At Spikes Asia Festival, Controversial Creative Neil French Defends Scam Ads

Confab in Singapore Features Juicy BBC Interview but Lackluster Creative

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SINGAPORE ( -- Three things were glaringly obvious last week at the Spikes Asia Festival: Neil French can still create controversy; Asian agencies have produced little noteworthy creative for cash-strapped advertisers during the past year; and beach-loving creatives can relax -- Spikes is unlikely to kill off AdFest, a rival Asian ad festival held in Thailand.

Neil French
Neil French
For many, the best moment of the fest was watching BBC World News presenter Mishal Husain hold her ground in a "BBC Hardtalk" session with Mr. French, one of the ad industry's most notorious bad boys.

Mr. French was fired as WPP's worldwide creative director three years ago after controversial comments about why there are so few women in top creative roles. In front of a packed house in Singapore, Mr. French denied ever saying that "women are crap."

He told Ms. Husain: "I didn't say that. I said women will never be creative directors if they get married and have kids. You have to do one thing well. Unless you can commit 100% to your job, you're not going to make it. How many [women] make it to be super-duper creative directors?"

He also defended scam ads ("I don't mind kids trying hard and cheating and lying to get to the top") and lamented that the quality of ad creative this year leaves much to be desired. "It's gone down everywhere, not just here," Mr. French said, a sentiment echoed by many delegates, including John Merrifield, TBWA's Singapore-based creative at large.

"To be honest, nothing leapt out and grabbed me by the throat," Mr. Merrifield said. "Little of the work was new or fresh, most of it having done well in previous regional and international shows."

Scam ads are usually edgy content that receives little or no media support so as not to damage a brand while still being eligible for awards, and they have come under renewed fire in the wake of 9/11-themed work from DDB Brasil that caused a scandal for client World Wildlife Fund. The One Show, which actually gave an award to one of the ads, created a rule that will ban scammers for five years, and last week London's D&AD awards said it will "name and shame" perpetrators.

Joint effort
Spikes was launched by Media magazine 22 years ago, but, starting this year, it's now a collaboration between Media's parent company, Haymarket, and the International Advertising Festival, which organizes the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, Dubai Lynx and Eurobest.

"This time around, one could sense an increased level of seriousness, especially in seminars and lectures," said Prasoon Joshi, McCann Erickson's Mumbai-based regional creative director, South and Southeast Asia.

The festival is based in Singapore, a regional creative hub, creating a stark contrast to AdFest, which is held every March in Pattaya, a resort town south of Bangkok. Spikes delegates look polished in suits and heels, while the AdFest uniform is flip-flops and baseball caps, a casualness that could protect the Thai festival against tougher competition in Spikes.

"Asia will continue to support two festivals for the simple reason that everyone loves Thailand and everyone else will support a Cannes-backed show. There's no way in the world you're going to separate the Japanese from their beloved Walking Street," said Mr. Merrifield, referring to Pattaya's notorious strip club district.

"It will put agencies under great pressure to fund entries and delegates to both shows. Only the most determined will do so," said David Guerrero, chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO Guerrero in Manila. "There's a lot to like about both of them. I think both will evolve as time goes by and eventually find some kind of equilibrium."

The three-day Spikes festival had several high points. Ken Robinson delivered a thought-provoking presentation sponsored by DDB calling for more creativity in education.

JWT dominated the closing night awards ceremony on Sept. 18. The WPP agency walked away with the network of the year trophy. JWT India won both the direct and sales promotion Grand Prix and the integrated Jade Spike Grand Prix for the Bennett Coleman's Teach India campaign. The media Grand Prix went to JWT, Singapore, for Silkair's Cinema Takeover.

In the craft category, JWT, Shanghai, won the Grand Prix for a China Environmental Protection Foundation print ad "Shan Shui," an "outstanding craft work," said jury president Piyush Pandey, Ogilvy & Mather's executive chairman and creative director, South Asia in Mumbai.

The Times of India Group picked up the advertiser of the year award for its Lead India campaign, an initiative to seek out the next generation of leaders for India, which was created by JWT.

Asian agencies entered 2,685 entries at Spikes, which drew nearly 1,000 delegates. Chinese agencies led the submissions with 382 entries, followed by Singapore (369 entries), Japan (335) and India (321). In a controversial move, the Spikes are no longer open to agencies in Australia and New Zealand, a decision that will help sustain AdFest, which does include those countries.

"Gold here may not be gold at Cannes, but that wasn't the point," Mr. Guerrero said. "Once agencies get their heads round this new reality, I think entries will rise substantially next year."

The Spikes juries awarded 258 trophies in 11 categories. Ogilvy & Mather, Bangkok won the TV/cinema Grand Prix for the Thai Life Insurance Co. ad "Melody of Life," one of the few ads that stood out.

"It struck a chord with all of us in the jury," said McCann's Mr. Joshi. "In fact, for the first time, I realized that there is a trend away from humor in Asia. One rarely saw such emotional advertising before. This trend to me clearly stood out."

The print Grand Prix went to BBDO/Proximity, Kuala Lumpur, for a Chrysler campaign. The outdoor Grand Prix was awarded to Dentsu, Tokyo, for Uniqlo's "Human Vending Machine World Tour." Robot Communications, Tokyo, won the digital Grand Prix in the digital tools category for Sony Music's ad "Wish I Could Be True to Myself." McCann Worldgroup, Hong Kong, took home the Grand Prix in the design category for Nike's Paper Battlefield.

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