Circa 2008: Leo Burnett India, part of French group Publicis and an agency that counts McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Walt Disney, Marlboro and Procter & Gamble among its clients, entered its work for Luxor highlighter pens in Goafest, the annual advertising awards event in Goa. The jury gushed over it, awarded it the Grand Prix; the only problem was that Luxor highlighters owner, Luxor Writing Instruments, was not a Leo Burnett client. In fact, the agency was forced to withdraw the entry after R Balakrishnan, better known as Balki, chairman and chief creative officer of Lowe Lintas, the advertising agency that was the custodian of the Luxor creative business, kicked up a storm.
Circa 2013: A few days after the curtains went down on Goafest 2013, Tata Chemicals, the maker of Tata Salt, asked its agency, Leo Burnett, to pull out two entries in the radio category. These had won two golds and two silvers at the fest earlier. The reason cited in the official statement was: "Tata Salt has not paid for the radio spots and, hence, was uncomfortable accepting the award."
Leo Burnett happens to be the agency that has bagged the biggest haul at Goafest this year (71 metals). But Leo Burnett's isn't an isolated case - during and after the fest there were complaints against ads entered by a clutch of other advertising agencies, at least three of which feature among the top 10 agencies (based on revenue estimates) in India. They include the product of McCann Worldgroup India's (ranked second at Goafest) for ATSS in the print category which was awarded a Grand Prix, the work of JWT India (ranked third at Goafest) for Sanctuary Asia magazine, and Godrej Security, DDB Mudra's entry for Electrolux in the outdoor category (awarded a silver), besides another one by Leo Burnett on Coke Studio which was awarded a gold. The Goafest awards governing council is said to have received more than 20 such complaints.
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Even till a decade ago, discussions on the subject of advertising reflected upon whether it was an art or a science; in recent years, the discussion has shifted to ways in which to decipher if a piece of advertising is real or fake. Unpublished ads, work not authorised or paid-for by clients, and ads that are plain rip-offs of global ads - in short, scam ads - are a recurring theme at award ceremonies. Apologists say they are born from the frustration that occurs when client interference muddles their creativity. Others argue they are products of and are perpetuated by a system that encourages young creative hands to manufacture work that wins awards and helps raise the agency's profile - a product of venality at a corporate level. Whichever view you may subscribe to, there's a pattern to it and it's difficult to miss.
It is a vicious cycle. In India, none of the agencies is listed on the stock exchanges and, therefore, its books are not open to scrutiny. The job of learning how much revenue an agency logged is hardly a piece of cake. So how does a company decide which agency to go with, where to park its advertising rupees in the hope of the best returns? Talk to the top ad spenders and they will tell you the standard procedure is to count the trophies on the mantelpiece or to rummage through the back issues of Brand Equity Agency Reckoner (an annual ranking of advertising agencies done by The Economic Times).
This means agencies have little choice but to stack up on awards. "So a parallel system is born, where there are people who do regular work in the agency and others whose focus is awards," points out a client servicing director with a top-10 agency. In fact, most of the top agencies set aside an 'award budget' every year, he adds. "This includes not just the fees that you need to pay for your entries for various shows, but also the dough that goes into hiring the 'right talent' and doing all the things needed to get into the jury's consideration. So if you are the guy who has put Mudra at the top of the medal tally at Goafest in 2012, JWT will hire you and want you to do the same for it in 2013," he elaborates.
The result is plagiarism, indecency and impropriety. Scam ads raise disturbing questions about whether pressure from the top forces creatives to push their limits to win awards at prestigious events. This is a global trend really. The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is seen by many as a virtual arms race between WPP and Omnicom Group since the time the holding-company-of-the-year award was instituted. "It actually gets dirty when the agency institutionalises the system," says a creative professional who has worked with top networks in India and now runs his own outfit. "It is the most alluring shortcut young creative people could take to be famous," says Sajan Raj Kurup, founder & creative chairman, Creativeland Asia. "Their ECDs (executive creative directors) want them to do it. The agency head's incentives depend on it. Their organisations and networks are asking for more work like that. And they are made to believe that they are contributing significantly to the creative growth of their organisation."
Illegitimate ads are a veritable minefield marketers face when their agency puts their hunger for creative awards ahead of the brand's best interests - they even enter ads that don't go through the normal approval process. But don't blame the creative guys only, says Emmanuel Upputuru, founder and chief innovation officer, ITSA. "The creative guys are the advertising gladiators. When he gets 'caught', everybody is after the creative guy who came up with the idea," he says. More often than not clients are hand-in-glove in this, say advertising executives. "I have also been though a situation where I have asked the client to put down his brief in one sentence and he has said, get me an Abby (Ad Club Bombay Award which is a now part of Goafest)," says a much-awarded creative director.
It is only now that the basic requirements for an ad to get into an award show, and the manner in which ads are judged, have come under the scanner. One, an ad needs a release to enter an awards show. One release in a vague publication suffices. So you have unknown print titles coming into the picture. The ad rates are low and the chances of being found out, especially if you are trying to pull off a copy ad, are next to none. "You have a surfeit of these 50-column-centimetre ads in publications like Free Press Journal Assam edition around December just to satisfy the released-ad requirement," says Hemant Misra, CEO, Publicis Capital. Two, while every entry needs the client's go-head, approval from any level of management is deemed okay. Vibha Paul Rishi, executive director, brand and human capital, Max India, says: "The problem today is it has become easier to beat the system. What does published mean now in the digital age? There is a vast number of digital creative expressions practically every day. Client supervision is light."
While client supervision is 'light', the jury in most award functions is predisposed to bias. The judges are always top agency bosses - never advertisers, marketers and brand specialists; even the awards governing council constituted to keep a check on controversies comprises members drawn from the advertising industry. One can equally call into question the checks and balances put in place by KPMG, the Goafest referee. It has a team dedicated to double check entries, scan individual campaigns and mail them to clients to check if they are bona fide and ratified by the advertiser. Yet the scam ads still found their way into Goafest.
Obviously, there are cracks in the entire pipeline.
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The question is, how does one stem the rot? Scam ads will stop only when there is stringent creative and moral rigour from all sides - the agency, the brand and the regulator. The crucial steps to improve the state of ad awards would be to overhaul the way the awards are structured, judged and administered, says Pranesh Misra, chairman & managing director, Brandscapes Worldwide. "If awards help agencies to become more creative, their clients should also benefit. But clients don't always win. We've seen how the judging criteria often do not include either the strategy that went behind the creativity or the results in terms of sales or market-share gain."
Change will not happen overnight. A good place to start would be to increase the entry fee for awards dramatically. Increase it to a level where it pinches. High fees will elevate decision-making to the senior-most levels in not just the advertising agency but at the client's end as well. It could then ensure only the best-of-the-best work of the agency gets entered. As the number of entries reduces, each would get a better chance of receiving a serious evaluation (rather than a three-second glance) by the jury. The other suggestion is culling of potential jurors based on their moral views. "The worst part is that we put up with them. Indeed, some of us even adore them," says a marketing hand with a Delhi-based car maker who doesn't wish to be identified. Upputuru bats for transparency. "What may also work is allowing all the ads that are entered to be displayed online to the public before the jury sits (this has its own demerits) and let anyone who has any objection speak now or forever hold their peace. Just like a Christian wedding," he says.
So where does all this take us? Should advertising as a craft be judged outside the boundaries of the main purpose it is intended to serve and be celebrated as an artistic discipline and a profession? This is a luxury not available to others. An investigative journalist, for example, cannot celebrate his craft by writing about an imaginary crime. Nor can the film maker hope to win an Oscar for a film that was never released. "If you ask me, agencies should use their 'award budgets' to reward their employees, devise good incentive schemes to keep their troops motivated, so that they don't adopt unfair means to get a pat on the back," quips a human resources professional with a Mumbai-based hot-shop. "That's the way they do it in all other industries."
That would be a good place to start.