Scam – Chucking a pebble at an Imperial Walker

Robin HicksIn a final post before moving on, Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks admits defeat on scam.

The two biggest issues we’ve covered since Mumbrella Asia started in April 2013 have been death and cheating at awards shows.

The other big issues have been, in terms of traffic and general importance, the transparency of media agencies, the dodginess of social media metrics, gender equality, content piracy, the rise of OTT brands, programmatic problems, and what content marketing is and isn’t.

But the one that really sticks in the throat (and has been most fun to write about) is scam, a bizarre quirk of the advertising industry that seems to get more ridiculous every year. People die from overwork in other industries.

Writing about scam has felt like an Ewok chucking a pebble at an Imperial Walker.

A friend who does corp comms for an ad agency in Singapore said to me two years ago, after we’d pointed out that her agency’s multiple award-winning ad had run once in a free listings magazine, that coverage of scam doesn’t change anything.

And she is probably right.

Even now, after the last Cannes Lions six months ago, when an American tech security blogger exposed another Singapore agency for creating an app that couldn’t save refugees as advertised in its award-winning entry film, and the story was noticed by the international press, the advertising industry has hunkered down, and in the case of Grey, stayed very quiet, expecting it to all go away.

Business as usual. Same time next year?

Ali Bullock, a social media marketer for Infiniti F1, who in a LinkedIn post protested for Grey to return its award or he would never use the agency’s services again and called on other clients to boycott the agency, did a lap of victory last week with a post in which he used the quote People say one person can’t change anything. I learnt they were wrong” in reference to Grey eventually handing back the award.

What has changed though? Cannes has pretty much ignored the whole episode and still hasn’t said a word. Although admittedly, they have tweaked their jury shortlisting processes for next year.

The first peep from Grey has been some press releases in the last few weeks to announce some new work that looks real enough, bringing to an end a steady stream of ideas of questionable credibility packaged into case study videos.

The client seems to have signed off on the work for Hong Kong Tourism board released the other week, and an ad out of India for New Britannia Cake. Work that will not be exciting any awards juries.

Then Grey’s APAC boss got promoted. Nirvik Singh, who like creative director Ali Shabaz and other senior staff seemed to disappear during the ‘I Sea’ app episode, was given Middle East and Africa to run too.

Mumbrella approached Singh for an interview a week ago, sharing that we’d like him ask how the network might have changed its approach to awards shows in light of what had happened.

He responded that he is travelling until mid-December and then going on leave. He suggested connecting in the new year, by which time I won’t be at Mumbrella anymore.

Too soon for Grey to come out of its shell, perhaps?

Grey's dengue-fighting umbrella announced in April

Grey’s dengue-fighting umbrella announced in April

Grey is not the only network that plays the awards game, but before the ‘I Sea’ saga no agency in Southeast Asia could match it for the sheer volume of at times comically ridiculous awards junk (“This umbrella saves lives” – see above) it was pushing at the media on a regular basis.

It was a matter of time before the agency went too far, got too ambitious, too greedy for recognition, and someone in the real world noticed.

An advertising agency that pitches a solution to a global humanitarian crisis to the international media with an app that doesn’t work will almost certainly find itself in the news.

The difference between what happened to Grey, and what could have happened to Ogilvy, which made some serious over-claims in a case film that took a little bit too much credit for saving African rhinos, is good PR.

Ogilvy got in early, managed and killed the story. Grey lashed out after the story broke with a non-apology that made things worse, begrudgingly handed back its award after more pressure, then went to ground.

What should Grey do now? The network has an opportunity to go where a very small band of others (BBH, TBWA, anyone else?) has gone in producing only real work, and winning at awards shows that take a harder line on the legitimacy of entries (Warc is one, so is the Effies and Mumbrella Asia Awards).

How awards shows respond to the ‘I Sea’ app kerfuffle will be interesting too. Malaysia’s top award show, the Kancils, has made a move to end years of scam work and plagiarism being rewarded by changing the category format.

A big question, of course, is can agencies produce real work that wins and clients pay for? Not all marketers are likes those at Ikea in Singapore, U Bank in Malaysia or Go-Jek in Indonesia who want work that pushes the envelope creatively.

The trade press has a role to play too. Ad agencies use trade press websites as a dumping ground for dodgy work, so they can use the coverage as a convincing reference point in a jury room.

The job of the trade press isn’t just to publish agency press releases, it’s to keep an industry honest for which awards still hold serious currency.

Its job is also to provide a platform for sensible debate about the work. Where Mumbrella could have done a better job is in avoiding becoming a shooting gallery for snarks. Work goes up, gets hammered. There goes the confidence of a creative director. The work gets worse. No one wins.

I shall miss writing about this industry. Although happily I’m moving on to cover to one that is completely free of spin, smoke and mirrors. Sustainability.

Robin Hicks is the editor of Mumbrella Asia. Until end of play tomorrow, his last day.


  1. Ad-mirer
    1 Dec 16
    4:34 pm

  2. Dear Robin
    For what it’s worth, i salute your editorial integrity over the last two years.
    Calling BS where BS is pushed, not turning a blind eye to scams, dodgy case studies and opaque media practises have made you the only industry jurno with both brains and a backbone.
    You will be missed.
    Heads up-the sustainability beat also has its fair share of over claims and green washing.
    Stay fearless.

  3. Izzy
    1 Dec 16
    4:37 pm

  4. Robin, you’re a top bloke and Ive enjoyed your reporting on all the contentious issues that other online rags love to sweep under the carpet. All the best on your new venture….and re: that missed interview you told us about above, trust me….you’re not missing anything…and neither are we.

  5. Thank you Robin
    1 Dec 16
    9:13 pm

  6. “People say one person can’t change anything. I learnt they were wrong.”

    You’ve brought truth to that statement.

    Thank you for keeping the advertising industry on its toes. And for giving me something to look forward to at work – reading the comments section.

    Your successor has huge shoes to fill!

  7. Tony Simms
    2 Dec 16
    8:13 am

  8. Well done Robin. You’ve stood out as a journalist who stands head and shoulders above the rest. Exposing the shams and scams of the industry is certainly never easy and I’m sure you’ve face your share of detractors for doing so. It’s an industry that applauds itself far too much and when award opportunities through hard work fail to materialise, invents its own to ensure the applause continues. Its time for the industry to get back to the true essence of its existence…just sell stuff! All the very best with your new venture.

  9. dcnz
    2 Dec 16
    9:25 am

  10. Well done Robin on your constant energy and focus at Mumbrella Asia.

    All the best for the new beat, look forward to reading some global eco scoops!

  11. Michael
    2 Dec 16
    10:57 am

  12. Good luck Robin
    Mumbrella Asia has been a much-needed part of the industry during your stewardship, especially as the other trade publications have fast lost any relevancy and instead devolved into events companies with a sideline in PR-led content. Kind of hard to respect a trade publication that is so snugly in bed with the very people it is meant to be reporting on. Your independence has been crucial.

  13. Job well done
    2 Dec 16
    12:11 pm

  14. The scam agencies will be popping the champers today……yay, Robin is gone.

    Back in business!

  15. Sean McKeown
    2 Dec 16
    12:44 pm

  16. All the best to you Robin. Your authenticity is refreshing and it has been a pleasure to have worked alongside you.

  17. Barney
    2 Dec 16
    3:00 pm

  18. I enjoyed reading your stuff, mate. It was always refreshing, insightful, honest and pretty bloody funny. Keep up the great work. Onward and upward, Robin!

  19. Anonymous
    2 Dec 16
    9:19 pm

  20. WIll miss your stories and great insights Robin. All the best

  21. Joyce England
    3 Dec 16
    9:15 am

  22. Robin, I’ve enjoyed reading your articles and appreciated your dedication to exposing the gritty side of the industry. You’ve left some big shoes to fill!

  23. Alvin Lim
    3 Dec 16
    9:24 am

  24. Wishes you all the best Robin. Big fan.

  25. Oliver Woods
    3 Dec 16
    1:31 pm

  26. I’ve always thought you’re a rare voice in a sea of otherwise opinionated industry journalists. Many thanks for covering stories others were afraid to. I’m sure you’ll kick ass at your next gig and as per the comments above, all of us will be closely waiting to see your next endeavour!

  27. Mark Tan
    4 Dec 16
    2:16 pm

  28. Good writing and enjoyed your efforts to point out scam artists and their BS.

    Will miss your presence here!

  29. Julian
    5 Dec 16
    3:47 pm

  30. Time heals. Sometimes it also decays, so shall it be those trying to cling to the spotlight.
    Cannes pretty much needs to wake the F up, or risk being redundant themselves.
    In an industry about building trust, brand, relationships and persuasion – it seems they are doing everything in the opposite direction.
    There are only two forks in the road… choose one.

  31. Blowback
    6 Dec 16
    11:17 am

  32. “It was a matter of time before the agency went too far, got too ambitious, too greedy for recognition, and someone in the real world noticed.”

    Comeuppance has arrived in the form of losing the Sentosa account….how many more before they realise that scam is bad for business? And if they don’t see the light and come clean, I am sure clients will like to keep reminding them in subtle ways.

  33. Rob Campbell
    6 Dec 16
    1:07 pm

  34. All the best Robin … sadly it seems the pull of scam is greater than the industries desire for integrity and longevity.

  35. Shameless
    6 Dec 16
    5:50 pm

  36. Well done Robin and good luck in your future endeavors. Like Dave Trott said recently, our game has jumped the shark.

    It’s pretty revolting and ironic to see the industry grow a conscience in this way, pretending to help and save peoples lives in the hope of receiving a ‘Metal Cat’.

    No wonder millennials push back, being forced to stay awake all weekend to create fake life-saving technology is just infantile.

    If all the effort and petulant ego tussles resulted in a block-buster hollywood movie one could understand. At least the millenials are here now and more than ready to call ‘bullshit’ where it’s due and happily empty the cat litter tray.

  37. Clarence
    6 Dec 16
    6:45 pm

  38. “one that is completely free of spin, smoke and mirrors. Sustainability.”

    This has to be a sarcastic statement?

  39. Sarah
    7 Dec 16
    12:15 am

  40. “one that is completely free of spin, smoke and mirrors. Sustainability.”

    That last statement is said tongue-in-cheek, yes?

  41. Adrian
    7 Dec 16
    3:02 pm

  42. Robin, thanks for the thought provoking articles over the past years and not being afraid to call a spade a spade (rather than a luxury award-winning handheld digging device). I’ve always enjoyed reading your work and chuckling at the comments. Best of luck with the new gig.

  43. Simon Kearney
    7 Dec 16
    3:05 pm

  44. Best of luck in the future. Shame to see you go.

  45. Anonymous
    7 Dec 16
    3:35 pm

  46. Oh how I miss the regular calls from my regional ECD openly demanding more scam work and to create “fake” ideas for clients we didn’t even have! The scam culture is out of control in this industry!

  47. Ferdi
    9 Dec 16
    2:53 pm

  48. Wishing you all the very best in your future endeavours – I’m sure you’ll kick up a righteous fuss wherever you decide to kick down the door!

  49. SP
    23 Dec 16
    10:08 pm

  50. Under your watch, Mumbrella Asia has been a thorn in the side or, at the very least, an irritating pinprick in the foot of many an agency. I also loved the coverage of the missteps of the MSM in Singapore and around Asia. I do hope your successor will keep the mandate. So until then, many thanks, and all the best on your next posting.

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