Opinion

If you don’t want to enter real work into awards, then fuck off and be an artist

matt battenIn this guest post, awards jury veteran Matt Batten, a former ECD of Wunderman Australia, argues that the practice of scam advertising – raised by Mumbrella in recent days – hurts the whole industry.     

Reading from 10,553 miles away – that’s 16,983km in the metric – I’d like to commend you on your dogged determination to find answers to the burning questions surrounding some of Australia’s most intriguing Cannes Lions winners this year.

Some say that this is the way of the world (at least our small part in it) and that creativity should be let free upon the award shows regardless of whether or not it was a legitimate response to a brief or a proactive project to help solve a genuine business problem for a real client – or a made-up ad for a brand that had no idea of its existence.

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Firstly, let’s all acknowledge that as creative people in creative agencies in a creative industry, we want awards. More so, we need awards. On one of my soapboxes – and I have a few – I have oft conveyed my belief that awards are not the shiny pieces of alloy which with we adorn our reception desks, but that they are recognition. Recognition of a job well done plying our trade. Recognition from our colleagues, our peers, our clients, our competitors and our competitor’s clients. They are somewhat essential to our business. And certainly essential to our personal progression. Every creative (and sometimes account handlers, planners and producers too) are judged by the merit of their previous work, which is shown by more than a portfolio. It is shown by a list of accolades bestowed upon us by our betters on international stages.

And while we occasionally hear complaints that agencies (or more pointedly, creatives) are too fixated on awards, let us not forget that our clients also put great stock in accolades – ‘Best New Product in the Convenience Food Category’ or ‘Voted No.1 Call Centre at the Service Industry Awards’ – often displaying their shiny badges or titles in TV ads, on their websites, on packaging and in their on-hold recordings.

Awards are important to everyone. They show that the bearer is exceptional at what they do.

Is it any wonder that we’ll go to any lengths to win them?

And all of us have. We’ve all had those golden ideas that we know are right for the brand, those corkers that the world absolutely must see. The ones that could put us, our agency and our client in the limelight.

So we try to sell it in. We try to convince the client. We even offer our services for free. There is nothing wrong with that. Every profession has the right to provide their services without charge when they see an opportunity for value of another kind. If this was taboo then the public services and charities of the world would be left destitute of marketing. Geoffrey Edelsten would never get married.

We sometimes present a great idea with the sell “we’ve split the data so you can send this cheap pack to your lower-value segment and this high-value (and potentially award worthy) pack to your most valued 5% of customers” or even the ask “run your preferred concept across your media schedule, but can you also run this (much better) one in a few tactical impressions and we’ll see how they respond?”

We wheedle and strike deals in the hope of proving our ad was right.

McDonald's Cannes Lion campaign The Rouse Hill Times  SupermanBut scam – genuine scam – is not an ad. It is a practice, an act: scamming. Trying to pretend a piece of work, whether paid for or given free, is something other than it really was. Claiming a campaign was solving a genuine client problem when the client didn’t even know about it. Entering a poster in outdoor media categories when it was actually a couple of A1 sheets tacked to the office wall. Producing a case study video that goes beyond polishing the story and actually embellishes to the point of fiction. Or running a half-page ad in the Rouse Hill Times on the last day before entries closed and then passing it off as a double page spread as part of a national campaign. It’s fraud. A swindle.

We’ve all heard the standard arguments against the practice: that it’s unfair to compare these ideas against those that were produced in response to a real brief with real obstacles and real objectives and real client involvement; that the playing field isn’t level; it diminishes the value of the awards; it makes a mockery of our profession; that it’s blatant lying. All valid points.

But even more valid: what if we did let scam run free? What if we said “fuck it, if we’re going to celebrate creativity, then let the floodgates open”?

Maybe not in the first year, but very quickly thereafter we’d see the tide of trophies shift toward the scam entries – although they would no longer be called scam because the rules now permitted them. And soon, the genuine work that helped oil the machines of client economies would recede from the stage, the blogs and the annuals. We’d all be winning awards for pet projects. Hobbies. Flights of fancy.

And everybody could play. Not just people in our profession, but anyone in the world who has an idea. Plumbers, bankers, bus drivers. And yes, even clients. They could show us that they’re as good at making up shit as we are. But that’s fair. It’s an open economy all devised to celebrate creativity, right?

We’d be artists. Making whatever the fuck we wanted and getting awarded for doing so.

Sound good? Then fuck off and be an artist.

We’re professionals who get paid by companies to solve business problems for other companies, big and small, using the tools of our trade – one of which is creativity, proven to be effective in building awareness, driving sales, and encouraging loyalty – in order for those companies to thrive, grow, increase in value, employ people, maintain economies and sometimes, hopefully, make the world a better or more interesting place with good products and services.

It’s bad enough that we now educate our kids with a policy of 100% positive-reinforcement. That Johnny can say 2 + 2 = 19 and be told “That’s a very good answer, but let me show you a slightly different way”. We already reward the next generation for ‘trying’ or ‘not sucking as much as last time’. Do we really want to build our industry on a similar foundation of prizing those who couldn’t do it for real so they made it up?

The most galling part is that these alleged scams involve great ads.

They could have been real. It might be hard to get the client to buy them, but that’s our job. Especially if, in all our professional experience and wisdom, we know the ad is great. If you have a shit relationship with your client and they just won’t run your best stuff, build a goddam relationship. Or take the idea elsewhere.

There’s always a way to turn your gem of an idea into a legitimate diamond. Work with your clients. Put in the hard yards. Tackle every obstacle. Not enough budget? Slice it up a different way or do a smaller run. No budget? Reduce your fee. No media spend? Find an alternative channel. Not ‘on-brand’? Find a different brand. If the idea is THAT good, it’ll find a home. If not now, then one day.

If it’s the only idea you’ve got, then you have bigger problems than a scam ad will solve.

And worse still, as if it wasn’t bad enough to scam yourself some trophies, you continue your lies and half-truths in an attempt to scam everyone else with half-baked statements – or complete silence. Don’t forget you’re talking to a bunch of people who do the same job as you. We know how the system works. We know how briefs, budgets, brands, media, and schedules fucking work. And awards.

Stop trying to con the conmen.

So Mumbrella, be the dog-with-a-bone you are. Even if you don’t get to the bottom of it, it makes for very interesting subject matter for conversations with clients about our competitors. After all, if an agency is willing to defraud an industry for a bit of shiny alloy, why not an account for a large sum of cash?

Matt Batten is Chief Creative Officer, UK and Regional Creative Lead, EMEA of Wunderman. He has judged awards including Cannes Direct Lions, Creative Circle, NY Caples, D&AD, B&T Awards, ADNews Awards, AWARD Awards and the ADMA Awards.

He has won nine Cannes Lions including an Effectiveness Lion, a Gold, a Silver and six Bronzes. For the record, he has never submitted scam work.

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