Opinion

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.

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