Ad doping: It’s fraud not scam – let’s call it out for what it is

It's time to stop tip-toeing around fraud by calling it 'scam', says Luke Brown, and start naming and shaming guilty agencies to prevent industry awards from becoming an irrelevant joke.

The decision by Grey Singapore to finally, all be it reluctantly, withdraw their Bronze winning Cannes Lion for the disgraceful ‘I Sea’ app is welcome, but how did we get this far?

I was in Singapore just ahead of the Cannes festival and ironically agency people there were talking about Australian scam factories within multi-national agencies. You only need to read Australian industry websites to know they have a point.

Luke Brown

Clearly, the scam problem isn’t just limited to our own shores – it’s a global issue, which is why the move by ADMA to establish an Audit Committee – which I have been selected to chair – to scrutinize and check the validity of all shortlisted entries for the AC&E Awards is a damning indictment on just how out of control scam has got.

Scam ads create a doping culture and, before too long, all agencies will be tempted to dope too, just to try and compete. It’s not what we need right now.

The problem is that in the digital age agencies can ‘build’ scam concepts relatively easily and cheaply and make outlandish claims of its alleged utility and/or effectiveness, at the expense of real work that delivers to a real client’s objectives.I Sea home page still image

The volume of award shows in our industry has exploded over the past couple of years. While organisers will say their aim is to shine a light on effective creativity, and in some cases that is true, the reality of the ringing cash register is a greater motivational factor than any sense of industry stewardship.

The decision by ADMA to take a stand and ensure the credibility of its primary award show is a brave one. It will likely lead to a reduction in the number of entries, and yes revenue for the association. But winners of these awards, and more importantly their clients, will know they’re amongst the most rigorous and credible where real work, for real clients, delivering real results wins the day.

If we’re to stamp out scam, or at least severely incapacitate it, then it’s the responsibility of agencies, clients and awards shows organisers. Here’s six suggestions on how we can begin to address it.

Culture. We need to change the industry’s culture towards scam work in two ways. Firstly, scam work is not okay and shouldn’t be defended. In any other business what some in the industry call ‘hyperbole’ is more commonly referred to as ‘fraud’ and results in prison sentences. Secondly, we need to encourage whistle-blowers.

For example, in the past 12 months there has been several occasions where I’ve been part of an awards jury that realised an entry was fraudulent but didn’t want to be the ones to call it. The entries didn’t win, but I don’t feel that’s the point – the agency still receives the kudos of being on the shortlist instead of the opprobrium of being a cheat.

We need to name and shame scamming agencies. Awards shows need to encourage this, otherwise they risk becoming irrelevant. Dave King, an Australian juror at this year’s Cannes Lions claimed he was actively discouraged from calling out scam work during the judging sessions. There’s since been a dilution of this claim but shouldn’t judges be allowed to openly discuss their doubts and be trusted to put aside bias.cannes lion grand prix

Language. We also need to change the language around scam. Scam is something naughty little boys do not multi-national businesses. To scam is to cheat or better yet fraud – pure and simple. Scam work defrauds rightful winners, let’s call it for what it is.

Judges. If you are an award judge you must take your role seriously and do more than just watch the case study video. One campaign from an Australian multi-national agency that has won at local and international shows didn’t bother actually doing the work, it just created a lovely case study video and claimed amazing results.

A quick look at the social media profiles of the charity in question would have shown the judges that the entry was absolute bullshit. Instead, the agency has been showered with recognition here and abroad. If you’re judging, then judge! Don’t be gullible and only believe a case study video.

Unfortunately, in the current climate each entry needs to be approached as guilty until proven innocent. Don’t accept a judge’s role if you don’t have the skills and are unwilling to put in the effort to consider deeply the award submissions in your category.

Focus. It seems the industry has lost its focus with the work that’s been awarded recently. Most agencies, it would appear, are obsessed with tech and creating something new for the sake of it not because there’s an actual need for it.Scam Alert

We need to deliver on our clients’ objectives not our own, not to make ‘cool tech’ that no one wants or needs. Remember what we’re here to do.

Concept Category. The time has come for award shows, particularly the larger ones, to create a Concept Category where agencies can enter their ‘innovative’ but untested or proven creative ideas (see I Sea) in order not to pollute the pool of genuine work that made a real difference in the real world.

Clients. For every fraudulent entry there is of course a client involved, whether they’re fully aware of it or not. Most award competitions globally don’t require an approval from the client on the submitted entry. This is clearly a mistake. This basic step would ensure less fraudulent entries, as clients presumably would be less willing to commit fraud on an agency’s behalf.

Clients also need to take a stand and make it clear that work entered under their name which doesn’t serve any real marketing purpose or add to their ROI, other than helping the agency win a gong, won’t be tolerated.

The tide seems to be changing. Clients, some agencies and staff, the media and even awards shows are starting to take award fraud seriously and that can only be a positive step forward.

The challenge now is to maintain that momentum and ensure, for the sake of the long-term credibility of the industry, that we end the culture of ‘ad doping’.

Luke Brown is CEO of tech-driven media, CX, advertising agency Affinity and chair of ADMA’s AC&E Awards’ Audit Committee


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