Scamming the Chillies
The record-breaking Thrust SSC, the world’s fastest ‘car’
A scam is defined as “a confidence trick or confidence game, also known as a con, scam, swindle, grift, bunko, flim flam, or scheme, is an attempt to swindle a person or persons (known as the “mark”) which involves gaining his or her confidence,” by Wikipedia, and is basically a dishonest venture. The term has become rather infamous in Colombo ad agencies over the last couple of years, particularly since the launch of the Chillies, Sri Lanka’s leading ad show. In this context, a scam ad isn’t advertising some sort of con scheme, but an ad which is, in itself, a con. The Chillies defines a scam as any advertising clearly developed solely to win at awards shows, with no legitimate client source or though clearly having a legitimate client, has no legitimate client need or rationale. This is expanded on by Chillies Steering Committee member (and CEO of Lowe LDB, Colombo) Mike Holsinger who suggests that the definition can be broken down into four areas of suspicion:
1. Is it for a legitimate brand, product, service, or event?
2. Has it been paid for by a client or sponsor?
3. Does the media scheduling reflect the timeline connected with the brand, product, service, or event?
4. Does the brand, product, service, or event warrant the cost of the ad and its scheduling?
If an agency cannot answer “yes’ to all of the above, the ad may be flagged down as a possible scam and investigated further. According to the Daily Mirror of 21st Feb 2008, 79 entries were flagged for further investigation, and the responsible ad agencies were called on to defend their entries. Of these 79, only 30 passed close scrutiny, the remaining 49 being rejected. According to Mike Holsinger, in the vast majority of the instances, the respective agencies simply didn’t show up to face the Chillies’ sub-committee, thereby acknowledging that the entries were in fact scams. A few were rejected because the sub-committee wasn’t satisfied with the agencies’ clarifications.
So it all seems pretty serious and above board, right? Well, it would be if ad agencies weren’t peopled by such sneaky bastards. Anyone who attended the two Chillies judges’ forums over the last couple of days will tell you that there were a couple of entries in there that definitely smelled scammish. On both evenings, the judges (and particularly American ‘Creative at Large’ John Merrifield) tore apart a campaign for an aluminium brand that had been entered in the print and integrated categories. There were others that obviously found loopholes in the wall.
So why scam? Why spend money and time and talent on something that isn’t genuine advertising, and more often than not has no benefit to the client? Well, awards, of course — glory, medals, fame. In five years (heck, by next year) no one will remember what you won it for, just that you did. On an individual level, awards are to a creative person, promotion and job offers — in other words, cold cash and power. To an agency, it’s PR, and occasionally more clients — so it’s good business. But is it good?
The Chillies stated vision is to raise the bar of creative excellence, striving for diversity, dynamism and world class execution. Fantastic. A little further down, it also states that part of its mission is to propel Sri Lanka’s advertising and marketing communications industry to world class standards. In other words, to help us win an international award at a place like Adfest or Cannes. Outstanding. However, the vision and the mission are not necessarily compatible; especially when having to deal with the scam issue. Now, promoting scam ads and fastracking them through award shows is a sure fire way of getting a Sri Lankan ad awarded internationally, where juries are not that strict about weeding out scams. But will this do much to “raise the bar”, as the Chillies envision? The danger is — and having been a judge at the 2007 Chillies, I’ve seen this first-hand — that our scams are getting better and better, while are genuine bread & butter advertising is getting shittier and shittier. Creative people will be tempted to put all of their efforts into dreaming up art exhibits with beautiful typography, crisp layouts, and miniscule logos, while pig-ugly ads for toothpaste and milk powder sprawl across our newspapers. At the 2007 Chillies, only three Golds were awarded, and this year there’ll be only one. Does that indicate that the judges have been more stringent this year, or that our advertising’s deteriorated? One of last year’s Golds was for an ambient entry that seemed a bit suspect, and with this year’s sole Gold also going to an ambient entry from the same ad agency, eyebrows are certainly going to be raised on Saturday night.
Which brings us to the next question. Is award-winning creative work necessarily good advertising? A good parallel can be drawn between advertising and the automobile industry. A car manufacturer that sets out to build a car that will break the land speed record will certainly achieve that goal if he puts his mind to it, but will that achievement help him produce good cars? Certainly, the record-breaking (and award-winning) car won’t be a good (or effective) car, but it could help its creator use those learnings to build consistently good cars. It could, but it isn’t always a given. On the other hand, car manufacturers who set out to build really bloody good cars, often turn out vehicles that are incredibly fast and exciting to drive. An Aston Martin DB9 or a Nissan GTR may not break the land speed record, but its a fantastic piece of work from a manufacturer who consistently builds good cars. The Thrust SSC did break the land speed record, but would you call it a great car; or even a good one?
Really good advertising will win awards; award-winning ads won’t necessarily be good advertising. Unlike building a fast car, creating a scam is easy. So easy, in fact, that many agencies fuck it up. Like the guys that did that aluminium ad, or the Hi Mag TV commercial. Doing something easy teaches you nothing, and that’s why we see the increasing gap between the quality of the scams and the everyday Nissan Sunnies. Sri Lanka will soon have its own version of the Effies, or the effectivity awards, which many people strangely think is completely different from creative awards. It isn’t. The only difference is that you give effectivity awards for work that has done well in the marketplace, while you give creativity awards for work that you hope will do well. It’ll be interesting to see how many Chillies winners get an Effie.
After the Radio & Integrated Judges Forum on Wednesday, I was chatting to a youngish creative from another agency, and he was quite clear about the fact that he saw nothing wrong in a scam. It didn’t really matter to him whether anyone saw his ad or if it did anything for the brand, as long as he got an award for it. Now this guy’s a mid-level creative, who’s in a position to influence younger people coming into the industry, and I think a lot of them are taking the hint — go for the awards and everything else will fall into place. Bollocks. It won’t. You’re just fooling yourself. At the end of the day, you won’t be doing your job, which is to sell brands, and that makes me question what you’re doing in advertising in the first place.
What makes it worse, is that this attitude’s making it harder to sell good creative advertising to everyday clients. As any creative will tell you, brand managers are timid creatures, with fragile egos, and brands that are better protected than Sanga’s testicles when he’s facing Brett Lee. They don’t like risks, they don’t want scary shit. They need to be reassured that creative work (or “crazy stuff” as one brand manager I know eloquently put it), sells and doesn’t just win awards. Many of them currently think that awards are for “fun” brands like Odel and Adidas, not for Singer fridges or Rinso washing powder. I need to show him that it’s just not so.