VML CCO decries spec work: If it’s not ready, don’t push it – awards aren’t that important

Debbi Vandeven talking at a VML event in Singapore this evening

Debbi Vandeven talking about VML’s work at an event in Singapore this evening

Agencies should be prepared to wait until their work is genuinely ready for the real world before entering it for awards shows, because Cannes is “not that important”, the global chief creative officer of WPP digital agency VML said today.

After presenting VML’s showreel at an event in Singapore this evening, CCO Debbi Vandeven was asked whether her agency had changed its approach to awards after an embarrassing turn of events last year, when an idea from the Sydney office to warn Australian road users of accident blackspots was shortlisted at Cannes but found to have been entered without the client’s permission.

Vandeven responded first by saying: “I’m not a believer of putting anything forward for Cannes that hasn’t run.”

She then admitted that the Sydney office “was pushing the timing limits” with the Blackspot Beacons idea, which the agency claimed in a case study video had been rolled out across the state of New South Wales, but had in fact only been subject to a five-day test in a single location.

“I had a conversation [with the Sydney team] to say, if it’s not ready, and you don’t feel like it is, wait – just wait. Because it’s not that important, right?” said Vandeven.

“Cannes is great. But it’s a love-hate situation with Cannes, or with any awards show. So I said, it’s not that important to be in there.”

She went on to back Aden Hepburn, VML Sydney’s MD and ECD, the brains behind the idea, and one of the Australia’s most talented digital thinkers.

“Aden had a client who definitely signed off on it [the project], and the work had been tested,” she insisted.

The campaign, which in the case study video showed how a piece of technology could override car radios with localised safety messages, reached the shortlist stage in the Radio and Media categories. But the work was eventually withdrawn from the competition by the agency after an investigation by the organisers.

She later clarified, “He [Hepburn] did have sign off, I will tell you that. I just think he was pushing it – he was pushing the deadline. And there was a lot of pressure. With any of the awards shows, you know how it works.”

Jon Cook, VML’s global CEO, who was co-presenting at the event in Singapore, added that awards can have the effect of lulling creatives “into a false sense of purpose.”

“The purpose is to do great work for clients,” he said, posing a question that is often asked about a lot of work submitted for awards shows: “What purpose did it really serve?”

“There’s a danger in the industry of awards taking on too much importance. And it creates a situation where good people push the deadline too much, or create something that’s not real,” he said.

Debbi Vandevan and Jon Cook

Debbi Vandevan and VML’s global CEO Jon Cook

“Winning as we did this year for bigger clients like Gatorade is the better way to go,” he said, referring to VML’s record year at Cannes this summer when the agency claimed 11 Lions.

On this feat, Vandeven said: “What I really want to win at Cannes is for our big clients. I love NGOs and we do lots of work for NGOs, but it doesn’t mean the same to me as it does to win for Wendy’s or as it does for Gatorade or any of our very large clients.”

VML’s Cannes wins this year include work for Ford, Kimberly-Clark, Gatorade, Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, Legoland Florida Resort, Napa Auto Parts, Motorola, Passop, Domestic Animal Rescue Group and Lyceum of the Philippines University.

Among the work presented by Vandeven and Cook was an augmented reality idea for Gatorade around the Super Bowl in the US.

Also among the winners this year was a campaign for Napa Auto Parts in the US.

Kansas City-born VML was founded in 1992, acquired by WPP in 2001, and became part of the Y&R group in 2005. The network expanded into Asia in that year with the acquisition of Qais in Singapore, where the agency is headquartered regionally. The network now has APAC operations in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tokyo, Mumbai, New Delhi, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Sydney.


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