DDB chief blows smoke at Cannes…

Amir Kassaei is the Chief Creative Officer of DDB Worldwide, one of the shinier jewels in Omnicom’s empire of advertising and marketing services companies. Like a lot of creative generals, he spent last week in Cannes taking part in the International Advertising Festival, which, to replay the metaphor, is by far the shiniest jewel in the ever growing necklace of advertising award shows.

Mr Kassaei, perhaps flush with Rose’, also found time to go on record with some provocative accusations and opinions regarding the integrity of the juries at Cannes. He more or less states that certain jurors have a clear mandate to “kill off” competing work, regardless of its quality, if said work emanates from a competing agency. He claims this mandate is at the holding company level. This corruption does not sit well with Kassaei and he goes on record saying that they (DDB) need to have a “serious discussion” about participating in future Cannes if the behavior continues. Paraphrasing the creative director, he claims other less creative minded agencies are willfully endeavoring to “buy” their creative reputations by rigging juries. There’s plenty of texture to his arguments and I urge you to watch the video, even if his sipping of wine and the passing by of beach traffic grates.

As I tweeted earlier, my reaction to this is a cross between “WTF?” and “Duh!” On the one hand I’m appalled by Kassaei’s allegations. Like it or not, creative reputations are made by winning Lions at Cannes. To know that these prestigious trophies can be bought is repellant. What is more sad are all the legitimate submitters who may have lost out on their one shot at gold because of wheeling and dealing behind closed doors. But let’s not be naïve. We’ve known about these shenanigans for a long time. Indeed, when I judged the Dubai Lynx (the Cannes of the Middle East), I saw it first hand. I blogged that “all the good work was fake and all the real work was awful.” Understandably, that blog caused fervor and I was asked to remove it. Reluctantly, I did.  Needless to say, I won’t be invited back to judge this festival anytime soon.

While creating and entering scam ads is an entirely different form of awards show corruption, and a pervasive one at that, knowing that judges and juries are culpable takes it to whole ‘nother level. Corroborating Kassaie’s accusations, here’s basically how it works. Through back channels and PR manipulation, agencies vie to get their creative superstars on juries. Once these individuals are confirmed, they are then sequestered to look at all the work coming from the various agencies within their network. They are then asked to vote, if at all possible, on these submissions. Since that is generally not allowed the next best move is to try and vote out the competition, which is a process that cannot really be monitored. And so it goes.

While I’d like to think my peers and I would never do such things a kind of nationalistic fervor happens in those darkened jury rooms, not unlike the ugly pride one sees during international soccer tournaments. Fouls and transgressions happen and they feed a growing fire. The urge to win Lions takes over. In the name of their agencies and even countries, good men do bad things.

The football analogy is apt. FIFA is constantly embroiled in corruption controversy, to say nothing of its countless dumbass fans degrading themselves in the name of competition. In America, the New Orleans Saints are currently dealing with charges of “head hunting” on the football field. And like the manufacture of false great ads (scams), athletes from all sports are being busted regularly for taking steroids and other illegal enhancement drugs. Corruption at all levels.

Yet, unlike professional sports, the general public (except maybe in Brazil) doesn’t give a shit about advertising awards. Relatively speaking, the media attention is minimal. Therefore, corruption buds like unchecked dandelions. And if the governing bodies of big time award shows are complicit, then you have zero integrity. Which is exactly what Amir Kassaei is suggesting.


He didn’t respond so it must be true!

I still haven’t read the comments on Agency Spy’s “story” about me leaving my job at Euro RSCG Chicago. But then a visitor to my own blog (by the name JT) had to go and sum them up for me! Thanks JT. I guess. His full assessment is posted in the comments of my last post. Look, I believe JT was trying to do the right thing. He seems to have put a lot of effort into his “two cents.” While I was not planning on rebuttal, here are my responses to the three primary criticisms levied at me –chronicled on Agency spy and summed up by JT:

1. “Steffan- you’re always pimping Altoids.” The last time I wrote or spoke about Altoids was last year, in a speech for the Outdoor Association of Puerto Rico in San Juan. It wasn’t the primary focus of the material but they had asked me to work it in. Other than that, I don’t recall any recent communications I’ve done regarding Altoids. Tell you what. Search my blog or twitter feed. If you find something vainglorious promoting Altoids send me the link and I’ll publish it with my humblest apologies. Here’s a promise: If everyone else stops talking about Altoids and me the conversation dies. Your call everyone else.

2. “Steffan- you’re always promoting your books and blogs.” I link my blogs to my facebook and Twitter account. Doesn’t everyone? If not, why not? It’s called connectivity. When I write a post it sends the link to both. In addition, within 48 hours of creating new material on my blog I’ll probably tweet it 2 or 3 times, so as to share the link with friends and followers. My favorite bloggers do the same. I try to write three new posts a week. Do the math. Seems like normal behavior to me. Otherwise, I tweet about the same silly shit you do: “Bears suck!” “Go Bears!” BTW, one of my blogs, The Rogue's Gallery is a showcase for OTHER people. Not me. The other blog, Sweet by Design gives away my latest book coupled with a contest to design its eventual paper cover and win an iPad. In none of my blogs do I make any money or try to.

3. “Steffan- you criticize other people’s work but what have you done.” Here I might be culpable. Though I mostly write about tendencies in modern marketing from time to time I do select certain campaigns and talk about them. I believe praising Allstate’s “Mayhem” campaign is the most recent example. (Full disclosure: I am working on a story about another campaign, which I will share soon.) As for personal accomplishments (or lack thereof), I stand behind what’s on our website. I also think our campaign for Valspar paint was some of the best work I’ve ever had a hand in. Still, one of the things I’m most proud of from my last job was helping to build a good, decent agency from some pretty damaged material. We became viable and competitive, a real team. That we survived the crippling recession with minimal job losses is pleasant proof we did something right. Alas, I cannot put that in my “portfolio.” It was a mortgage on my creative reputation that I was willing to make. I’d do it again.

As I’ve already acknowledged, being part of the so-called “conversation” sometimes means getting your ass handed to you. Of course I get upset at the shit people say about each other and me. But I try not to contribute to any death spirals and I most certainly do not comment anonymously. In the end, I’m forever learning, just like everyone else! So, thank you JT and anyone else who cares to read and write on my behalf. Even the haters. It’s an honor.


My office: Me, Bo and the Internet

Last year at this time I wrote about Martin Luther King’s inspiring Letters from a Birmingham Jail. It’s an amazing piece of writing (his not mine) and on this day, when we celebrate what would have been his 82nd birthday, I urge you to read it or his famous “I have a Dream” speech. Despite all evil in the world, we are better because Dr. King was in it.

But it made me think…the line between hater and follower is razor thin isn’t it? Look at the craziness surrounding the tragedy in Tucson. Gun sights on Palin’s blog! Dark postings from the shooter! The finger pointing online is as reckless and hate-filled as that assassin’s gun. Yet, however uncivil, it is the “conversation” we are having. It is representative of how we think and feel. Therefore it is valid.

That is the blessing and curse of social media. As a writer and creative professional, it is the reality I chose to embrace, as much from necessity as desire. To do our job, one needs to be versed in the good, the bad and the ugly of the Internet. And that includes vitriolic blogs. When I left my job last week the trade tabloid, Agency Spy posted about it. As of this writing it has engendered over 60 comments, which I have not read. Needless to say, I’m guessing they are not voting me into the Advertising Hall of Fame. Sometimes being part of the so-called conversation means getting your ass handed to you.

Popular culture is vulgar and wonderful at the same time. (Have you played Left 4 Dead?) Advertising has always been a reflection of that. In turn our creative ideas shape popular culture, taking it in wonderful and vulgar directions. Often simultaneously. As we move from mass media into more personal territory, the distinction between what is inspired and what is cruel, stupid and downright creepy blurs even further. Last year, Diesel won a Grand Prix in Cannes for its Be Stupid campaign from Anomaly of New York, work that championed bad behavior in the name of self expression. I found the ads vulgar and wonderful at the same time. Didn’t you? Is that, then, the current definition of brilliant? It was rewarded as such.


I rest my case.

Such questions are a cornerstone of this blog. And I hope it is with this same inquisitiveness that I create and/or look at work, deciding what to make and how far to push it.

Ideas begin crude. Refining them is our craft. Lately, however, the refining process has altered. Instead of polishing words and pictures we keep in some of the crude. We think it honest. In this way our craft is reflecting a self-disclosing popular culture. Crude is real. It also happens to be promotional (Whopper Sacrifice) and direct (Be Stupid). Ironic for all our digital savvy how blunt we’ve become…again. Fifty years ago we said let the buyer beware. Now we say let the consumer decide. I say what’s the difference? What goes around comes around, right? Damn right it does.


The music matters…

When I was coming up at Leo Burnett one of the creative leaders there was a man by the name of Jack Smith. At the time I didn’t much care for his idea of what comprised great creative. Primarily, because he was so fixated on music. Be it jingle or sound design, Jack was focused on delivering the magic via audio. For some of us this approach seemed hackneyed or, at best, a secondary concern. Those that knew… knew jingles were loathsome. Music was something you did in post.

Jack used to say good music could deliver bad film, or something similar. I thought he was crazy. To me, relying on music to “make” a commercial meant you didn’t have much of a commercial to make. Shooting and cutting film (so-called vignettes) to accommodate a music track was advertising at its worst. Ironically, my employer was known for doing just that. With clients like Kellogg’s, McDonalds and other big name packaged goods, music driven vignettes were the preferred form at Leo Burnett. And nobody did ‘em better. To be sure, a lot of agencies tried: DDB, JWT, TLK to name a few… My point? It felt like I was a minority, turning my nose up and ears off.

That said, you can’t work at Burnett as long as I did and not learn the form. Before my tenure was over I’d written several jingles as well as scored popular music for a Heinz TV commercial. Remember John Astley’s minor hit, Jane’s getting Serious? Listen for it in the spot below. Yes, that’s Joey from Friends. Laugh all you want. That spot won me a Gold Lion at Cannes. Only recently have I come to realize how important the music was in “making” the commercial. I’ve also come to realize Jack was really on to something.

Music matters.

While I still find most jingles distasteful, it’s clear music & sound design is profoundly important to the integrity (and popularity) of a commercial piece of film. Let’s look again at Heinz Catsup. Years before my spot, they’d ran a campaign using songstress, Carly Simon’s breathless hit, Anticipation.

Undoubtedly, you remember the campaign. The song perfectly seized upon a great truth about the brand: it took damn long to pour but was worth the wait. Most of us can place the song with the brand. The marriage was almost iconic. But can any of you recall the commercial itself? Not for the life of me. Only the music endures.

Fact is music has more staying power than film. Think about it. Most people watch even the greatest movies only once…maybe twice. Meanwhile, we may own thousands of songs, listening to many of them daily. Jack knew this, which is why he was so passionate about using music in commercials. Whether it’s a screw in the brain or an awesome classic: music got hooks!

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The Happy Soul Industry website


Sound design: Cliff Colnot

JPA_boy
Poster for JPA “Choke”

Wonderful news…

After being blanked at Cannes, Euro RSCG Chicago is proud and delighted to receive a people’s choice award for our campaign on behalf of the Juvenile Protective Association.

While not a Lion, it does represent a “Best Of” winner as judged by the people and attendees at Cannes…and it is in a category of human consequence. In addition, we got to meet and shake hands with the mayor of Cannes. I’ve attached the press release below.

Pic W Mayor
From left: Euro Worldwide CEO, David Jones, the Mayor, moi, Blake Ebel.

CHICAGO, June 29, 2009— Juvenile Protective Association (JPA) and Euro RSCG Chicago were honored for their print ad “Choke” on Friday, June 26, 2009, in Cannes, France by the Mayor of Cannes and ACT Responsible. In conjunction with the International Advertising Festival, ACT Responsible showcases the best cause-related work via a public exhibition in the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, France. As part of the exhibition, the public is asked to vote for their favorite piece of work that is on display. This year, Euro RSCG Chicago was awarded a special people’s choice award by the Mayor of Cannes and ACT Responsible.

“Choke” is one of three print ads created for JPA that carry the tagline “verbal abuse is still abuse.” The arresting photography incorporates images of a hand that are made up of shocking, insulting words. The hand is grabbing a little boy’s neck in Choke, a girl’s hair in “Hair Pull” and holding a fist to a girl’s head in “Punch.”

“We’re honored that the public has chosen our work with JPA to be what they consider the best, most effective work on display in the ACT Responsible Exhibition in Cannes,” said Blake Ebel, executive creative director at Euro RSCG Chicago. “Our goal was to communicate that verbal abuse is as damaging as physical abuse to a child and cannot be tolerated. I believe that this campaign does just that.”

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