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Scam Ads Don't Boost Creativity; They Damage Brands, Hurt Agency Credibility

Practice Is Especially Dangerous in a Global, Tech-Connected World

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Once again, spec creative work has gotten an agency and its corporate client in trouble. The ridiculous fake ads for the Ford Figo from JWT India led to the firing of at least two people and the automaker spending a good chunk of last week apologizing profusely.

So how do marketers prevent this from happening to them? Quite simply, start kicking ass and taking names. Back in the good old days, creatives would mock up these ads and most would simply disappear. A handful might end up at awards shows, but the resulting controversy was limited to the ad industry and few consumers noticed the ensuing (and empty) apologies and promises to do better.

But as Ford learned last week, our connected global marketplace leads to things getting really out of hand, really fast. And that neither consumers nor general-market media care to distinguish between a scam ad and a real ad.

Your corporate name is on the line. So marketers should be paying attention to stories mentioning ghost ads or scam ads or spec creative. They should definitely be paying attention to award shows that reward such ads -- and to the judges who judge such ads. Look over the names and agencies involved. Then send an email or pick up the phone. The message can be as simple as, "Your chances of ever working with us just went from slim to none." And let your own agency know you won't put up with them or staffers trashing other brands with such attempts. You might not want to sound like a buzzkill, but better a buzzkill than having half a continent protesting you over some junior creative's attempt at self-aggrandizement. Better that than a public-apology tour and thousands spent on crisis PR.

Now to the folks who create these things: Just stop. Really. We get it. You're frustrated by the constraints placed upon you. Talking about fuel economy is just so soul-crushing. You want to flex your creative muscles, push the boundaries. Then do it on your own time with your own intellectual property.

If it really is just about pushing creativity, you'd be happy to draw up the ad, show a friend or two, then toss it in the trash. Posting it to Ads of the World or entering it into award shows is about glorifying yourself, not about demonstrating creative genius or serving as an "antidote to hubris" (especially considering the junior-high level of "humor" in many of these ads).

If you work at an ad agency, the reality is you work in the corporate world for corporate clients. You are lucky in that you get to do creative things that sometimes delight large swaths of the population -- and you get to wear sneakers and skinny jeans to work. But ultimately, your job is to help companies sell things. And if you don't like it, then quit, and go make YouTube videos. Or become a journalist. Leave your clients and your co-workers out of it.

Besides, you know what's really creative? You know what should garner awards? Actual ads that manage to be approved by the client and win the hearts, minds and dollars of customers.

Ken Wheaton is the managing editor of Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter at @kenwheaton.
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