Cannes: Advertising Giants Trade Barbs About Integrity of Judging

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The Cannes Lions festival's decision to add a Holding Company of the Year award last year appears to be escalating the rivalry between WPP and Omnicom Group, with agency execs from both holding companies trading accusations about the fairness of the judging at the festival.

On Saturday night WPP beat out Omnicom as the Holding Company of the Year, based on the awards won at Cannes; WPP also won last year, the first time the award was given.

Earlier in the week, agency execs from multiple holding companies complained that judges on the media Lions jury didn't have enough time to consider all the entries carefully and that judges from Omnicom agencies appeared to be encouraged to vote as a bloc. Without naming a specific jury, WPP CEO Martin Sorrell was quoted in The Guardian saying some judges were apparently pressured to vote for certain entries.

The Media Lions' Grand Prix went to Google Voice Search and the U.K.'s Manning Gottlieb OMD. This year's media-jury president, Mainardo de Nardis, is CEO of OMD Worldwide.

Meanwhile, Amir Kassaei, chief creative officer of DDB Worldwide, was quoted in the Indian trade press saying that WPP agencies were "briefed to kill" Omnicom agencies' entries in general at the festival. Mr. Kassaei didn't address the comments further, when contacted by Ad Age via email, telling Ad Age, "I already said everything that should be said in that case."

Dominic Proctor, president of WPP's media holding company Group M, said Monday that Nick Emery, CEO of Mindshare Worldwide, had spoken with festival Chairman Terry Savage during the festival to express concern about the media jury's judging. In an email Sunday, Mr. Proctor said, "We had some concerns based on comments from judges from various agencies, not just WPP agencies. I'm sure that the organizers will investigate with the judges concerned. It is crucial that the integrity of these awards is not undermined. So the organizers cannot sweep it under the carpet."

"I'm certainly aware of the disquiet regarding the jury process," Steve King, CEO of Publicis Groupe's ZenithOptimedia, said in an email on Monday. "In order to be objective I've asked for feedback from the various ZO jury participants in order that I can make a more informed view and also decide what next steps we should take."

Australian trade publication B&T quoted a statement from Mr. Savage: "We review the jury processes every year, but tend to make our decisions outside the white-heat of the festival itself. Post-the event we will look at all aspects, but are strongly of the view that the media jury would benefit from having a more diverse group of people from a wider spectrum of the industry."

OMD referred inquiries about the media Lions judging to Philip Thomas, CEO of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, who, when asked via email if a holding company could influence judging, seemed to dismiss the notion by citing the math involved in judging. "There are 30 people on the media jury, and the biggest two holding companies have six jurors each," he wrote. "Bearing in mind that there must be a two-thirds majority for any decision in the room ... it would mean that 14 other jurors, in addition to all of one holding company's jurors, would have to agree, to get anything approved."

Everyone on the media jury, the largest at Cannes this year with 31 members, is from a media agency, including six each from WPP and Omnicom agencies. (The Brazilian judge was from Y&R, because media agencies aren't allowed to operate in Brazil; he's Y&R's media VP).

Some of the juries are more diverse. For instance, there were four marketers this year on the creative effectiveness jury, one each from Lenovo, Heineken, Fiat and Novartis Consumer Health. And the cyber jury was chaired this year by Ian Tait, exec creative director of Google Creative Lab.

WPP issued a press release right after Saturday night's final awards show detailing the holding company of the year ranking: WPP won, with 1,554 points, followed by Omnicom with 1,375 points and Publicis Groupe with 1,032 points. The festival awards points for each Lion, ranging from 10 points for a Grand Prix to 3 for a bronze Lion. WPP's impressive tally of Lions included three Grand Prix awards -- one each in PR, outdoor and mobile; Ogilvy was the highest-scoring network and so became network of the year. The network of the year honor, started in 2007, has been won every year previously by Omnicom's BBDO.

With a holding company of the year prize to fight over, there may be more battles ahead over judging as both holding companies try to win every Lion they can and make sure their own entries are judged fairly. As Cannes ended, a few thoughtful agency execs were wondering if the holding company of the year award has a future.

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