Was Ali Shabaz moved on because of I Sea saga? Don’t you believe it

It was argued in the days following his departure from the Asia operation of Grey Group that the writing had been on the wall for Ali Shabaz ever since the agency’s I Sea app was exposed for what it was; a sham.

But that wouldn’t be true.

The writing had not been on the wall at all. Why? Simple really. Scam was, and continues to be tolerated, encouraged even if it scoops awards.

Had Grey Group genuinely thought their Southeast Asia chief creative officer had erred in overseeing a shonky app purporting to help stricken migrants, he would have been moved on months ago.

He wasn’t. Furthermore, Shabaz, despite his exit from Asia, is remaining with Grey after being handed the chief creative role vacated by Mike Shackle in the Middle East.

Hardly the act of a company looking to hold him to account for last year’s embarrassment when it was forced to hand back its Cannes Lion won for I Sea.

On the contrary, Grey made it perfectly clear what they thought of its award winning work being rubbished in an extraordinarily petulant statement in which it blamed anonymous bloggers for daring to raise questions about the app’s functionality.

But that is water under the bridge. And my Mumbrella colleague Alex Hayes dealt with Grey’s tantrum in an excellent piece back in July.

What will be argued, and it’s not without merit, is that Grey waited for the furore to subside before quietly easing Shabaz out of the door in Asia.

Leaving it a few months would temper suggestions his departure was linked to the fanciful claim that Grey’s ill-conceived migrant-rescuing app could save lives. Had there been a hasty exit it would have been open acknowledgment that I Sea was, indeed, a huge mistake.

But a mistake is plainly not how the agency saw it back then, and it’s not how it sees it now.

More likely, and this was also suggested to me by a source close to Grey, is that Shabaz’s work over the past few months has not been regarded as award-winning standard.

That’s not to say his work did not solve problems for clients. It may well have done. It was the lack of standout ideas that is said to have been at least partially behind his relocation to Dubai.

The two approaches of advertising – producing effective work on one hand, and work which is going to catch the eye of judges – are often palpably different.

I know which approach I would prefer as a marketer. But as we all know, the advertising industry is not short of an ego or two, both individually and agencies as a collective, who crave recognition and parade their trophies like strutting peacocks in the hope it will impress their peers and draw in star-struck clients.

Are brands and marketers really so shallow and naive to be taken in by awards? Is that their measure of a successful agency?

So intense is this quest – some may call it an obsession – to create the award-winning Big Idea that it was suggested Shabaz, and others, are put under intolerable pressure to produce such work.

In short, accountability lay not just at the door of the creatives themselves but in the culture of the agency, to such an extent that it clouds the judgment of reasonable people and leads to ill-conceived ideas designed solely to resonate with juries. I Sea is one such example.

What is startling is the inability of agencies to recognise how wrong this is.

Scam, plagiarism, shonky, unworkable apps. It is indefensible, particularly when it relates to extraordinarily sensitive issues such as desperate migrants fleeing regions ravaged by conflict.

I have no doubt Grey blames the media, as well as the aforementioned bloggers, for daring to expose scam work. Of course, the media often cops the rap. It will be forever thus.

Be that as it may, it would be heartening if some of the comments about Shabaz’s departure from Asia were true. Namely that Grey felt it necessary to move him on after conceding, internally at least, that I Sea was a monumental disaster and a morally bankrupt idea.

I’m just not sure that’s the case.

And as long as pressure remains on creatives to produce work with awards the end game, scam will continue.


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