Thursday, June 23, 2016

Enough is Enough. Scam Campaigns MUST Go.

 I see a scam ad on the Cannes seashore...
I wrote this two years ago, after Mumbrella made a big deal out of reducing their coverage of Cannes and other awards... I didn't post it because I was working for an agency which (at the time) had been caught up in minor scam allegations, and I felt it right not to post anything that could be seen as critical of my employer (who were nowhere near the worst offender).

Having seen some of the work awarded this year though, I feel it's time to dig this up and post it, with a few additions for this year:

There has been a lot of talk for several years about ‘scam’ advertising and its appearance in awards shows. In fact, the conversation appears to have varied from calm and reasoned, to hyperactive screeching and finger pointing.

Here in Australia, the ‘big’ news to come from this, was that Mumbrella announced they would no longer cover Cannes in such a major way. This got me thinking about the causes and possible solutions to the issue…

The simple answer is that we are all responsible for this. Agencies, clients, award shows and the industry media – we are all in part, to blame for the rise of what is called scam advertising – and we all need to play a role in making it less of an issue.

Let’s start with agencies.

You are a big agency, everyone wants to work for you. Who do you hire?
I know. That team who won a few awards last year must be good, let’s hire them.

Bang. That in a small nutshell, is one of the key causes of scam.

If you are a creative team, you can do 90% terrible work and 10% award winning, and you will guaranteed get more offers and money than a team who is 100% brilliant, but doesn’t enter or win awards.

So suddenly, every team knows they have to make award winning work to get the jobs they want.

…and now. Every agency wants the same award winning teams, so their value goes up even more. Over the course of a few decades, what awards you have appears to have, in many agencies, overtaken quality of overall work and the clients you have worked on for likelihood of getting hired, and the value you hold.

Hands up if your agency paid through the nose for you to be here.
Now awards are so important that creatives don’t want to work for your agency unless you have them. So if you’re a small agency looking to get more creative clients, it becomes near impossible to get the best talent. No awards = creatives don’t want to work for you = no awards.

Suddenly awards become more important than doing good work.

Even worse. If you are in a globally run agency, there's a near certain chance that head office will be setting you award targets. So now you have to plan your work, and plan your new business, around award opportunities. I saw one of my former agencies get given an award target from head office that was completely ludicrous - the same level as agencies four times their size.


The role of marketing director has become an increasingly short term one. Companies are quick to change, and long-term often gets thrown out of the window by those at the top who don’t understand it.

This means some clients want desperately to be seen to act while they still can. We’ve all experienced the ‘new client holds pitch two months after starting - to show they are making an impact, despite the current agency doing great’ scenario.

If you want to make an impact, and make a name for yourself as a marketing director – you have two options. 1. Create great sales, hard to do, a long-term goal, and always at the mercy of the public. Or 2. Create work that wins some awards.

So you hire the agency that has a winning award streak.

Image from Marketoon / Ketchum.
Now agencies realize they need awards to attract clients. They need teams who have them, and they need to keep winning. The value of those award winning teams goes up more. Awards essentially become a cycle.

So the small agency. They need awards to get the best teams, now they need them to get clients. But they can’t get the best teams, and they can’t get the best clients, so how are they meant to win any awards?

But wait, the client wants them too. Well, what if we just run this great idea you had that we can’t buy in a couple of places…

Awards Shows

Scam advertising is unfortunately an inherent problem in any award show that focuses just on creativity.

Advertising is, at its very core, solving a business problem. Awards that only focus on creativity don’t consider (or only partly consider) whether it actually solved that problem. The best creative idea in the world is still essentially shit if it doesn’t solve the business problem.

Actually. That gets to the heart of why scam is so loathed. Scam ads are basically ads that didn’t have to solve a problem. Even if they were based upon a brief designed to tackle an issue, the fact that it didn’t run in any serious way means that it never actually needs to do anything. It is there to look pretty, and is really, just a drawing with a logo.

The Media

It takes a brave media owner to miss out or reduce coverage on a big story for the good of the
industry. But coverage of awards, the ranking and ratings of awards, and the use of awards in all coverage of award winners is a large part of the reason why agencies and clients are so desperate to get them. No one would give a shit about Cannes if there was no media publicising it.

Ok, maybe they'd go for the parties, but that's another issue.

The Problem

The key problem with scam has traditionally been 'we place it in one small newspaper and it's eligible'. It's easy to look at that as a media problem, but in most cases it isn't. It's either the agency or client who want to run ideas that were rejected, or even generated without a brief.

Now though, the biggest problem is hiding behind Beta. Come up with an unusual or interesting idea that has enough technology to look innovative - then create a prototype which will never go to the public and wait for the Gold.

It's not like agencies don't innovate. My last agency made the magnificent 'Attention Powered Car' for RAC, and yet Cannes somehow failed to award it. (But said how great it was when announcing one of the tech developers as part of this years festival!)
[Update - In the original version I criticised the Peggy Device for OMO from the same agency as pretty scammy. Since then I've actually chatted to one of the people involved with it, who has assured me that the response from the intended audience around functionality was excellent, and that it has enough backing that it could potentially be an actual full product rather than just a 'beta'. In the interests of fairness I think it's important to note that this makes it way more legitimate an idea than the other work discussed here. It also brings up an important reminder to all of us that it's what the actual audience thinks that counts, not what the ad industry thinks - a culture that is actually another side effect of the awards focus.]
I prefer my idea of awards called the Canned Tigers for ads
that are terrible, or blatant scam.

Look at the Cannes Bronze winning 'I Sea' app from Grey Singapore. Now the concept is great, an app that can help refugees and potentially save lives. Except that the app was never properly produced, nor researched effectively to find out if was actually capable and worthwhile of being what it was sold to awards as. The answer, as you may guess is no. An app released to public in an unfinished state, and described by at least one expert in the field as being way too expensive and not fast enough to provide the help it claims.
What state has marketing come to when the lives of refugees are being used to artificially win awards? It isn't just the agency who entered this into Cannes that should be ashamed. Those who push award targets and punishments should be ashamed, and the rest of the industry who utilise similar tactics to get awards should be ashamed too. Who the fuck do we think we are?!

Now of course there are very few people in the industry who mean to cause harm or produce bad ideas, but the pressure from above and the lack of effective checks and balances to make sure these things don't happen are simply not there. As soon as a creative director sniffs an award chance, they are being coerced into pushing it forward regardless of other factors. We've all seen planning award entries where you can see that data has been presented in a way to make it sound far more effective and important than it really was... but at least in those cases the idea actually happened, and the figures presented are accurate, even if they are shined up a bit. (Importantly, effectiveness awards are increasingly looking for independent verification of all figures too.)

So, No Awards?

None of this is to say awards aren’t valuable. They are a great way to show who is doing good work, and to reward them. They are also a deserved pat on the back for creatives and other employees who often pull crazy hours to generate great ideas and get the entries done.

We just need to remember that awards are meant to reward good work, rather than good work being the by-product of award entries. The long running cycle of award addiction isn't actually that far removed from the problem of clients getting addicted to sales. Maybe we need to get together and work on a behavioural approach to beating this...

My position is, and has always been: Awards are great, but I would rather do great work with no awards, than do average work that wins them.

What to Do?

Scam campaigns won't stop unless we do some or all of the following:

  • Make inclusion of a media plan mandatory in every creative award entry, and use it as part of the judging process.
  • Make effectiveness a larger part of scoring creative awards, to minimize the impact of creative which served no purpose.
  • Have the industry media (as Mumbrella announced in 2014) stop treating awards with such importance.
  • Have agencies reduce the importance of awards in hiring contracts and hiring decision.
  • Have agencies base award targets on their size and client base, not on past performance. (Otherwise success one year can leave an agency being unfairly criticised the next year.)
  • Make sure proper checks and balances are in place at agencies to stop scam entries.
  • Make sure award judges are given sufficient info about whether a 'Beta' product has been made available, and is capable of doing the job it actually is being awarded for.

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