VML boss admits Sydney office pushed ‘timing limits’ with Blackspot Beacons campaign Cannes entry

The global chief creative officer of WPP digital agency VML has admitted that its Sydney office was “pushing the timing limits” by entering its Transport for NSW campaign Blackspot Beacons into Cannes last year.

Debbi Vandeven

Debbi Vandeven: “I’m not a believer of putting anything forward for Cannes that hasn’t run”

The public safety campaign was shortlisted at the Cannes Lions in 2015; however, it was entered without the authorisation of the government client and subsequently withdrawn by the agency.

Speaking at an event in Singapore, CCO Debbie Vandeven said agencies should be prepared to wait until their work is genuinely ready for the real world before entering it for awards shows, because Cannes is “not that important”.

After presenting VML’s showreel at the event, Vandeven was asked whether her agency had changed its approach to awards following on from the Blackspot Beacons debacle last year.

Vandeven responded first by saying: “I’m not a believer of putting anything forward for Cannes that hasn’t run”.

She then admitted that the Sydney office “was pushing the timing limits” with the Blackspot Beacons idea which, the agency claimed in a case study video, had been rolled out across New South Wales, but had in fact only been subject to a five-day test in a single location.

“I had a conversation [with the Sydney team] to say, if it’s not ready and you don’t feel like it is, wait – just wait. Because it’s not that important, right?” said Vandeven.

“Cannes is great. But it’s a love-hate situation with Cannes, and with any awards show. So I said, it’s not that important to be in there,” she said.

She went on to back Aden Hepburn, MD and ECD of VML Sydney, and the brains behind the idea. “Aden had a client who definitely signed off on it [the project] and the work had been tested,” she insisted.

The campaign, which in the case study video showed how a piece of technology could override car radios with localised safety messages, reached the shortlist stage in the Radio and Media categories. But the work was eventually withdrawn from the competition by the agency after an investigation by the organisers.

Vandeven later clarified, “He [Hepburn] did have sign-off – I will tell you that. I just think he was pushing it; he was pushing the deadline. And there was a lot of pressure. With any of the awards shows. You know how it works,” she said.

Jon Cook, global CEO of VML, who co-presented at the event in Singapore, added that awards can have the effect of lulling creatives “into a false sense of purpose”.

Debbi Vandevan and VML’s global CEO Jon Cook

Debbi Vandevan and VML’s global CEO Jon Cook

“The purpose is to do great work for clients,” he said, posing a question that is often asked about a lot of work submitted for awards shows: “What purpose did it really serve?”

“There’s a danger in the industry of awards taking on too much importance. And it creates a situation where good people push the deadline too much, or create something that’s not real,” he said.

“Winning, as we did this year for bigger clients like Gatorade, is the better way to go,” he said, referring to VML’s record year at Cannes this year when the agency claimed 11 Lions.

Of this feat, Vandeven said: “What I really want to win at Cannes is for our big clients. I love NGOs and we do lots of work for NGOs, but it doesn’t mean the same to me as it does to win for Wendy’s, or as it does for Gatorade, or any of our very large clients.”


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