Once, as I was beating my brains out all weekend to come up with fresh program ideas to try to win a new business pitch, my husband offered to look at my draft presentation. (He’s not a PR guy but has learned enough through osmosis that I value his judgment…and, frankly, there’s a point when no one else will listen.) He handed the deck back to me and shook his head sadly. “Your business is crazy, you know. You do your best work on spec.”
Ouch. Of course, it’s necessary and normal in the agency business to offer top strategic thinking and creative ideas to win clients. And, even when you come out on top, the client may not choose to use the winning program ideas…often it’s an elaborate test of creativity and chemistry. But, at the time, his words triggered one of those moments of clarity that usually come from an objective source. My insight was that I couldn’t let potential clients suck the energy or drain the creativity from those who are paying us for our best work every day. I still think about his comment. It’s a reminder to stay balanced.
I thought of it again when I read about the recent brouhaha over the “fake” World Wildlife Fund ad created by DDB Brasil. The ad is a doozy. It depicts planes flying towards the World Trade Towers in an image that can only evoke one thing. The copy reads, “The tsunami killed 100 times more people than 9/11. The planet is brutally powerful. Respect it. Preserve it.” A powerful ad, also.
More than they knew, of course. The ad was picked up by the media and blogosphere and resulted in a tsunami of controversy for both client and agency, eventually making Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” segment on MSNBC. But the furor only started because of the ad’s poor taste in tying 9/11 to a commercial message. After a denial by the WWF that it approved the ad (which later turned out to be untrue) and repeated flip-flops by the agency about its status, AdAge reported the facts. It turns out the ad ran one time in a small local newspaper, then was submitted to the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival in June.
Underneath the embarrassment, poor crisis management, and bad PR for the agency and the WWF, there’s a shadier aspect to the tsunami ad. It’s bogus. It seems that running an ad only once, in an obscure media outlet, is a common tactic to make it eligible for major industry awards. The fact that the One Show advertising awards has just moved to ban “scam” ads from its competition, and that people are saying it comes years too late, is a sad indicator of the machinations agencies pull to win business. Because, make no mistake, that is the point of the awards.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to promote your firm’s work, and it’s certainly not limited to the advertising business. But, the incident shines a light on an unethical practice. And, it’s a reminder that third-party recognition for sexy, “breakthrough” work is not only an exhausting, Sisyphean goal, it’s the wrong one. Most of us would do better to put that creative talent and energy into work for our existing business…work that may not win national awards, but that actually sells products, raises funds, or otherwise gets the job done for clients.