The Ford-JWT India episode and scam ads

Much has already been written about the Ford-JWT India scam ads episode. Heads have rolled, tongues have wagged and a prominent award jury head has quit. Many have weighed in with their opinions on the whole affair (good reads here and here). I am late on this, but here go my two bits:

The ads: questionable taste, missing answers

It is apparent that the ads were created with the intent of doing ‘something different’ from the regular brand stuff (‘change is wonderful’). So it is safe to assume that these were one-off ads, not initiated by the client. Then comes the execution part. Advertising is subjective and as with any other campaign this too got its share of brickbats and bouquets. Personally, I thought they weren’t in the same league as some recent global award winning ads or ads which created a buzz. The lad-ish humour is more suited for MAD magazine spoofs or men’s magazines where skin show is common. The tone of voice, meant to be funny could have offended many. As far as using caricatures of political figures and celebrities go, other brands have done it. Benetton won big time at Cannes for their UnHate campaign. Amnesty International and many media houses have used political figures in their  ads. With brands like Benetton the usage was ‘on-brand’ as Benetton has always courted controversy and been deliberately provocative in their ads. George Bush has been the subject of so many ads in the past – but the advertisers don’t get sued. Some have suggested that since the likes of Berlusconi have been lampooned in editorial & political cartoons in the past (and no one got sued or sacked) its is OK to do so in such ads. There is a difference. Political & editorial cartoons are not paid for by brands and hence not a commercial activity like advertising. In advertising we have  a responsibility towards the brands we advertise for and the client who pays for the ad.

In Ford’s case, I don’t think the ads would harm the brand’s image in the long run and is unlikely to have any negative effect on the sales. The discomfiture is more a short term one, since the brand is being associated with unpleasant & negative news. The larger worry must’ve been the threat of libel suits against the brand from the likes of Kardashians.  But somebody thought they had a chance of gaining some recognition and posted the ads on AoW.  Or so we thought, until we were told that these were also entered for Ad Club awards. If it was the former, then the argument that these campaigns were created and posted by over-eager creative teams without any authorisation holds some water. But an official entry from an agency opens up a can of worms. As others have asked, how could the ads have been submitted without senior agency people being aware of them? Such entries call for a submission form which has to be countersigned by client and so someone at the client side (not necessarily the highest ranking authority in Marketing) was aware. News updates suggest that employees from Ford were asked to leave.

The fallout and the fall guys

Did Ford & JWT overreact by sacking people? I don’t think so. They had to take disciplinary action and I don’t think a mere apology would have sufficed. Ford is a global brand which is always under the microscope and even more so over the last two weeks for all the wrong reasons. And the ads had no business being created in the first place – they were not commissioned by the client. If it was a proactive effort by the agency , it was not on brand, not released widely in media and had no scope or intent of building the brand. It was to merely satisfy a group of people who put the brand in an uncomfortable position in the eyes of global media. And ran the risk of the episode and the ads being discussed for quite some time to come thanks to social media and the pass-along nature of the internet. So, in my view, disciplinary action had to be taken. And seen to be taken.

I think stopping at an apology (which both parties did) would have sent a signal to habitual scamsters that such a devious way of developing creative work is alright and nothing catastrophic is likely to happen. It would have emboldened the award-hungry creatives to produce work meant only to win awards, the client, his business goals and his money be damned. Sadly such a culture exists in many agencies even if they profess to be against scam ads. There are teams dedicated to come up with great ideas both on current big name clients and obscure ones. Some of such work is truly brilliant in terms of ideation and execution but one is left to wonder if we are really paid to do that. Globally, some of the recent award winning and acclaimed work has been sold brand building stuff for big brands – not for some proctologist or an obscure foot massage service. In India, save for media awards very few of the visible work for mass brands have won awards, especially in print. So there is a scam culture or an must-win-awards-at-any-cost culture. No wonder clients have stayed away from ad awards here – imagine the embarrassment of giving away award after award for brands & campaigns one hasn’t heard of.

But was it just enough to sack a bunch of creative people and perhaps some junior level executives at the client end? That’s debatable. I don’t think it was right to just punish the creatives. I was reminded of the acerbic George Parker’s constant lament that in this business its the foot soldiers who bear the brunt and the suits just take the bonus.

The larger issue: business of scam and wheels within wheels

Some have argued that just as fashion shows have the freedom to express creativity which no one wears, advertising too should have similar freedom. Again, there is a difference. As I explained earlier in this post, ours is a commercial activity with a responsibility towards the brand and the client who pays for it. The unbridled creativity applicable to fashion shows does not strictly apply here. We have to work within certain boundaries. Does it mean that awards are not important? No, they are very very important. But lets not kid ourselves and be thrilled with that beautifully crafted one-off ad for an obscure service or a regular client of ours. Our hearts will say that its not the right thing to do. We didn’t joint the business for that – the real joy is in seeing creative work deliver results on the ground. And we know its possible – just ask Cadbury, Vodafone, Docomo and a handful of other clients whose work is consistently good, relevant and delivers results.

The need for awards results when agencies feel that most of their work is run of the mill and any possibility of great creative is killed by the client or a ‘process’ whether its a committee or research. Panic sets in with regards to attracting creative talent and ‘show & tell’ with the global network. ‘Lets identify brands where we can win awards’ becomes the first step. And then starts the hunt for ideas. If the cupboard is empty then imaginary clients are created.

In a way, clients too are responsible for this situation. When the agency is not treated on an even keel and creative direction & execution dictated to them (or interfered with) the creative teams could desperately seek some leeway. And agencies can demand that their recommendation be heard & implemented faithfully (like how consultants do) only when they feel that the relationship is secure and mutually beneficial. But if they are constantly under threat of losing the business (due to client’s penchant for pitches or a rival agency under cutting them) a culture of ji-huzoori is created in the agency too. The client has the upper hand and agency delivers safe but potentially run-of-the-mill work. And then the frustrations start. Rinse and repeat.

What next?

A no-nonsense approach to any form of scam work – unauthorised work from an existing client (big or small), creative for fictitious or obscure services, work meant only for ad bogs & awards (a campaign for a confectionary brand has won several awards globally but I haven’t seen it in local media here) – from the very top of the agency would be a starting point. It will be difficult to implement – as we’ve seen in the recent past, even from agencies who have purportedly taken a stance against scam ads. Second, a strict policy against posting anything on behalf of a client on ad blogs or social media without authorisation from the client in chief. Third, maybe a honest discussion with the client if the agency feels that the creative process is stifled and some freedom is required. Maybe then creative that is on-brand, builds business and wins awards can emerge. One is tempted to say ‘pigs will fly’ but then recent global work from Old Spice is anything to go by, it is possible.

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photo credit: Ford Asia Pacific via photopin cc

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