrogant and unrepentant is a triple whammy that no one will forget. The “others are doing it” argument is the last refuge of someone with no morals…and no balls.

    You guys haven’t just done a scam poster for a dishwashing liquid here….you have taken a huge shit over all the plight of Syrian refugees who are suffering and losing their lives in ever greater numbers

    You have mocked and disrespected these displaced people with your actions…..because all you assholes wanted was to win an award and not help them.

    If you can’t see that, then God help you.

  23. Up for Euro
    7 Jul 16
    1:49 am

  24. Yes, they have given it back.

    It’s hugely ironic to me that the guy who shamed them into it publicly on LinkedIn is called Ali.

    Obviously, an Ali with some integrity, shame and sense of humanity.

  25. Oh a righteous client!
    7 Jul 16
    5:58 pm

  26. It’s a digusting, insensitive scam advt. But what this marketeer is doing is also insensitive and disgusting.
    He is showing his righteousness to the world, by shaming an organisation (of which a few are to blame for this scam advt)
    Witch hunting is a reality today.
    And no, I am not from the Grey Group.
    I wait for the day I can see a similar article from an agency person, which says “The agency association says that they will never create work/pitch for a certain marketeer, till that marketeer pledges to remunerate agencies appropriately”.

  27. Mark Tan
    7 Jul 16
    6:33 pm

  28. Isn’t there a bigger problem here?

    How is mobile and digital work being judged at Cannes?

    Just watch the video and don’t bother trying out the app?

    Don’t bother surfing the website?

    The Judges at Cannes digital and mobile who subscribe to this behaviour
    has utterly no credibility or standing to be a judge of anything.

    Can Cannes come up with a stricter code on judging?

    Otherwise everyone will just aim at doing a concept video, rather than trying to push the envelope in digital and mobile advertising.

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