Ghosts of Cannes

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Something vaporous and somewhat sinister lurks behind the dazzling sunlight, tans and hot creative so de rigeur on the French Riviera during the ad industry's hottest award festival that begins next week.

The ghost ads of Cannes also haunt the Palais du Festival, and the Carlton and Martinez Hotels. Like it or not, fake or fudged entries have become so much a part of the awards scene at this and other festivals that the first word of Spanish many festival-going creative directors learn is truchos, or scam ads. Brazilians, who are highly skilled practitioners, prefer to call them fantasmas, or ghosts.

From Singapore to Sao Paulo, creative people have gone to amazing lengths to nab creative awards. Scam ads range from out-and-out fakes never approved by clients to ads that technically qualify because they ran once, sometimes at the agency's expense, simply to be eligible for award shows.

The problem is prevalent enough that Cannes Jury President Bob Isherwood has written to warn this year's Lions judges for the festival beginning June 18 that it is their duty to denounce any scam ads entered by agencies from their respective countries. Mr. Isherwood, an Australian who is the New York-based worldwide creative director at Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi, is only too aware of the situation: Last year two Lion statuettes were sent back from his native country because the winning ads had never run, and a third dubious winner was investigated by the festival.

Although ad industry executives privately grumble that festivals like Cannes don't do all they can to weed out scam ads for fear of turning away entry fees, festival organizers have been shocked enough by last year's events to take some new measures.

Cannes festival Chairman Roger Hatchuel says it's now mandatory for the first time that a senior agency executive sign off on each entry, although no definition of senior executive is given, and no proof is necessary that an entry actually ran.

Proof isn't foolproof, however. A favorite trick is for the agency, rather than client, to pay for an inexpensive media buy simply to qualify. "Sometimes an ad may have run in one medium on a very limited scale and it doesn't necessarily mean it's not a scam ad," says Romain Hatchuel, the festival's CEO and Roger Hatchuel's son. "A media invoice is not enough if the letter but not the spirit of the rule is complied with."

So this year, the Hatchuels made a last-minute decision to send all judges, in advance, a list of the Cannes entries from their respective countries and ask them to review the print and TV work. Roger Hatchuel says he hopes they will then consult the ad community in their own countries and give Mr. Isherwood a list of dubious ads when they arrive.

He admits it's not a perfect solution. "It's happened before that a [Cannes] judge will say `I'm not a cop.' My answer to that is it's not playing cop for us. It's trying to self-discipline everyone for the sake of the industry. It's not 100%, but it's going in the right direction."

In Chile, the attitude is a lot more resigned toward bogus entrants. There, Sergio Rosenbaum O'Brien, president of the Chilean Association of Advertising Agencies, and his fellow compatriots have hit upon an innovative solution to the widespread problem of agencies crafting ads just to enter in award shows. Rather than asking judges to turn in their peers, which they are often reluctant to do, the Chileans added a category for scam ads to their national awards show last December, so agencies can openly and proudly enter their fake work. The category is called simply "Free Expression," says Mr. Rosenbaum, who is also general manager of WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson Chilena in Santiago.

"It was a very emotional and tense issue," he says. "Rather than have every category invaded by truchos, we created a new category. You shouldn't have clients and their budgets competing with ads with no client or budget. We're trying to be fair."

The genius of the Chilean approach was to also have an eight-person committee examine entries in all the other categories before the judging. Then the agency association writes polite letters informing entrants of suspect ads that their work would be reclassified into the Free Expression category unless they provided proof it had run. Lots of work abruptly switched categories, Mr. Rosenbaum says. Of 797 entries, 96 were in the Free Expression category.

In one of Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide's less-publicized creative victories, Zegers DDB in Santiago picked up the Gold in the Free Expression category, for a print ad that was never run or approved by Suzuki. At the scene of an apparent accident, a group of onlookers cluster anxiously around a fallen Suzuki motorcyle, while everyone ignores the cyclist's prone body nearby.

Also vying for best fake ad, Omnicom's BBDO de Chile won a Silver award for a print ad featuring Whiskas, made by real-life client Mars' Effem pet-food division. Two gleaming lids from Whiskas cans look eerily like cats' eyes.

Ask creatives how the scam-ad debate began, and many cite the tale of nuns giving an unforgettable product demonstration that swept the Cannes' Grand Prix in 1992. In the sweetly innocent spot, two nuns in a convent notice that their stone cherub's tiny penis has broken off. The reverend mother solemnly glues it back on--upside down. Later, a younger and more worldly nun reattaches it correctly. The commercial, supposedly for a Dutch brand of rubber cement called Talens, won for then-independent Casadevall Pedreno & SPR, a young and trendy Barcelona hotshop since bought by Publicis Groupe. Casadevall hastily assembled the whole agency in Cannes to celebrate with an all-night party. But the victory was not without controversy.

"There was a lot of discussion about whether it was real," recalls John Fawcett, a Cannes judge that year and now worldwide creative director at Cordiant Communications Group's Bates Worldwide, New York. "It seemed too pat, no one had heard of the brand, and the product didn't appear. There were two Spaniards on the jury. I was disappointed they didn't say anything."

Mr. Fawcett says that he wrote afterward to the jury president about jurors' misgivings at awarding the ultimate prize to an ad they feared was a scam. "He and the festival said they'd look into it," Mr. Fawcett says.

He didn't hear anything more. The agency was apparently able to prove the spot aired somewhere, but the product has never been heard of again. In festival lore, the Talens ad figures as a famous fake. "It's pretty much agreed it was a scam ad," he says.

Casadevall could not be reached for this article, but the agency has maintained over the years that the ad is legitimate.

PICKING UP THE CLUES

Some ads are easy to spot as fakes. For instance, it's a giveaway when the product is barely mentioned. Another clue is portraying the brand in a way that a client would be unlikely to approve. A Cannes jury a few years ago questioned a print ad by Young & Rubicam in Brazil for Unilever's Kibon ice cream in which lots of little spoons are in hot pursuit of a ball of ice cream. Legitimate enough--except that the spoons look like sperm swimming to fertilize an ice cream ovule. To jury members, it just didn't look like food advertising, and it appears their instincts were right: Later, in the local trade press, the client denied approving the ad.

Marcello Serpa, the president of last year's Cannes jury and co-CEO, creative director at Omnicom's Almap/BBDO, Sao Paulo, says he was surprised when the disturbed festival chairman told him there was a problem with a print ad for Taronga Zoo, which had scored a Bronze Lion two days earlier. The ad, by Interpublic Group of Cos.' Lowe Lintas & Partners Worldwide, Sydney, looked genuine. But the Taronga Zoo raised an alarm, revealing the ad had been rejected because it portrayed animals in a manner contrary to the zoo's philosophy.

Lowe Lintas and Lionel Hunt, executive chairman of Lowe Lintas Oceania, the regional division to which Sydney reports, immediately started an investigation that uncovered a pattern of fraud and ended with the firing of the Australian creative director, Mark Shattner. The agency quickly returned a second Bronze Lion, for a TV spot for Artel Australia's plastic containers, and identified a scam poster at the New York Festivals. To be on the safe side, Mr. Hunt withdrew all the agency's entries in Australian ad shows.

Mr. Hunt said at the time that the ad that started it all "was clearly ineligible on all possible grounds. The Taronga Zoo was not a client of Lowe Lintas Sydney, the advertisement had never run and obviously the Taronga Zoo had not given its permission for the entry."

This year, Mr. Hunt personally scrutinized the agency's half-dozen Cannes entries. As further penance, his agency is doing an anti-scam ad campaign for the Australian Association of National Advertisers and the Advertising Federation of Australia.

Although festivalgoers often say half-heartedly that award shows should do more to police the authenticity of awards, there seems to be little real pressure on them to do so. Some offenders are caught when advertisers speak up, but when it comes to scam ads, clients can be whistleblowers or accomplices.

SCAM AGENCIES

For example, Grey Worldwide's Shanghai office was allowed to keep a Bronze Lion that came under investigation last year, for an Electrolux vacuum cleaner print ad. Cathy Chen, Electrolux's national marketing manager-Greater China, wrote to Romain Hatchuel and confirmed approving the ad. Except Ms. Chen's real ad agency isn't the Grey Global Group shop, but Publicis' Saatchi in Shanghai.

The unusual tale of a scam agency rather than a scam ad came about after Grey hired a Saatchi creative, Bok Chek Kiong. He arrived with an idea for an ad showing an empty turtle shell, implying the powerful vacuum sucked the turtle from the shell. Larry Ong, Grey Shanghai's creative director, admitted the ad only ran once, to qualify for the Cannes festival. But the client's approval of the ad, even though it was clearly created for jurors rather than consumers, along with the fact that it did run once, legitimized the entry.

"Scam ads cover a multitude of sins," says Bates' Mr. Fawcett. "There are very fine lines."

And huge gray areas. One of the biggest issues is whether it's acceptable to create an ad and run it once, as cheaply as possible, to make it eligible for a festival. "I believe that even if an ad legitimately runs on TV and therefore meets the strict criteria, if it is a washing machine ad running once on a children's channel at 4 a.m. with a 0.000001 rating, then clearly it's a scam," says Ian Thubron, CEO of M&C Saatchi, Hong Kong. "I believe it is up to juries or the awards committee to ascertain what is and what isn't legitimate and award accordingly."

Here's what went on behind the scenes with one Gold Lion winner: DM9 DDB, Sao Paulo, entered a print ad called "Tongue" in 1999 for Parmalat ketchup. The thick, red ketchup looks like a tongue protruding from a mouth as it oozes thickly from the lip of the bottle. After the ad won a Gold, rumors circulated that it hadn't really run anywhere. Although it's never been proved, two years later, "Tongue" is often cited as an example of a ghost ad.

After repeated calls by Advertising Age to the agency asking when and where the ad ran, a spokesperson said the ad ran in June 1999 in an unnamed magazine published by a company called Sisal. The deadline for Cannes entries is two months earlier, in April, implying the ad only ran after it was awarded. And Sisal, a call to the company revealed, publishes car magazines, an improbable media choice for a ketchup ad.

FINGER-POINTING

Which nationalities are most prone to try to scam festivals is a delicate issue, with much anonymous finger-pointing and indignant denials. "Asia is traditionally a habitual transgressor," says Mr. Fawcett. His agency, Bates, caused an uproar by refusing to participate in Singapore's Creative Circle Awards last fall in protest. Bates Asia President Jeffrey Yu, who also chairs Hong Kong's Association of Accredited Advertising Agents, accuses Singapore agencies of not weeding out scam ads. The agencies, in turn, complain that Mr. Yu is badgering them.

One local creative director justifies it this way: The Singapore ad industry is small, feels disadvantaged because of its size, and therefore is entitled to try to even the imbalance with scam ads.

Other countries are also singled out. "Brazilians are pretty bad," says another worldwide creative director. "Awards are so vastly more important for their new-business performance than anywhere else in the world. It's a country that treats advertising the way Americans treat Hollywood. Advertising people are celebrities. It encourages people to take risks."

Europeans are not immune, either. One former Cannes jury president cites--somewhat jokes they are rarely caught because they almost never win anything.

The trick in the U.S., most agree, is to enter a "director's cut" rather than the final version of the commercial signed off by the client. "Production companies are more prone to do it [than agencies]," Mr. Fawcett says. "They'll enter a 6o-second spot when only a 30 ran, or take out the demo shot the client wanted of pouring caramel over the peanuts."

"Nothing that hasn't run is legitimate," says Marcio Moreira, vice chairman and chief creative officer of Interpublic's McCann-Erickson WorldGroup. "But if something's very similar, how can you tell?"

In some countries, it's not unusual or considered wrong to enter ads--often with the client's permission--that haven't run yet but might run later.

This year, for example, Interpublic's Lowe Loducca in Sao Paulo had already put the finishing touches on three print ads for Coca-Cola's Schweppes when Coke decided to tweak packaging and distribution, delaying the campaign until the second half of 2001. (Coke markets Schweppes outside the U.S.) Lowe Loducca went ahead and entered the ads, which the client had already approved, in several ad shows including the 2001 Cannes festival. In the ads, different body parts such as hands and arms each resemble a mouth, with the tagline "Your whole body asks for it."

It's also not unusual for festivals like Cannes to function almost as a test market, although that is outside the bounds of the official rules. "If the client is going to run it after the festival, the ad is extremely legitimate and not a ghost," claims Silvio Matos, president of Cordiant's Newcomm Bates, Sao Paulo, and one of the Brazilian judges at this year's festival. "To help make the decision, the client just wants the opinion of a group of professionals [on the jury] with high standards."

Especially in Latin America, entering work in a festival to convince a client it deserves to run is considered part of a laudable passion for good advertising. Eduardo Fernandez, president of Omnicom's DDB Latin America, describes a Volkswagen ad for the new Beetle done by DDB in his native Uruguay as a "semi-trucho." The client liked the "Born out of Love" spot, which showed two Volkswagens making love to create the car. But the spot was turned down for budget reasons. Mr. Fernandez says DDB's belief in the ad was so strong that the Montevideo-based agency paid to make the commercial and air it once.

The gamble paid off. When "Born out of Love" brought home Uruguay's first-ever Lion from Cannes in 1999, the marketert was so delighted that it reimbursed the production costs and paid to air the spot for two months.

SUBTLE DIFFERENCES

"Between a trucho and a semi-trucho, there's a subtle difference" Mr. Fernandez explains. "It's fighting for an idea because you're convinced it's good. I think the trucho culture is disappearing, but it helped raise the level of advertising."

Still, he condemns outright fakes. "There are commercials for products that don't even exist," he adds. "Now that's a trucho."

But even after all the evasion and justification, it's not clear whether awards for scam ads pull in new business. "[Agencies] believe that clients will see their bulging mantelpieces and think they're brilliant and award them their business," says M&C Saatchi's Mr. Thubron. "Personally, I don't think clients choose agencies in this way. They are far more interested in what insightful creative thinking and work has achieved in terms of business success rather than creative awards, which are only internal industry recognition after all."

In some cases, ads that bend the rules do raise the creative profile of an agency. David Droga, an outgoing young Australian who is now Saatchi's creative director in London, made his name in Singapore, where he took the agency from obscurity to a top award-winner in two years.

Mr. Droga prefers to call them "initiative" ads, like the beautiful award-winning print work for the Royal Peacock bordello-turned-hotel. "We try to be more proactive," he said. "We'd go to the client first but we didn't do ads for free or scam ads for clients that don't exist."

One recurring question is whether the responsibility for preventing or detecting scam ads lies primarily with the awards shows, jurors, clients or agencies. "The festival always claims innocence," says McCann's Mr. Moreira. "But they could do more."

Not all jurors are keen on the task of monitoring their peers' honesty along with their creative talent. Cannes juror and Brazilian Mr. Matos doesn't relish the prospect.

"There are zillions of magazines throughout Brazil," he says. "And countless TV channels and cable and Internet. It's literally impossible to demand that everyone have seen everything that's run."

But there's clearly a fairness issue here. "You're actually stealing someone else's award in the category," says Donald Gunn, who runs the Gunn Report, an annual ranking of agencies, advertisers and production companies by creative awards won. "Someone else has worked hard to get the ad past the creative director and the client, only to be pipped at the post by someone who hasn't."

Many, including Mr. Gunn, believe scam ads will become less common and much less tolerated. "There's an encouraging shift in opinion that it's not fair," he says. "It used to be wink, wink, you're a clever chap. Now, it's you're a bit of a cheater, aren't you? You don't admire an agency for doing that."

Contributing: Claudia Penteado in Rio de Janeiro, Normandy Madden in Hong Kong and Andrew Hornery in Sydney

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