Confessions of a Singapore scam artist

ScamI had a fascinating chat with a creative director in Singapore yesterday.

He confessed to being heavily into scam ads in a past life as a CD while working at Singapore’s top creative agencies, but doesn’t play the game anymore. He doesn’t have to, he says. Because he no longer works for a big network.

Of course, scam – fake ads made only to win awards – is nothing knew in Singapore. What is interesting is that, my reformed scamster friend tells me, it is getting more common as the pressure on creative directors to win awards and climb creative rankings increases.

If you don’t hit your awards target, it’s perfectly simple. You’re fired. Or shipped off to a far-flung outpost. Career over. Or at least dented, until you win enough awards to land a gig elsewhere.

It’s not just paranoia that drives scam. It’s insecurity. “Creatives are dying for validation,” my friend tells me. “They get beaten up all day by the bosses, the client, the suits. We need our day in the limelight. Even if it’s for fake work.”

Oh, and greed too. “Scam is about building your portfolio so that you get a better job, so you get paid more money,” he says.

It was interesting to hear how it all works.

The process of entering a scam ad into an awards show, and ensuring you don’t get caught, seems to be more of a creative challenge than making the scam ad itself – which is straightforward enough once you’ve worked out what awards juries are looking for.

For those of you who don’t work in a big Singapore ad agency creative department and know already, here is how scam works.

Creative thinks of an idea. It’s a most excellent idea that will win an award.

Creative director calls a client (any client, it doesn’t have to be theirs) and says they’re from an advertising agency. The client says they don’t have an ad agency. They’re a bicycle shop in Chinatown. They don’t advertise. They never have. Well, that’s ok, says the agency. We want to make an ad for you. And guess what, we’ll do it for free.

Scam isn’t just for obscure brands. Big brands are better. They’re more believable to awards juries. Oh, so you sell Nike trainers in your shoe shop in Queensway Shopping Centre? Well, let’s make you an ad for Nike. It’s sort of the same thing.

I-S magazine cover

Next, the creative director starts calling in favours. Photographers, retouchers, printers. They’re all brought into the game. They’re happy to play ball, since their names will appear in the credits list come awards time.

Then comes the media bit. Happily, print media is relatively cheap in Singapore. A page in a free newspaper costs around S$3,000 (US$2,300). You can get a full page in free listings magazine I-S – the scamster’s publication of choice (if you don’t believe me, leaf through an issue before awards season starts in January) – for S$3,200. Of course, the agency pays for that too.

If a full-page seems too expensive, just run a tiny fractional ad in the classified section and send a poster to the awards jury that is eight times the size. They’ll never know. Besides, it’s still technically eligible.

If your scam didn’t actually run in any media, there are still other ways to fool awards juries. Like sticking your scam ad to a real ad you’ve cut out from a magazine, and ageing it by leaving it out in the sun for a few hours. This, my friend tells me, is the old school verification method.

Next, create a fake letter from a client to prove that the ad was sanctioned and paid for. “In the old days, we used to make fake letter heads from the client and fax them to juries,” I’m told.

If forging letters is too much like hard work, make sure you’re in bed with the jury. “The unsaid rule is that if they don’t call you out, you’ll keep quiet when it’s your turn on the jury,” says my friend. Of course it helps to have a friend on the jury who works at an agency from your own network. You won’t get a peep out of them unless they really hate you.

The trick is not to create scam that is too good. Winning a silver or bronze is perfect. Just enough to get you the points you need to hold you position in the Gunn Report. Gold is bad news. A grand prix is worse. “You’ll attract too much attention from juries or journalists who start asking questions,” says my source.

But even if you get caught, this might not be a disaster. More a minor hiccup. You’ll get a call from the awards chairman who will politely ask you to withdraw your entry. One of the big awards shows tried introducing a blacklist to scapegoat the bad eggs a while ago, but that didn’t last long. “Think of the money they’d lose,” I’m told.

“It’s like drugs in cycling. If you want to get to the top of the Campaign Brief creative rankings, you have to take some dope,” my friend says. “Agencies are fanatical about it. It’s only when you step back from the industry that you can see how ludicrous the circus has become.”

One of Singapore’s biggest ad agencies has a matrix system for measuring creative awards performance against the other agencies in the network. The system – which is called the KCM (to say what this stands for would be to reveal the agency) – doesn’t just measure golds, silvers and bronzes won at Cannes. It even counts shortlisted entries. They all count.

“It’s a massive ass-covering exercise that is used religiously by the ECD,” I was told by my friend who used to work for this agency.

Now that there are more awards shows, and more categories in each, so agencies are entering every category (media, direct, promo, whatever – a gong’s a gong). They need the points to climb the rankings.

And now agencies have started to send their scam ads to the trade press before awards season begins. A bit risky, you might think. But this is to legitimise the work. If any questions are asked by awards juries, they can send them a link. If it’s been published in the trade press, it must be legit, right?

This week, an agency sent me a campaign that ran (or did it?) five months ago. Curious, I asked the agency what news value this had for me as a journalist. I also asked how the campaign fitted with the brand’s guidelines (it was like no other ad I’ve ever seen for this global brand) and for the media schedule.

I’m still waiting for a reply. You know who you are. When you’re ready guys, I’m genuinely intrigued…

Another cunning ploy these days is to take the moral high ground and say you’re cutting your awards budget. Awards aren’t important to us, they’ll say. What’s important to us is our clients. That way you have a good excuse to tell everyone if you’ve slipped in the rankings.

Scam isn’t just a con that makes the industry look a bit silly. It effects people. “The pressure to win at all costs turns you into a monster. If you don’t win, the hate mail starts from the global creative director, who tells you you’re killing the Singapore office because you’re not winning,” says my source.

“The pressure ECDs are under is insane. It becomes like gambling. They spend hours staring at a computer screen trying to figure out how they can win, which categories to enter, which horses to bet on.”

“The job of a creative director of a network agency in Singapore is essentially to do some real work for your clients, recruit people and win awards – and not necessarily in that order. If you fail, you’re out.”

Creative directors, he says, are under more pressure than those in other departments of the agency. They tend to get killed off earlier than, say, suits if they don’t deliver, I’m told.

But suits are now in on the act too. CEOs used turned a blind eye and pretend the whole facade wasn’t happening. “Now the bosses want to see the work that will win awards – and with increasing frequency. I was asked every two weeks what I had in my locker that would win at Cannes or D&AD.”

“They’re looking for runway ideas – showpieces on the catwalk of advertising.” Echoing the words of Neil French, the outspoken former creative director of WPP, who famously takes sympathetic view to “initiative work”, it’s like coming up with a concept car at a motor show.

Scam is a serious business with serious money behind it. Careers are built on it. One agency spent S$700,000 (US$550,000) on awards entries last year. Hardly peanuts when you consider the salary of a junior creative, who get paid roughly $1,000 (US$780) a month for every year of experience to their name.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. I hear that one big agency in Singapore has turned its back on scam and has “sobered up”. For them, getting on a shortlist for real work for real clients (Singapore clients are notoriously conservative, which I’m told is part of the problem) is worth celebrating, since they’re competing against bogus work for bike shops, obscure charities and big clients who have no idea their brand is being prostituted at awards shows.

My friend has thrown out all of the awards he won from scamming. “They don’t mean anything. But at the time, they felt like everything,” he says.

Of course, scam is not just a Singapore thing. It’s a regional issue. So it is, perhaps, unfair to pick on the citystate – although since Singapore is the regional hub for advertising these days, it’s fair game in my view.

As John Hegarty, the H in BBH, told me in Cannes in June, Asia will never be a dominant force in advertising if it does not cut out the cancer that is scam.

I think he has a point.

Robin Hicks


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