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The jury’s out on Cannes’ creative verdict

One way or another the “C” word defined this year’s Cannes International Festival of Creativity. Naively, I came away from the ad industry’s annual Rivièra fest thinking “C” stood for Chipotle and Creative Artists Agency (CAA), the duo that pulled off the film grand prix and the top lion for one of this year’s new categories, branded content & entertainment. What a deserved breakthrough for the Colorado-based fast food outfit, whose wholesome message may one day may do McDonald’s some serious brand damage.

And here, just to prove that the Cannes judges not only know a winner when they see one but are prepared to back it without fear or favour, is that very “Back to the Start” grand prix winner, to the tuneful accompaniment of Willie Nelson:

How wrong I was about the “C” word, though. It turns out that “C” stands for Corruption. No sooner had WPP emerged as the top Holding Company of the Year for the second time in a row, and its subsidiary Ogilvy & Mather as Agency Network of the Year, than the allegations of vote-rigging began to fly. What, momentarily, had seemed WPP global creative director John O’Keeffe’s triumphal moment – in which he definitively proved that last year’s laurels were more than a passing fluke – was soon clouded by recrimination and counter-recrimination.

At the centre of the row is Amir Kassaei, worldwide creative head of Omnicom-owned DDB, who has accused WPP agencies on the Cannes jury of wresting what he clearly regards as Omnicom’s rightful crown from it by foul means. WPP racked up 1,554.5 points in the competition, and Omnicom – at number two – 1375.5, leaving Publicis Groupe trailing a distant third on 1032. Here’s what Kassaei had to say:

“We had a meeting in New York just ahead of Cannes, and I made a very, very clear statement to all our jury members that this festival is about integrity and responsibility. I said to them, you have to vote for the best work, no matter which agency is behind it.

“I have since been notified by no fewer than 12 jury members that people from other holding companies this week are being briefed to kill Omnicom, especially BBDO, DDB and TBWA, this is a fact.

“This is not about being a bad loser, or even supporting Omnicom, this is about the integrity and responsibility of the Cannes Lions Festival as a beacon of excellence around the world.”

Right on, Amir. But actually, no. It’s just part of the rough and tumble that afflicts Cannes voting patterns every year. Next year Omnicom may boycott Cannes, you say? Come off it. It’s about as likely as me selling my grandmother (if I still had one) into slavery.

The Great Holding Company Award Scandal is simply a continuation by other means of a long-running guerrilla war between WPP, Omnicom and Publicis Groupe over who’s best boy creatively. Before the award was given official embodiment two years ago, the bosses of the three big network groups used to engage in a covert but nevertheless acrimonious tally of who had actually bagged the biggest statue haul. Frankly, Omnicom used to win by a country mile, even after discounting any creative arithmetic; which meant that the most entertaining part of the contest – vigorously disputed by WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell and head of Publicis Groupe Maurice Lévy – was over who had come second.

But with WPP out in front – and officially out in front at that – Omnicom seems to have lost its seigneurial disdain for such squabbling.

Not that WPP is exactly blameless in this regard. Clearly nettled by the fact that Omnicom-owned Manning Gottlieb OMD won the Media grand prix for a Google campaign, Sorrell recently told Mediaguardian:

“One thing I’ve noticed this year in particular [are] some practices creeping in that are a bit disturbing. Practices of pressure on the jury by [the chairman] of the judges. There are some techniques to these things. I was at a dinner and there was lots of chatter about one of the functional areas [awards categories] where lots of pressure was put on an organisation in terms of voting.”

Although Sorrell is not category-specific in his complaint Group M, the WPP media buying network that includes Mediacom and Mindshare, is known to have made a complaint to the Cannes festival management. While a little mischievous to do so, it is worth mentioning that the chairman of the media category judges was Mainardo de Nardis. De Nardis is, of course, chief executive of Omnicom-owned agency OMD Worldwide. But perhaps just as importantly, he is not best buddies with Sir Martin. The feud dates back to the Marco Benatti scandal, when de Nardis was a WPP employee.

Plus ça change, as they say at Cannes, plus c’est la même chose.

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