Scam entries in award contests a symptom of a larger issue

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When is a "scam" ad a reprehensible indulgence and when is it a legitimate way for an agency or an individual to acquire a creative reputation? In Asia and Brazil, there is an ongoing debate raging about scam ads. The issue also has implications for the U.S. ad community by way of the shadow it casts over awards shows. And it's all Ad Age's fault.

Just before the opening of this year's Cannes International Ad-vertising Festival, Ad Age published a provocative investigation into the scam ad phenomenon. Scam ads are designed with awards shows in mind and side step normal contest eligibility rules. Either they haven't really run to a proper media plan, or were never signed off by a client, or they appear in an inappropriately large medium for the stature of the brand.

Brazil was singled out for attention in the article and, unsurprisingly, Brazilian advertising executives were not happy about it. The issue came to dominate the media coverage of the judging at Cannes to a degree out of proportion to the number of scam ads discovered each year (perhaps a dozen out of thousands of entries). Coincidentally, Brazilian agencies had a bad year in the Cannes film competition, although its agencies dominated agency of the year.

Since Cannes the focus has switched to Asia and an investigation of the Gold Lion-winning Guinness work from Ogilvy & Mather Singapore (an award later upheld by Cannes festival officials). There have been weeks of claim and counterclaim, and the ethics of Singapore awards shows and Singapore agencies have been called to question.

If you are reading this and thinking it all seems far removed from the day-to-day business of advertising and selling clients' products, you would be right. This is all about ad agencies and the individual creatives that work within them making their names and, by logical extension, their fortunes.

That's not so terrible. No one is getting hurt. It is only advertising after all. By definition, there is not much revenue directly involved in scam ads, and agencies themselves can't-or won't-invest in marketing themselves through advertising (although at least one Brazilian agency is believed to have spent around $250,000 on Cannes entries in one year).

What I would quibble with is the story behind the scam ads: advertising's obsessive and warped focus on awards shows. Brent Bouchez, the creative founder of the Bouchez Kent & Co. start-up in New York, and former creative director of Bozell, outlined this misguided obsession in an essay he wrote for Ad Age ("Trophies are meaningless," Forum, AA, July 30).

Whatever the suits within an agency may say, it is true that many creatives are obsessed with winning their One Show Pencil or that Cannes Lion or the sundry other trophies that so clutter up the lobbies of ad agencies around the globe. The Cliff Free-man & Partners collection is an art installation in its own right.

So what? There is copious evidence, compiled by Leo Burnett Worldwide, the Cannes festival and others, that details the direct link between award-winning ads and burgeoning client sales. But the advertising industry has not done a good enough job en masse of promoting this link. It has allowed itself to develop an image problem: that suggests creatives don't really care whether a client's product sells or not.

I don't actually believe that is so-not of anyone significant anyway. Creatives do care whether their ads sell-but it is somehow not cool in their social sub-set to talk that way. Instead, they talk of Pencils and Lions and Clios in the cliquish language of a bygone era: "Love it, it's a Gold."

And it will always be this way when agencies award bonuses to creatives according to awards won and not the work's effectiveness. Creatives, like agencies, cannot be blamed for trying to use the awards system to fit their own agendas. Rather, it's for the industry to fix a broken system.

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of Ad Age Global and Creativity.

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