The Cannes Lions: What do you actually have to do to get disqualified?

Another dubious Cannes Lions entry has emerged. Perhaps the problem lies not so much with agency behaviour but with how the organisers enforce the rules, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes.     

So stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

terry richard mark scam lionsIt’s a year ago today since we called out a couple of suspicious campaigns that had been recognised in the 2014 Cannes Lions.

And guess what? We’re back again.

The process has been much the same: The announcement of shortlists. Curiosity about an unfamiliar piece of work. Rival agencies discreetly raising questions. Bullshit PR statements from the entrant. A complacent response from the awards organiser.   

And if my questions were mainly for the agencies and clients last time, there’s a point where the main focus has to turn to the festival owner: What on earth does it take for an entry to actually be disqualified by the Cannes Lions?

As you may have read in our news story today, this time round, the questions surround an entry from WPP’s digital agency VML, apparently on behalf of government client Transport for New South Wales.

The awards case study video showcased an interesting piece of technology. (Interesting, but not brand new – as you’d be aware if you’ve recently driven through the Sydney Harbour Tunnel and had your radio listening interrupted by a message about traffic conditions ahead.)

Among the key claims in the video was in the voiceover: “Beacons are being deployed across New South Wales.” The image showed eight sites popping up on the NSW map.

Awards entry video showing  Blackspot Beacons being deployed across NSW

Awards entry video showing Blackspot Beacons being deployed across NSW

It turns out this wasn’t true. When we approached the Australian Communications and Media Authority – whose logo appeared on the awards entry site where it was listed as a supporter – the organisation said that it had only given permission for a trial on a single site for five days. If the beacons are rolled out without the appropriate authorisation – which has not been given – it would be illegal. And given that the devices would interfere with emergency services broadcasts, I reckon it will never get permission.

It was a pretty informative statement from the ACMA:

acma miranda beacons

In case you can’t read the above, it says this:

“The Australian Communications and Media Authority provided no support for the five day blackspot beacon trial either in financial or other terms, apart from issuing a scientific trial transmitter licence for a limited duration test.  The ACMA’s trial guidelines makes clear that the issuing of scientific trial licences does not imply ACMA support for the technology or imply that the ACMA would issue long term licences.

The ACMA will be requesting that the ACMA logo on the blackspots website be removed and the wording suggesting ACMA support also be removed. The website also contains a video suggesting that these blackspot transmitters are being rolled out through NSW. The ACMA has not licensed this technology for operational deployment. Any such roll out would be unlawful.

The ACMA would need to address considerable regulatory challenges to permanently authorise a device that purposefully interferes with broadcast transmissions. Given the critical role of radio broadcasting in emergencies, this is unlikely to be contemplated without the full and informed support of the emergency service community, and following proper consultation with broadcasters themselves.

As such, the ACMA has referred the matter of over-broadcasting technologies to the Capability Development Sub-committee of the Australian New Zealand Emergency Management Committee for consideration of referral of this issue to the broader emergency service organisation community. The ACMA has asked that the ANZMEC seek the views of emergency management experts on whether this technology should play a role in emergency management and how that might impact on existing broadcast arrangements. The ACMA understands that the technology is now being considered by ANZMEC members.

As you’ll also see above, the ACMA said it had not given permission for its logo to be used on the Blackspot Beacons case study site, and asked for it to be removed.

So we went to Transport NSW to ask whether despite the hurdles, the organisation was indeed planning for Blackspot Beacons to be rolled out as the awards video claimed.

Late yesterday afternoon, slightly to our surprise, they answered a different question in a very short statement.

Transport for NSW Blackspot Beacons campaign statement

Source: Transport for NSW

So the awards entry submission to the Lions had not been authorised by the client.

It was starting to look like it could be one of those classic scammy awards entries – a clever proof of concept of something we’re probably not going to see in the real world. If you like the definition of scam as being work that would never exist without award competitions, then it might just fit.

As afternoon turned into evening, things then became a bit like one of those bad hacker movies where the data starts vanishing in front of your eyes. Over a few minutes:

  • The Vimeo video of the case study vanished.
  • The reference to the Blackspot Beacons project being shortlisted disappeared from VML Australia’s website.
  • The Blackspot Beacons website went offline.
    Aden Hepburn
    Aden Hepburn
  • The only local site to have written about the campaign – Digital Buzz Blog, deleted the article. Funnily enough, Digital Buzz is edited by the MD and ECD of VML Australia, Aden Hepburn.
  • Even more curiously, the shortlisted entries then vanished from the Cannes Lions website.
  • When we left the office last night, one of the few places where a reference to Blackspot Beacons remained was on the global VML site. By the time I got into the office at 7am today, it had vanished from there too.

It was an impressive display of near-realtime digital decontamination.

Obviously, we’d taken the precaution of taking screenshots of the sites and backing up the video before starting to ask questions. That’s the only reason you can still see the video above.

So why this reaction to our questions? The rules of the Cannes Lions seem pretty clear: You need the client’s permission to enter as they need to confirm that it is real work.

cannes lions clients

Source: Cannes Lions website

Not only that, but the rules say the work needs to have been implemented within the judging period of the 12 months up to April 30.

cannes lions implementation

Source: Cannes Lions website

So it looked to us that, much to everyone’s embarrassment, that agency had got in touch with the organisers of the Cannes Lions, owned up that they didn’t have client permission and duly been disqualified.

We didn’t get much of an answer from VML. Aden Hepburn told us he wasn’t allowed to give us a comment. At 11pm last night the agency sent my colleague Miranda Ward the following not-very-illuminating statement:

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 8.52.38 am

Perhaps slightly charitably, one theory I had was this: Maybe the agency did the project on behalf of the client; Perhaps it got some sort of informal okay to put in an entry, but never got the case study video authorised; Perhaps the claim that the Beacons were being rolled out was going too far; Not wanting the PR embarrassment of seeming to be in a fight with ACMA or having no interest in pursuing what looks like a regulatory dead end, Transport NSW cut VML loose.

Just a theory, I stress. But it wouldn’t have been the worst case of awards cheating in the world.

But this is where the focus switches from VML to the organiser of the Cannes Lions, and how they have chosen to handle this.

Cannes Lions pricesThis year the Lions topped 40,000 entries for the first time. That equates to well over $30m in entry fees alone. And that’s before attendance fees and all those duplicate trophy sales.

It’s a big business run by Top Right Group, (which is partly owned by The Guardian, by the way), which posted a pre-tax profit of nearly $100m last year.

And VML is owned by WPP, the world’s biggest holding company (and awards-enterer).

Indeed, the four shortlistings by VML counted towards a points tally which saw WPP named as Holding Company of the Year at Cannes. So although the entries didn’t win any trophies, shortlistings still matter.

And I suppose you’d expect the Cannes Lions to go the extra mile to save their biggest client from unnecessary embarrassment.

This is where things get a bit smelly.

You see, VML has not been disqualified.

Miranda sent a series of questions to the Cannes Lions overnight. Early this morning, the organisation’s London-based chief executive Philip Thomas sent the following reply, with his answers in bold next to Miranda’s questions.

cannes lions questions

Again if you’re struggling to read the above, the answer says: “We were asked to remove them because the client needed to have the technology validated for public health and safety reasons. We complied.”

After all, it’s health and safety, innit? You can’t be too careful.

But they’ve absolutely not been disqualified because “we have no reason to disqualify them”.

Apart from VML making a misleading claim in the case study video and not getting the client’s permission to enter, that is.

Still, perhaps it’s all part of a legitimate system that says you can gracefully withdraw an entry rather than be disqualified. So let’s go back to those Cannes Lions entry rules:

cannes lions entry rules may 15

Source: Cannes Lions website

The rules explicitly and specifically state that you can’t withdraw an entry after May 15.

There’s another curious thing about the rules. They state:

In the event of a complaint against any winning or shortlisted entry, the Festival Organisers will conduct a full investigation into each case and will request detailed documentation from all parties concerned including the complainant, the entrants and the client.

So will Cannes be investigating? “We have not been contacted by the client”.

This feels like something of a loophole.

In this case there are public statements from two government bodies, with the ACMA stating that its logo is incorrectly on the project site and disproving a key claim of the awards entry. The other the client saying they have not authorised the entry.

But apparently unless the client actually complains to Cannes themselves, it won’t be investigated. That looks like a bit of a flaw, doesn’t it?

If you’re one of those clients more interested in achieving stuff than winning awards, would you be particularly motivated to work out how to complain to an organisation you might not know much about, about an issue you don’t care about?

Or here’s another wonderful potential loophole: If it takes a complaint from a client to investigate a dubious entry, why not just invent a fictional client for your wonderful piece of scam advertising? Then there’s nobody who actually exists who can complain.

Or is anybody else entitled to complain? Can a rival agency? Can I?

We emailed Mr Thomas first thing today to ask for clarification on why the rules have been ignored around the May 15 cutoff for withdrawing entries. He may have already gone to bed, because we didn’t get an answer. But of course, we’ll update you on that point if we do.

I’m starting to wonder how on earth you get disqualified from Cannes. Last week our sister site Mumbrella Asia reported on the curious case (first broken by Campaign Brief) of a creative who was credited in a Cannes Lions Grand Prix winning campaign. He described it as “bullshit”. The Cannes Lions put it down to a “misunderstanding”.

Last year of course, we saw several award entries for the Press Lions and Outdoor Lions that appeared to have been run in tiny circulation, low cost newspapers. At the time, Lions chairman Terry Savage told us it was no different to a Superbowl ad which also only runs once.

scam lionsIn the end, I took the decision that we should stop sending our journalist to Cannes, as I felt we shouldn’t be part of the system any more.

Given the Blackspot Beacons shenanigans, remaining outside the tent still feels like the place to be.

  • Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella

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