Latin American ad agencies -- especially those in Brazil and Argentina -- make some of the most innovative creative around, ads that play big at awards shows and are increasingly the inspiration for multinational brand campaigns that go well beyond their country of origin.
So last week's crisis for DDB Brasil, one of the region's most celebrated shops, in which it was sharply criticized for a 9/11-themed ad for the World Wildlife Fund, has caused much debate in the local ad world. But rather than condemn the agency that made it, DDB, or its president, Sergio Valente, for using an American tragedy to comment on unrelated environmental issues, the Latin ad community focused on other aspects: what many perceived to be an extremely poor creative execution, and the agency's mishandling of the crisis by blaming creatives no longer at the shop and by indulging in secrets and lies.
A print version of the ad, known as "Tsunami" and featuring an image of dozens of jets bearing down on a pre-9/11 New York, quickly became infamous after it was accidentally sent to a blogger last week. It was widely condemned as a scam ad largely created for awards shows such as the One Show, where it earned an honor that was rescinded last week. Then a video version surfaced. DDB Brasil initially denied having anything to do with the ad but it later became clear the work had been produced by the agency, which also entered it in Cannes. Although Mr. Valente and DDB Worldwide CEO Chuck Brymer (as well as the WWF) issued separate apologies for the ad, news of the video only exacerbated U.S. outrage.
Much of the local conversation acknowledged that the work was weak, but the focus was more on Mr. Valente and the crisis itself. Criticism of the ad arose only after news of the video broke. "It was an unfortunate act of communication," said Carlos Perez, president of BBDO Argentina, which like DDB is owned by Omnicom Group. "Even clumsier and more reprehensible, without a doubt, has been the denying of the authorship of the TV spot."
Mr. Perez also questioned whether this should really change the perception of an agency that's been doing great work for years.
The Argentine community, in an effort to fight against scam ads made only for submission in awards shows, has already responded by changing the rules at its most important local ad festival to mirror changes announced last week by the One Show's leadership in New York.
The American outrage was met with a bit of head-scratching in Latin America. The perception by many Latinos is that Americans are oversensitive and take things like advertising too seriously. And, for obvious reasons, political correctness and edgy advertising don't make a happy pair.
"We are known to be fresher and bold," said Mr. Perez. "Only a few cases, guised as fresh or spontaneous, end up in bad taste and with a lack of respect. I think political correctness has turned into a nightmare in Europe and the U.S. Everything is offensive for them. At this pace, soon we won't be able to see Chaplin's 'The Great Dictator.' No one will be able to distinguish between parody, irony and humor. Everything will be taken seriously."
Martín Mercado, chief creative officer for Young & Rubicam Argentina, said that ads for social causes can't afford a low profile.
"Every time that tragedy is used as a resource in an ad, the ad can hurt the sensibility of a culture or a society, in the United States or in any other part of the world," he said. "In Argentina, the same would have gone down if this was a campaign that referred to the people that went missing during the dictatorial government. Here in Argentina, we've said that more people die from traffic than from the swine flu. We are comparing two tragedies too. I believe the end of this ad is noble, that needs to be said."
Besides calling attention to scam ads and the reality that in a digital age local ads become global, the events of last week have highlighted a tension between local creativity and international sensitivity. How will this impact Latin American creative culture? Will it mean that shops there, especially those owned by multinational conglomerates like Omnicom and WPP, pull back and become more timid?
"Regrettably, it's very possible that this and other cases will create a movement of rigidity and less boldness in Latin creativity," said Mr. Perez. He and others noted that a loss of boldness wouldn't be a good thing.
Sebastián Arrechedera, one of the founders of Mexico City's ArrechederaClaverol, said he understands the delicate issues around 9/11 but didn't like the approach some of the criticism took.
"The message was developed for the Brazilian market and it is from that perspective that it should be analyzed," he said. "I believe 'Tsunami' never says that 9/11 was a good thing nor does it mock the horrible attack. It uses the most tragic image in the worldwide imagination in a strong way to reflect everything that's happening in our planet. The good thing about everything that's happened is that in one way or another, the ad has made all of us who have seen it reflect about the way this world is taking."
One Brazilian creative living in the U.S. echoed this, "This ad was made in Brazil for Brazil. Latin America is fresh and provocative by nature and that's something for which the region has been always worldwide recognized."
He continued, "With the internet, Latin creativity will inevitably tend to become more 'politically correct,' so to speak. It's on its way to losing quite a bit of spontaneity, which is a real pity."
Perhaps this is an inevitable effect of the internet making the world smaller. Or perhaps it's an effect of Latin agencies playing an increasingly important role in the international marketing community. DDB Brasil was last year's agency of the year at Cannes and Mr. Valente is a legend in the ad community.
Either way, it's clear that Latin agencies will have to get used to more strategy and, when events like this arise, they'll have to learn to deal with the fallout more effectively and not let the crisis-handling itself become the story.
They could do worse than listening to blogger Adonis Alonso, who wrote a bit of after-the-fact PR counsel: "Tell about the whole process assuming it's the company's mistake. The mistake was made by DDB Brasil. Sergio Valente started to do that but he hid details that then started to come to the surface. He should have assumed that that would happen. Being wrong is human and apologizing is noble."