Opinion

The Mumbrella confessional: What it’s like to work at a scam agency

Vendetta or anonymous mask. High quality vector. Eyes are hollow - transparent.

In the first of an occasional series, an anonymous creative tells Mumbrella’s Robin Hicks what it’s like working within an agency dedicated to using scam to win awards.

I worked for this agency as a creative. I quit for a job at another agency when the churn and burn culture and the preoccupation with awards became too much. But I still have friends who work there.

Every agency network does scam in Singapore, more or less. But I can safely say that this was the most extreme environment I’ve ever worked in.

Whenever awards seasons kicks in, the whole place goes crazy. The pressure is on all the creatives to deliver award-winning ideas from the local CEO, the regional CEO and the creative director, with the global creative director breathing down his neck.

There are roundtable sessions held on a Monday morning, first thing at 9am, when the creatives teams share their ideas. The brief is to spot a social problem somewhere in the world, and come up with a brilliant way to solve it. The creative director picks the ideas he likes the most; the ones with the most award-winning potential.

We usually only had the weekend to work on these ideas, so many of them were half-baked and not properly thought through. Some were just plain weird.

I had a problem with an idea that would supposedly be a health benefit to women in a particular part of the world. What if we got it wrong? It could be dangerous, I suggested. I was ignored. This idea has gone on to win a number of awards.

And that’s the goal – awards. Despite what the agency might say about wanting to do good, its ambitions are purely about winning metal, and therefore winning new business and revenue on the back of it all.

Another idea I had a problem with was an app supposedly designed to help people with a particular disability. It simply didn’t work. But that was beside the point. It would win at Cannes.

This agency is not an app-developing agency. Apps are just not part of the agency’s skill set. But the company releases this stuff as ‘testers’ dressed up as workable solutions that will change the world.

And when it emerges that these life-saving apps don’t actually work, suddenly the people at the top vanish – and the juniors are thrown under the bus.

That’s the culture of the place.

The people in charge, who in my view have no business being in the creative industry, ensure that they’re protected and can carry on regardless of any scrutiny the agency falls under.

A big issue is that the creative department is seriously under-staffed. We’d work all week – a typical day is 9am to 9pm – mostly on real clients. But during awards seasons, we’d work from 9am to 2am (sometimes pulling all-nighters to meet awards deadlines) on scam that would eat into time on paying clients whose work would suffer as a consequence.

The agency lost a large chunk of one of its largest accounts because the work had deteriorated while we were working on scam.

For the scam work itself, the agency would bring in unpaid interns to do the grunt work, under the guise that they were being taught the trade. They’d get overloaded with projects, would have no idea what they were for, and get no credit for their contribution.

They would put the deck and case study videos together, sourcing all the footage from Vimeo and YouTube. They would find the footage, cut it, and write script for the video. I did a few of these myself.

Did I have a choice? Yes. Creatives do have a choice whether or not to do scam. But ultimately, if you’re not winning awards you will be let go. You will be under the microscope and not in a good way. So effectively it’s a must.

And a lot of people can’t really go anywhere – the job is all they have. And if they question the system, as I did on a number of occasions, they will come under scrutiny.

I thought if I stayed there any longer I’d either burn out or get into serious trouble, because of the sort of scam work the agency was producing.

I’m at another agency now. Do they do scam? Yes, they do. The difference is that they do not cross the line of pretending to help people, which is the worst sort of lie an agency can tell.

  • Have you got a confession? We’ll protect your anonymity – email robin.hicks@mumbrella.asia.com
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