The Scam Lions? Count me out

tim burrowes landscapeMumbrella will no longer attend the Cannes Lions. Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes argues that the scam in Cannes has become too much…   

I love everything about the Cannes Lions experience. So I’m sad that I’m probably never going to get to do it again.   

I’ve spent some great, late nights in the Gutter Bar. (A tip for any ECD looking to build their profile: buy a hard-up hack a drink on expenses in the Gutter Bar and you’ll never be forgotten.)

I’ve seen inspiring presentations that have stayed with me. (PHD guru Mark Holden’s prediction about media agencies of the future splitting into mad men and math men is one I’ve recycled many times since.)

I even got to shake hands with a disdainful Rupert Murdoch on one occasion. (That night, James was far more outgoing.)

But it’s not the drinking or the thinking that created the Cannes Lions legend. It’s the awards themselves. Winning big makes agencies and careers.

cannes-lions-direct-pr-grand-prix-cumminsI vividly remember being on the phone in the early hours of the morning from my office in Chippendale to Sean Cummins as he prepared to pick up one of his agency’s many Grand Prix for Best Job in the World in 2009. It was utterly thrilling.

And I was lucky enough to be in the offices of Whybin\TBWA Auckland in 2007 as news filtered through that they had won the Promo Grand Prix for Adidas Bonded By Blood. There’s no finer place to be than in the boardroom of an agency when that sort of news breaks. It means French champagne for breakfast, of course.

So the Lions is an event I associate with good times.

But, after the last few weeks, I’m no longer a believer.

I can no longer justify sending our journalists half way around the world in order to fill in our readers on the awards results.

The last six weeks or so have been eye-opening as it began to hit home just how far removed from reality the Cannes Lions have become.

It began on June 16 when our editor Alex Hayes filed a straightforward piece from Cannes on the disappointingly short shortlist of Aussie agencies in the running for the Press Lions.

He dropped me an email, pointing out: “There are campaigns getting metal here we’ve never heard of and I can’t find a trace of online.”

So we started to ask a few questions.

Then the winners came thorough. Leo Burnett Sydney, Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney and DDB were the three lucky Aussie agencies.

Leos very quickly let us know where their silver-winning campaign for WWF ran – Time magazine. You can’t argue with that.

As you may have read, Saatchis wouldn’t talk to us about the Panasonic ads, and DDB wasn’t saying anything about its Bic Mac Legends campaign which didn’t even have a logo on it.

McDonald's Cannes Lion campaign The Rouse Hill Times  SupermanLuckily though, we had a tip-off. We discovered that the McDonald’s campaign ran in local paper The Rouse Hill Times on the very last day of qualifying for this year’s Lions. The paper, as you’ll be aware if you’ve been reading Mumbrella lately, is News Local’s cheapest title, with rate card for a half page costing less than a grand.

You’ll also be aware that a hallmark of scam advertising is when it runs once, in a cheap outlet, just before an awards deadline. If the production cost more than the advertising space, then something is usually amiss.

Technically, it may still qualify – depending on your definition of scam. But I prefer creative Paul Fishlock’s definition:

“Scam is advertising that would not exist if there were no award shows”.

That’s a great way of looking at it.

I am, by the way, completely in favour of awards.

But they need to recognise real problem-solving work, not work created for the purpose of winning awards, then retrofitted to reach minimum qualification levels.

In the Mumbrella Awards, for instance, we ask shortlisted teams to present to a jury. It’s drilled into our jurors that if they are not 100 per cent convinced, then the entry should not win. I stress it in every one of our jury briefings.

Mumbrella Awards jury briefing

Mumbrella Awards jury briefing

Our strictness – we’re quite honest that they are some of the hardest to enter in the industry – may cost us some money in the short term. But we believe that long term credibility is more important.

It would, I imagine, be harder to turn your back on entry fees once they are rolling in. This year, I’m told that the popular rumour on La Croisette was that owner Top Right Group is looking to sell Lions Festivals. If so, it might be a very bad moment to discourage the $30m or so in fees this competition brings in each year.

So I understand that the stakes are high.

But I also understand that we’re in danger of testing our readers’ patience on this as an issue. We have been talking about it a lot. And after this week, we’ll aim to move on.

Lions Terry Savage Mark Lollback

At least the logo made it onto this McDonald’s message

There are others who form the view that we shouldn’t ask these questions because it’s unAustralian to query winning campaigns.

On Monday night, we finally got to put a question to McDonald’s CMO Mark Lollback about their Rouse Hill Times Big Mac Legends campaign. He and Cannes Lions boss Terry Savage gave a presentation to the ADMA Creative Fuel conference on how to win a Lion.

For the last month, Lollback has been declining our requests to talk to him, although he did inform Creative Fuel’s audience that he was a brave marketer, willing to put his on on the line and disobey his bosses in Chicago for a campaign (the Australia Day Maccas renaming project) that he believed in.

To be honest, we weren’t sure if we’d be allowed to ask a question after their presentation. We asked ADMA four times in the days leading up to the event if it would be okay and weren’t given an answer.

Anyway, I made sure I sat right at the front, and got my hand in the air for the first question.

Sadly, the moderator couldn’t spot me there in the front row, right in front of her. It became a bit awkward as I think mine was the only hand in the air. Then she took a different approach to that adopted for the rest of the day. “Let’s take a question from the back.”

Luckily – just in case I happened to be accidentally rendered invisible while sitting in the front row, we had taken a small precaution.

The four of us who attended from Mumbrella took the liberty of arriving separately and splitting up. So the first hand to go up at the back of the room belonged to my colleague Nic Christensen.

The workshopped answer from Lollback – a marketer who I admire a great deal – was disappointing. First he told the audience: “I thought we had addressed this issue at length”. (For future reference: refusing to comment and issuing a single bland statement does not an issue address. If he’d like to address it, there’s an open invitation to Mumbrella House for a live video chat.)

Lollback then suggested that the question was an example of “the tall poppy syndrome”. In other countries he had worked in, they celebrated success, he said. The “attitude” we should be taking was to celebrate when Australian agencies win awards.

That is – with respect – bullshit. We’ve celebrated many McDonald’s campaigns – including the Maccas renaming for Australia Day that he was apparently willing to get fired over, the McDonald’s Get’s Grilled campaign which won the Mumbrella Award for Bravery in 2012, and the food tracker app.

But that doesn’t give a free pass if the only campaign that won you a Lion this year ran once, on awards deadline day, in one of the cheapest newspapers in the country.

And more to the point, we’ve celebrated hundreds of Australian campaigns. Mumbrella has been around for the last six Cannes Lions. During that time. we’ve reported on dozens of shortlists and hundreds of winners.

Our journalists have sat in a lot of jury press conferences and celebrated a lot of local success.

When it comes to the Lions though, if I’m embarrassed about anything, it’s that we’ve only now started asking enough questions.

In part, that’s because as marketing journalists, we want to believe.

Back when I worked in Dubai, I remember the region winning its first Gold Lion in 2006. It was only years later that I realised I hadn’t asked the right questions to be sure it wasn’t scam. The words “tactical spot” and a vague media schedule of “some parts of the Middle East” didn’t raise any alarm bells back then.

Now they are though. As you’ll have read yesterday, we looked at all 20 of the Australian entries for the Press Lions this year.

At least nine of the campaigns look to me like they wouldn’t necessarily pass the test of: “Would these campaigns exist if there were no awards shows?”

This also says something profoundly depressing about the state of real print advertising in Australia.

It’s now nearly two months since Cannes. If the Lions wanted to address any of this, they would have done so by now. As soon as chairman Terry Savage justified The Rouse Hill Times campaigns with the line that “Super Bowl ads only run once”, it was clear where he stood.

We can’t change the system on our own – and nor are we entitled to.

A lot of people like how it works. It must be nice to be invited onto a jury and stay in a beautiful hotel in a beautiful town. It’s nice getting your company to pay for you to attend in the hope of bringing back metal. And for winning marketers, it’s nice to be feted. The trade press journos like it – and defend it – too (The Australian’s Darren Davidson believes the issue is “boring and deeply unimportant”).

There are a lot of people who the system suits very well.

And there comes a point where bleating on about it becomes boring for all concerned.

If brands are comfortable with their agencies behaving this way; if agencies are happy winning this way, then eventually we have to accept it for what it is.

Perhaps we should try and see it like a fantasy football league. It’s a chance for agencies to show off their creative skill albeit not necessarily in solving real business problems.

But once we start looking at it that way, it becomes impossible to justify putting our journos on a plane to the South of France.

While we send our journalists to Cannes, publish every shortlist, and race around jury press conferences in order to churn out local winners’ lists, we are a part of the problem.

Which is a shame, because great, real work gets rewarded too.

One day, things may change. We might see the Lions organisers taking actions which suggest they are serious about not rewarding work that only exists because awards exist.

Right now though, my view is that the Lions have got a business to run, and their business model relies on scammers paying entry fees too.

So be it. But from now on, count us out. You won’t find our journalists in the jury press conferences. We won’t uncritically report every shortlist as an automatic triumph. I suspect we won’t even be allowed access to the embargoed results ahead of time.

From a distance, we’ll take a more critical look. We’ll aim to celebrate the winners who entered real work that helped solve big marketing problems.

But we won’t be part of the festival.

It’s time for us to leave the tent.

We can’t change the system, but we don’t have to be a part of it.

  • Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella

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