Damned if you don’t: The pressure on creatives to win awards at all costs leads to scam

Robert Gaxiola

“I don’t blame these guys for doing it. They sort of have to,” says Robert Gaxiola, one of Singapore’s best-known and highly-awarded creatives.

In this interview with Mumbrella, the co-founder and creative director of ManghamGaxiola McGarryBowen – who concedes he played the awards game earlier in his career – talks about the “massive” pressure on creatives to win metal that leads to work like the refugee-spotting ‘I Sea’ app, who is responsible for scam, and why he thinks that the issue will never be resolved.

What sort of pressure are creative directors under to win awards these days?

It all depends who you are working for. Some agency networks literally put Lion quotas on each office to deliver each year. These networks take it very seriously and they play to win. And if you’re not winning, the ECD is usually the guy who has to answer for it. I used to work for an agency like that. When I joined up, I was told that I was replacing a guy who only won two bronzes in Cannes the year before. Which obviously wasn’t enough.

The pressure is massive, so if you can’t get something good enough for a medal from your regular client briefs you start to look elsewhere and find a few “clients” that might be more open to your ideas. But we all know from the start what we are in for as a CCO or ECD. You don’t get that Raffles Class ticket to Nice for nothing. So you make opportunities by any means necessary because nobody wants to fly home empty handed.

Some healthier agencies are pretty relaxed about it. But from what I hear there is still a massive amount of pressure for the creative bosses and all the creative people. You can’t blame them. In some cases their jobs are literally at stake. A gold Lion is sort of, as my former colleague Mark Fong has always said, an immunity idol for some people. It is also a ticket out of the creative ghetto and on to a better assignment. Your performance counts and the agency invests quite a bit of money into this show, so they expect results.

We used to joke that for an ECD to survive a bad year at Cannes, he needs to hold on until October. If you can do that without being “resigned” then you will still be invited to the agency Christmas party.

Where does the buck stop on scam in your view? Who’s mostly responsible for scam?

Senior management is responsible. I was responsible when I was an ECD. You can’t blame the culture or the talent we had in our department. It was me trying to hit my quota. Truth is, nobody in the network cared as long as you don’t get called out on it by anybody. Ultimately, senior management must shoulder the blame. Some of these agencies hire some serious creative power and they are proven winners.

Making “entries” to compete in Cannes is just one of their responsibilities and a massive amount of work and passion goes into it. We all knew when the deadlines were and we all knew what it took to compete at that high level. It is a blinding race to that final deadline and you must do better than just a shortlist.

Can you give some insight into the thought process that might have gone into creating the ‘I Sea’ app?

It’s a good idea actually, and maybe too good. It got a lot of attention. Using the combined force of people to comb through pages of satellite data looking to help locate people with an app and save them. Who could argue with that! But from what I am reading, the app didn’t work and something went very wrong here. This could be a case of rushing to the finish line before it was ready. Nobody is saying anything yet, so we don’t know all the facts. But I’m sure the agency knew they had a winner on their hands. They had a client, a problem and a creative solution. Yet the topic here is an emotional one given the gravity of the refugee crisis.

How do you think Singapore compares to other markets in Asia in terms of ‘scam culture’ in agencies?

I would say Singapore is well known for our “creative” show entries. We are very competitive and remain one of the most awarded countries in the region. We take it very seriously and we have the talent to deliver it. Our winning entries are not all scam ads, no way. But some of them are, and they’re pretty obvious. I was once part of this too no doubt, so what can I say.

Is there a solution for the scam issue? What will it take for it to go away?

I don’t think it will ever go away. Years ago we used to do it for fun. Sort of like hacking a show to see what we could get away with. We lost more than we won for sure. We got caught too. No big deal really because it got you noticed by more creative agencies. But later it got very serious and we all started keeping score.

At times different international shows would announce black lists, penalties and serious repercussions if you were caught. I don’t think that scared any of us, because if you covered enough bases it was worth the risk. Nobody got hurt and the worst that could happen is you waste your time and money. If you won, you got another great piece for your book and maybe a promotion.

It is an ego driven vice. The big shows know this very well. They claim to demand a clean show, but year after year we still find work that smells a little off and people keep their medals. We also see legitimate work winning and my hats off to them, respect.

In the end it’s up to the industry to end the practice. Not just claim you will then turn a blind eye when a creative team walks into your office with a mind-blowing contender in hand. You just have to make a decision to stop.

Robert Gaxiola has worked at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, Bates, Batey Ads, Y&R, FCB and Ogilvy Singapore. He co-founded Mangham Gaxiola with former Ogilvy Singapore chairman Stephen Mangham in 2012, and the business was acquired by Dentsu Aegis Network to launch McGarryBowen in Singapore in July last year. He has won awards at every major show, including One Show, Clio, D&AD, Cannes Lions and Spikes.


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