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Revealed: The major exaggerations behind media agency Atomic 212’s many award wins

Following a three-month investigation into multi-award winning communications agency Atomic 212, Mumbrella's Steve Jones has uncovered a series of highly questionable claims made by CEO Jason Dooris.

The boss of media agency Atomic 212 has exaggerated work it has carried out for clients in industry award entries, claimed inflated billings, and suggesting rivals lost competitive pitches that did not even take place, an investigation by Mumbrella has discovered.

Chief executive and major shareholder of Atomic 212, Jason Dooris claimed his agency beat rivals in competitive pitches to secure extensive pieces of work for highly-prized blue-chip companies. Some of the claims have been made in entries that helped Atomic, and Dooris individually, win awards.

But the reality is far different, it has emerged.

Far from winning a number of “all media” contracts with key brands as he claimed – some supposedly for three years after competitive pitches – Atomic carried out project work, some of which had been outsourced to it by other agencies. Westpac, Alibaba and Coles are among those listed as clients where the true remit of the work is unrecognisable from information presented to award juries.

In a lengthy face-to-face interview with Mumbrella last week, Dooris gave an often confused denial of any wrong doing. He insisted there had been no deliberate intention to mislead juries to win awards, but acknowledged claims could have been more clearly articulated.

After the evidence was put before Dooris, he asked to be given until this coming Friday to offer additional information, which Mumbrella agreed to. Today Dooris issued a pre-emptive statement to other media industry titles claiming he had done nothing wrong.

However, other senior executives within the agency are concerned and “have a problem” with the way information has been presented by Dooris. There is acknowledgement – and fear – that it could reflect negatively on the reputation of the entire agency.

Mumbrella understands chairman Barry O’Brien, and co-founder and chief operating officer James Dixon, have clashed with Dooris over the manner of his leadership and ethics.

O’Brien, who sat in on the interview between Mumbrella and Dooris, conceded of the claims made in entries: “I am seeing a stretch. If I am a competitor or judge then I am seeing a stretch. We do have records here of relationships… but it’s pushed to a level where it’s got to be a concern. Have we learned from this? Dramatically.”

In one submission obtained by Mumbrella for Campaign Asia’s 2016 Agency Head of the Year award – which Dooris won – he claims Atomic successfully bid for a three-year all-media contract with Nike/Hurley following a competitive pitch in which the “losers” were named as GroupM agency Mindshare – Nike’s global media agency.

It also claimed a 12-month “all media” win for Westpac Bank after fending off MediaCom in a competitive pitch and came out top in another head-to-head, this time against Dentsu, for Alibaba. That win apparently earned Atomic a two-year all media contract with the online retailer.

All three were won “locally and independently” with “no alignment”,  the award entry states.

But Atomic did not win any extensive all media business for such large, prestigious and coveted accounts.

It has left some brands perplexed and their agencies furious at the insinuation they have lost the business of such highly-valued clients.

The long-running Campaign Asia Awards are organised by Haymarket Media’s Hong Kong-based Campaign Asia magazine, and accept entries from across the region.

A management endorsement of the Campaign Asia entry, which warns false and untrue information could lead to disqualification, was signed by Dooris.

Also under scrutiny are several claims made under a “client retention” section in the same Campaign Asia submission. Atomic said it carried out strategy, content, planning and buying across all media for Coles, with the “win” worth $7m. The “losers” were named as Universal McCann and OMD. Omnicom-owned OMD won Coles from UM in mid 2016.

Westpac Bank also appears in the retained client list with $11m worth of strategy, content, planning, buying across digital, with MediaCom named as the “loser”.

Other claims in Dooris’ entry include a $4.2m piece of business with Mazda Australia, and a $2m contract with American Express for digital media and CRM. Both Mazda Australia and Amex told Mumbrella they have no record of working with the agency.

Ironically, under a heading “Why should Jason be Agency Head of the Year 2016”, the entry details the challenges facing media agencies including “questionable ethics and transparency within the category”.

Other claims contained in the entry include a revenue increase in the year to September 2016 of 230% and a 281% rise in billings.

While there is nothing to suggest those figures are artificially inflated, more recent figures in award entries claim he has overseen a staggering revenue increase of more than 1000%.

That figure emerged after CEO Magazine named Dooris as runner-up to SBS boss Michael Ebeid as CEO of the Year. A story on CEO Magazine’s website lauded Dooris for “a business model transformation” that generated “a phenomenal revenue increase of more than 1000%”.

Dooris has since tried to pass that off as a typo on the part of the publication. After Mumbrella raised the question with Dooris, CEO Magazine has this week altered the figure online to 100%. But two documents seen by Mumbrella, including the entry, claim revenue growth of 1000%.

The revelations of highly-exaggerated claims will inevitably throw doubt over the legitimacy of some of Atomic’s many award successes since launching in 2014.

Dooris pictured presenting at this year’s Mumbrella Asia Awards judging in Singapore

More widely, it once again raises serious concerns over the integrity of awards and calls into question whether the due diligence of claims made in entries is sufficiently rigorous. The Cannes Lions has for years been plagued with scam entries, with organisers seemingly turning a blind eye to some suspicious submissions.

Questions over the veracity of some of Atomic’s claims began to surface as early as March this year shortly after trade title AdNews announced its 2017 Agency of the Year winners. Atomic won five categories including Media Agency of the Year, Independent Agency of the Year and Media Network of the Year.

In a post-award publication celebrating the award winners – and outlining the reasons for the judges’ decisions – a list of Atomic’s “newer clients” included Westpac, Audi, Coles and Telstra.

The list was questioned by rivals which have relationships with those brands, with agency bosses raising objections directly with AdNews. But their immediate concerns that the publication of such claims were grossly misleading appear to have been largely ignored by AdNews.

Mumbrella has seen an email exchange between OMD CEO Aimee Buchanan and AdNews editor Rosie Baker in which the irregularities were raised.

The complaint from OMD to AdNews did not lead to any change in the result

While there is fierce competition among agencies, and often no love lost between groups, it is rare for agencies to become so riled by a competitor.

Baker responded a few days later to say it was “not a simple matter” and that she would review the terms and conditions for the future, but did not address the incorrect claims in the winning entry.

Two days ago, as word of Mumbrella’s investigation began to circulate more widely, AdNews belatedly announced new criteria for its next awards. Today AdNews said it was “satisfied” Atomic’s entries for 2016 met its previous criteria.

Atomic, and Dooris in particular, believe the complaints stem from jealous rivals who are worried about their future and threatened by the emergence of an agency which has received countless accolades. Atomic describes itself as an Agile Creative Media Agency which is shaking up the sector.

Competitors on the other hand say they have simply had enough of what they regard as a relentless crusade to undermine their businesses and claim accounts which border on the fictional.

In addition to being impressed with Atomic’s list of juggernaut clients, jurors of the AdNews awards heaped praise on a test drive campaign for Mazda carried out by Path 51 – a tech platform born in Atomic’s Sydney offices in 2016 and which, according to a heads of agreement seen by Mumbrella, is 45% owned by the agency.

It later transpired the Mazda campaign, which helped Atomic win its glut of AdNews awards, was an activation for Mazda Spain with no local involvement. Work had been carried out by Path 51’s Madrid-based tech team.

The issues resurfaced during Mumbrella’s own awards live judging in May when jurors were alerted to the Mazda issues shortly before Dooris presented to them.

Dooris answered tough questions from Mumbrella Awards jurors in Sydney in May

After they quizzed Dooris in detail, the jurors drew their own conclusions.  On the day, one Mumbrella Awards jury held a vote on whether the entry should be disqualified, with the entry narrowly surviving disqualification by four votes to three. Atomic did not win in any categories.

Mazda Australia dismissed Dooris’ claims that it held a $4.2m local account with the firm, confirming to Mumbrella it was “100% not true”.

“We have never worked with Atomic or Path 51 locally,” the car brand said.

One experienced marketer who judged a recent Atomic entry said it became clear not all was as it seemed.

“It was full of smoke and mirrors. It was gilding the lily on a massive scale. Suffice to say that all us who came through that felt a little bit dirtier at the end.”

Atomic 212 said it “put its hands up” to the Mazda Spain issue during the Mumbrella Awards process, but it is unclear if the AdNews jury were aware it was non-Australian work.

Dooris also admitted the inclusion of Mazda Australia as client in the Campaign Asia entry submission was wrong, but said it was simply an error.

“We have not done anything with them locally, that should say Spain,” Dooris said. “That is obviously an error.”

AMERICAN EXPRESS

Even though admitting it had no direct relationship with American Express – confirmed by Amex which said Atomic was not on its roster of agencies – Dooris listed the global financial behemoth as a retained client in the Campaign Asia entry, saying it carried out $2m worth of digital media and CRM work.

As with all the claims, Dooris said in the award entry it won Amex “locally and independently” with “no alignment”.

Dooris claimed to Mumbrella that email marketing agency Brandmail – which Atomic bought in 2016 – was outsourced some work by another agency which was on Amex’s roster. He claimed that naming the agency could put its relationship with Amex in jeopardy.

Dooris said he saw nothing wrong with naming Amex as a client despite its absence from any roster and with work outsourced to it by another agency.

“It depends how you define a client,” he told Mumbrella. “We think about the brand that we are ultimately doing advertising work for. That is the brand we are going to showcase and it feels completely reasonable to share that in an awards program that is looking to identify good work.”

Asked if he had a problem with claiming a client that the agency did not work with directly, O’Brien said: “I have got a problem with it, yes. If someone was doing that to us, you would see a different side of me. But having said that we have done work with these clients.”

COLES

Dooris defended the claim that it carried out strategy, content, planning and buying across all media for Coles during the 2015/16 judging period. But he conceded, in hindsight, he was “not happy” with the way it had been presented in the Campaign Asia entry.

Coles was also named as a client in the AdNews and Mumbrella award entries.

Dooris said Path 51 carried out “activity” with Coles while it was still with UM, which later lost the account to OMD in mid 2016. It is understood the work through UM for Coles was limited in its scope with sources describing it as a “trial in the early days”.

He added that another agency, Razorfish, which Publicis merged with SapientNitro last year to create SapientRazorfish, had outsourced work to Atomic. That, he explained, involved “tagging assistance for mobile and home” but added it was “unrelated to awards”.

He declined to reveal the date for the Razorfish work, claiming that revealing such information would compromise confidentiality and potentially damage the business.

Responding to observations the award submission bore no similarity to the work produced and was therefore grossly misleading, Dooris said the logic was that Path 51 had been “observing media across different channels”.

“Look, it’s definitely a point of reflection,” he said. “What that line represents in those awards is an assessment of total media that the technology has observed and drawn into its systems before it responds to delivering digital ads.

“This is a new area of technology and I am not sure how we would represent it in a way so that it’s reasonably viewed.

“But I am not happy [with the way it’s been articulated]. I am not happy because it’s clearly something that has not been understood in the marketplace. We have tried to define a way of representing marketing technology and it has not been understood. Going into this year we have already learned lessons. We talk about it differently or not at all.”

Asked about describing UM and OMD as “losers” for the Coles work, Dooris said there was an “assumption” that “every other agency has tech products and Coles were using our product over somebody else’s”.

The Atomic 212 team with Dooris centre front

WESTPAC

Dooris also defended the Westpac Bank claim that Atomic successfully won a 12-month all media contract and carried out strategy, content, planning and buying across digital on a retained basis.

Westpac was also listed as a “business win” in the 2016 Mumbrella Awards, named again in the 2017 awards and appeared as a “new client” in the AdNews Agency of the Year publication.

The reality is that Atomic carried out work for BT Super, part of Westpac-owned BT Financial Services, a far cry from the all media, planning and buying remit it had originally claimed for the bank.

“The brief was analysing, looking at driving conversions,” Dooris said of the BT Super work. “Part of the work was also building out their lower funnel and affiliate partnerships.”

Commenting on suggestions the work for BT Super was, again, completely unrecognisable from the list of disciplines it described for Westpac, and that the $11m was vastly over inflated, Dooris said: “It’s not a stretch against those services because those things physically happened. We have not bought $11m worth of media for them, so on reflection that could have been worded differently. We were trying to show the scale of the work we were involved in. It’s a martech brief, not a media planning and buying brief.”

Dooris said he was “not sure” why it did not list the client as BT Super, but argued it was part of the Westpac Group, so therefore valid.

“If you are feeling misled then it is misleading, but it certainly wasn’t the intention,” he said. “BT Super, BT Financial Services is a key part of Westpac and that is the way we would have considered it.”

He was unable to explain the absence of any record of a competitive pitch, despite the entry claiming it had beat MediaCom.

“I don’t know whether the activity was offered to another agency,” he said. “I assume so, but I can’t recall specifically.”

ALIBABA

Atomic’s link with Alibaba, named by Dooris as a new account after winning a “two-year all media” deal, appears remarkably tenuous, at best. Dooris explained Atomic did work with Gobi Partners for a fintech start-up called Airwallex. He described it as “Alibaba’s start-up business or something like that”.

Gobi Partners is, in fact, an independent Hong Kong based investment manager appointed by Alibaba to manage its venture capital fund. Airwallex, based in Melbourne, benefitted from $4m worth of funding.

Alibaba said in a statement: “As a multi-national business, Alibaba regularly engages a number of specialist creative and media agencies both on a project, freelance and retainer basis, to support across our many markets. At a Group level, Alibaba has not worked with Atomic 212 or Path 51 in the Asia-Pacific region. While we work closely with our subsidiaries, it is possible that Alibaba or a subsidiary has engaged with these agencies in another region in the past.”

Responding to the Gobi Partners link, the spokesperson added: “Gobi Partners is an entity independent of Alibaba Group. Gobi Partners was appointed in 2015 by Alibaba Group as its investment manager responsible for managing the Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund.”

NIKE/HURLEY

While Mindshare still holds the global media account for Nike, Dooris claimed in the Campaign Asia award submission that Atomic beat the GroupM agency to capture an all media deal for Nike/Hurley in 2015/16.

Nike and Hurley also appeared as clients in the most recent AdNews and Mumbrella awards.

Questioned about the claims, Dooris described Nike as “almost a foundation client” for Atomic with activations carried out for the sports brand “on and off” over a number of year, including for “Nike Football”.

In a vague and confusing defence of the three-year all media claim for Nike/Hurley, Dooris said he had, in fact, not been claiming all media for the “pure, core Nike business”.

Asked why he had listed Nike and whether he regarded the entry as grossly misleading, he said:  “Not for Hurley. Perhaps people will not be as familiar with the Hurley brand, but it’s a reasonable point [to question the Nike inclusion].”

Yet Hurley said while it did engage Atomic on search marketing work until mid 2016, there had been nothing since. In addition, Nike Pacific said it “did not work with either Atomic 212 or Path 51”.

When put to him that Nike had no record of Atomic, Dooris said it may have billed Nike under a different name, possibly Atomic Digital Marketing.

Mumbrella has approached Nike for clarification.

Other brands which have rubbished claims made by Dooris include Audi, which appeared in award submissions for both the AdNews and Mumbrella awards.

The car firm said: “PHD is our media agency and we have not engaged the services of Atomic 212”.

Dooris said the inclusion of Audi had been a mistake and should have read VW, which is listed as a client of Path 51 on its website.

Despite the misleading claims, Atomic’s rise, often portrayed as meteoric as it scooped numerous awards, is not without merit.

It has landed key clients since launching in 2014, including Origin Energy, Mortgage Choice and part of Tabcorp, and in chairman Barry O’Brien has one of the most experienced and respected media executives in the business.

O’Brien: ‘Not the greatest day of my life’

But even he was undermined in the Campaign Asia award entry when Stuart Mitchell was, somewhat bizarrely, described as a “key hire” and listed as chairman.

Stuart Mitchell is the son of Harold Mitchell, Australia’s most successful media agency boss of all time. Stuart eventually became CEO of Mitchell Communications Group which is now part of Dentsu. He left the organisation in 2014.

In attempting to explain the claim, Dooris said Mitchell has worked for Atomic for 12 months as a consultant to the board and to O’Brien, and had chaired “a number of different engagements and scenarios and projects”.

“That is what that meant” Dooris told Mumbrella. “He did chair a number of working groups that were established around certain things in the business but he was not chairman of the entire group. Barry is absolutely the chairman of this business and always has been.”

O’Brien, who said he did not see the Campaign Asia award entry until alerted to its content by Mumbrella, described the listing of Mitchell as chairman as “probably not the greatest day of my life”.

“It’s a mistake,” he said. “Stuart had a year here as a consultant, but he was never chairman.”

Asked if anyone else in the agency had seen the Campaign Asia entry, Dooris said: “Yeah, there would have been some people involved in it, but I did see it, absolutely. I would have written parts of it, and I am responsible for it.”

GroupM said in a statement: “To be clear, GroupM agencies have never gone up against Atomic 212 in a competitive media pitch for Westpac, Nike, American Express or Foxtel, and to suggest as much is to blatantly stretch the truth. Our clients will confirm this fact.

“Being successful on a one-off SEO project or a short-term activation is not the same as winning the total media business and should not be presented as such.

“At GroupM we greatly value openness and to bend the truth – even if it’s not revealing all the facts – is a great disservice to the industry and undermines your own credibility.”

Dooris’ own job history also suggests inconsistencies. Dooris’ LinkedIn profile and Campaign Asia entry state he was boss of what was one of the UK’s biggest media agencies at the time, MediaCom, and deputy CEO of its European operation. In fact, he led sister digital agency MediaCom Interactive.

How Dooris portrayed his job experience in awards entry

From Dooris’ LinkedIn profile

Dooris told Mumbrella that MediaCom had a “number of different CEOs across the business” with his remit “exclusively in the digital space”.

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