As agencies prepare their crop of award show entries, scam ads are inevitable.

January 23, 2012


“Of course they’re real…Real good!”

The new year is more or less the beginning of awards season in Adland, when all the advertising, digital and design shops gather their best work from 2011 and decide which pieces to enter into what shows. Internal lists are made. Arguments had. Egos tested. Each agency has a different process (and budget) but essentially the routine is similar: someone from the creative administration staff meets with the Chief Creative Officer and goes through the litter. This is not always a pleasant task. The CCO invariably wants to enter more things into more shows than the agency deems possible. In fact, some agencies have massive budgets for these things while many don’t have any money at all. Beseeching the CEO to free up cash is not uncommon.

There is also the matter of fake or “scam ads.” These belong in two camps: 1) Unreal ads for existing clients and 2) Unreal ads for unreal clients. Either way, they are fakes. The pressure to win awards (both imagined and real) is great enough that even creative people with good reputations fall victim to allowing (or downright demanding) that work be created specifically for the purpose of winning prizes. To indemnify themselves, agencies may place scam pieces on late night TV or in obscure publications that charge next to nothing. I have turned this trick myself. Many agencies, especially in emerging markets, do not even bother doing that. In parts of Asia and Latin America, creative directors are considered celebrities of sorts. These rock stars need hits to keep their status and paychecks. Fake ads abound.

I once judged an international awards show where just about every ad on the shortlist was a fake. I was incredulous. Yet, the Chief Juror as well as the show’s promoters muzzled my attempts (and others) from calling out these phonies. Doing so would have wrecked the show, which was a lucrative enterprise. Even fake ads pay admission fees. Besides, the real ads were mostly crap. Choosing from them would have been dismal. In the end, we all became complicit.

Over the last few years, award shows have taken steps (albeit reluctantly) to stymie fake ads. Angry Tweeters and bloggers have made it too risky to give big prizes to big frauds. Still, it is easy to circumvent these systems and fake ads propagate like weeds. Scapegoats are made of one or two and a hundred more slip through the cracks.

One of the greater ironies is that fake ads are easy to spot. Any seasoned creative person knows that a small toy company in Brazil does not do advertising, let alone spreads. And if they did advertise they wouldn’t have approved these ads. Not with that tiny logo at the bottom and no copy or contact information. (Let alone the edgy or poetic concept.)


Edgy concept + Spread + Tiny logo + No copy = Scam

The higher profile scams can be more difficult to spot. In some cases the client has given tacit approval for the piece’s creation but in no way uses it in any of their real marketing plans. In other cases (the most delicate forgeries and the most common), the real ads have been “cleaned up” for awards shows, meaning the logos were shrunk and concessions to retail eliminated. It’s just like touching up a model. I’ve been a party to this. Honestly, I don’t know a creative director who hasn’t. Doctoring the results form is also an issue. Whether facelifts and trumped up credentials constitute scam ads or not (arguments can me made either way) they are like gateway drugs leading the user to trying ever more duplicitous tactics.

I don’t have a solution. At times, I’m not sure one is even needed. Maybe awards shows are just fine being corrupt little fantasies: free booze, networking and a floorshow! Social media pushes good ‘real’ advertising all over the globe anyway. These days publicity for exemplary work happens regardless of awards shows.

Sigh. An App for awards shows.

5 Responses to “As agencies prepare their crop of award show entries, scam ads are inevitable.”

  1. Liz said

    I don’t think the Oscars gives awards to movies that were never made, and I’m fairly certain that the last few SuperBowl winners actually played the game.

    Ad people are weird.

    Here’s a crazy thought: boycott the shows that are willing to reward fake ads. Spend those thousands instead on bonuses for those creatives who consistently come up with creative solutions to projects with actual budgets and strategies and clients. Too crazy?

    • SRP said

      Liz-
      Your idea not too crazy but probably too sane. Chasing after awards is a lot like a Dr. Seuss fable. It just keeps on building on itself. However, with great ideas being celebrated via social media the need -if there ever was one- for shows is diminishing. Thanks for commenting. -SP

  2. Ralph Hollingsworth said

    Why not create a separate category for spec ads?

    • SRP said

      I’ve thought of this myself, Ralph. But I’m pretty sure agency scammers would avoid “fake” category. Too superficial and meaningless!

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