Scam ads are becoming a global business say critics

This business of ‘scam’ ads; doctored versions of  bona fide ads or ads specially made to enter awards, seems to be a rather bigger and more widespread affair than we thought.

We all know the case of the JWT India ads, ostensibly for Ford, which resulted in the departure of some top managers last year. These were actually rumbled because some of them showed women captives stashed in the boot of a car in the wake of the Indian rape and murder scandal, not (originally) because the client didn’t know anything about them.


But my various spies (who seem to be coming out of the woodwork in droves) tell me that it’s a global industry, costing nearly as much as entering all the awards in the first place.

One big agency is alleged to have a regular weekly meeting at which creatives are instructed to come up with scams, which are then assessed for their awards potential and entered, if they make the cut. With the agency paying for production and even media, if required. Others are said to have scam budgets running into millions (choose your currency).

Why is it getting worse, despite the occasional lofty pronouncement that it’s all stuff and nonsense from both agencies and awards organisers? An obvious reason is that agencies and agency managers are set awards targets and their wellbeing at the hands of their masters depends on reaching them, by hook or by crook.

A less obvious one is that, as the number of categories in the main awards schemes proliferate (thereby making the organisers even more money) it’s easier to fiddle things. A TV commercial is difficult to fake, outdoor or something based on ‘results’ is much easier. And you still win an equally big gong.

Awards, of course, are an extremely good way of marketing your agency. But at what cost?

Paul Simons adds

The debate about ads that are not ‘legitimate’, or scam ads as they are known, has been around for a long time; the question for awards juries is whether the ad in question a) has run in paid for media and b) has been produced with the knowledge/approval of a client.

This is where a chicken and egg issue rears its head.

There are several reasons why ads might be speculative rather than formally briefed on behalf of a client. The most obvious one is providing freedom for a creative team to develop ideas in their own time, possibly because they are working on formulaic work on behalf of paying clients and they fancy doing something without the constraints of a mandatory straightjacket.

In the early days of our agency Simons Palmer, Mark Denton shot a speculative ad for a car battery called Samson, part of the Unipart operation. Mark wanted to get the idea off his layout pad on to film. Mark had a director willing to shoot his script at no cost to us. The resulting work is very good demonstrating a powerful product point in a compelling way. I was given the job of approaching Unipart, a sort of reverse process. Whilst we couldn’t claim it was work we had produced on behalf of a client we could legitimately include it on our reel.

Another possibility is a director wanting to shoot a good script for his reel. We were doing some niche work for BT and to demonstrate how the strategy could work Mark and fellow creative director Chris Palmer called in Vaughn and Anthea, fledgling directors at the time. They mortgaged their homes and children to produce a series of spots on a pure speculative basis. It worked out well for us all as it happens because we were awarded the mainstream advertising account and V&A directed the real work and their star was in the ascendency.

I feel these two examples are fair and honest, reflecting the driving ambition of individuals who wanted a vehicle to demonstrate their thinking and talent.

Where it drifts in to the scam zone is when an entry to an awards jury is totally fictitious and bluntly a fraud. Some years ago I sat in a meeting in New York where a global creative director presented a reel made in Asia, much of which looked like student work, and was bordering on the obscene. None of the work shown had been produced for a client and none of it had run anywhere. It was in bad taste and naïve. My view was it was inappropriate for the audience and in great danger of being regarded as seeking controversy for its own sake.

It is a grey area with a line in the sand that needs clearly identifying. With all due respect to creative folk, knowing where that line is can easily become very foggy when the creative drive is on full throttle. It is a good idea to bring in a trusted account man to work with a team on speculative work. A smart suit with empathy for the project can provide some navigation that might avoid the pitfalls of an accusation of fraud at a later date.


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