Marketer says he will never hire Grey unless agency returns awards won for ‘I Sea’ app

A senior marketer has publicly declared never to use the services of advertising agency network Grey after the Singapore office’s award-winning app marketed as a new way to save stranded refugees was exposed as a fake.

Ali Bullock

Ali Bullock blasted the agency in an open letter on LinkedIn

In an open letter to the agency published on LinkedIn, Alastair Bullock, who is global senior manager, sponsorship and social media, for Hong Kong-based Formula One team Infiniti, said that he would not “entertain a pitch, submission or award” from Grey until the company returns the awards that it has won for the controversial ‘I Sea’ app.

“If I was a client of Grey Singapore, hell Grey Global, I would give them one chance to return that award and not resubmit anything next year. That would be a generous 24 hour deal. No excuses, no clever PR release. Just a simple return or they should not be working for me in any capacity,” he wrote in the post.

“As for any clients of Grey Singapore I say this: Push Grey to do the right thing and return this award,” said Bullock, who has worked in senior marketing roles at Wall Street Journal Asia, WWF, Motorola and Cathay Pacific.

ali bullock grey singapore cannes

“This is something that I feel cannot be ignored,” wrote Bullock, who made clear he was writing in a personal capacity and not on behalf of his employer.

“I held back on writing this post for a few days in the hope that Grey Singapore might do the right thing and return the award they falsely won. Alas my initial disgust has now turned to anger,” he said.

Grey Singpore's I Sea app has come under intense scrutiny globally

Grey Singpore’s I Sea app has come under intense scrutiny globally

Bullock posted the now-iconic image of a dead refugee child washed up on a beach, and wrote: “This isn’t someone passing out at Cannes from to much Champagne, this is no joke. It was a human life lost for the most tragic of reasons. Hope of a better life. And Grey won an award off the back of this.”

“Did the champagne and caviar have a salty taste as you celebrated your win? Imagine the salt consumed by people drowning… A truly horrid way to die. And how many died while you partied away in Cannes? Hundreds, thousands?”

“I guess we will never truly know as your app was a load of bullshit. Oh wait, it was in testing… Sorry, my mistake,” he wrote, referring to the agency’s defence of the app not working – that it was a prototype.

The ‘I Sea’ app has been withdrawn from Apple’s app store and heavily criticised by Migrant Offshore Aid Station, the client, which has distanced itself from the project. But the app won Bronze at the Cannes Lions last month.

Bullock raised the point that the ‘I Sea’ app had not gained clearance from the client, and had not produced a working version that would be effective in identifying refugees stranded in the Mediterranean.

“Tell me, how do you look your clients in the eye when you pitch? Actually how the hell do you sleep at night? Please feel free to meet me in person or email me and tell me directly. Really, I would like to know,” he said.

Bullock did, however, acknowledge the role of the client in pushing agencies to win awards.

“As clients we walk into agencies and as we glance across reception there is always (and I mean always) in the background the so called “shelf of awards.” We take comfort from knowing that you are successful at what you do. We pressure you to have these trinkets of success,” he said.

On the role of Cannes Lions, Bullock said that the festival should have retracted the awards it gave to Grey Singapore for the app. “I am not sure what is worse, Grey not returning the award or that it was not taken back by the Cannes jury. This is possibly the saddest moment our industry has faced.”

“Cannes,” Bullock said, “has cancer.”

“Time to cut it out and let us hope we can recover. There is so much good work, both commercial and CSR that we should highlight. And rightly so.”

“But by not taking back this award, the jury, organisers and attendees of Cannes are as implicit in this disgraceful entry as the person who decided to submit this so called app for the award in the first place.”

“Change will only come if we the clients and fellow creative agencies take a stand against this,” he said.


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