The jury’s out on Cannes’ creative verdict

June 27, 2012

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.

Is Zipcar the Amazon of car ownership?

April 17, 2012

Our man on the spot Robert Dwek quizzes the car-sharing company’s UK boss Mark Walker about its future

It’s been years since I got rid of my car. As a resident of central London, I was tired of hitting traffic jams the minute I left my driveway or of having to go and sit in my parked car with the engine running just to prevent another flat battery. But waving goodbye to my “second home” was inevitably difficult. It’s one thing to embrace public transport in theory and quite another in practice. Still, I adapted soon enough.

And then along came Streetcar, the UK’s first car-sharing company. They owned the cars and, hopefully, left them parked near to your home. You paid only when you used them, for as little as an hour or two at a time. I was a so-called founding member of Streetcar – a great honour I’m sure but, more importantly, a perk that allowed me to be forever immune to the annual fee that was later introduced (still only £50).

After a few years, Streetcar was taken over by Zipcar, its larger and more established US rival. As a Founder Member of Streetcar I was offered a sort of sweetener to convert to Zipcar – about £150 of free rental. The only problem is, it’s going to expire in just over a month and I still haven’t got round to using it. Granted, I now have a toddler who requires a special car seat – something not offered by this kind of service. But even without a baby on board, I’m still not completely sold on this (r)evolutionary new market.

In fact, I have used it just a handful of times over the years. Yet despite not voting with my wallet, I’m convinced that the automotive times are a-changing: in the US, big car rental players like Hertz (Hertz on Demand) and Daimler (Car2Go) are moving into the market. And despite this heavyweight competition, I have a feeling that in Zipcar a brave new brand is being born – a sort of Amazon-ian first-mover.

With that in mind, I put a couple of questions to Zipcar’s UK general manager, Mark Walker:

I live in central London and have noticed numerous ZipVans in recent weeks but not so many Zipcars. How big could the van side could become ?

Mark: We heavily brand our Zipvans and I’m pleased you’ve noticed them! In London, Zipcars actually outnumber Zipvans by a factor of 8-to-1, but the cars are not branded, so our members travel around the city with rather more discretion. We’re working closely with the London Boroughs to see how we might make car club parking bays more readily visible, so local residents and businesses know just how close their local cars are.

The traditional van rental market is extremely large and we’re very happy with the progress Zipvan is making within that market. The combination of their convenient locations, together with the ability to use a van for just a few hours – and only pay for those few hours – is very appealing to our members, be they private individuals moving flat or businesses delivering goods.

We continue to grow the Zipvan business – it’s especially popular with small and medium sized businesses – and it could, indeed, grow to be a very substantial business in its own right. You can expect to see more and more Zipvans.

The US now has a so-called “point to point” player, Car2Go, which seems to operate like London’s Barclays Cycle Hire (“Boris Bikes”). I have to say, both as a Zipcar customer and a Boris Bikes user, that the ability to use a car one-way only does seem very appealing. What are your thoughts on the subject and do you foresee a time when you might offer this kind of service?

The car club/car-sharing category is growing fast and innovating rapidly. The Zipcar model is proven to be convenient and great value for money, especially when compared to car ownership. For the cities where we operate, the Zipcar model is proven to reduce congestion and pollution: every Zipcar takes at least 15 privately owned cars off the streets; Zipcar members drive less, use public transport more and walk/cycle more than car owners.

We are constantly analysing where and how to develop our service for the mutual benefit of members and cities alike. Recently in the US, we invested in Wheelz, a peer-to-peer car sharing company, which opens up some interesting complementary opportunities in that particular segment of the category.

The point-to-point model is also potentially interesting, as it could complement our existing model. Given the types of vehicles used and the per-minute pricing, it lends itself to very short trips, which would otherwise be taken in a taxi, on public transport, by foot or – in London – using a Boris bike. The issue we have yet to fully understand (and where more research is required), is the extent to which point-to-point car-sharing reduces the use of taxis, public transport, walking and shared bicycles; and increases car use in cities. If this is found to be the case, then the model might prove to be contrary to our objectives of reducing congestion and pollution in cities, while providing convenience and value for money for our members. So, while point-to-point might be something we add in the future, it needs to be based on a better understanding of the impact on member behaviour in relation to taxi use etc, congestion and pollution.

Mafia-free pizza – the ultimate fairtrade product

August 23, 2011

Ever worried that “fairtrade” may be just a label, camouflaging unspeakable exploitation and corruption beneath flimsy ethical sticking-plaster? If so, the latest Human Rights Watch report on South Africa’s booming wine industry will have confirmed your worst suspicions. HRW would have us believe the Paarl and Stellenbosch we glug so freely is produced by workers living in pig-sty conditions.

So where should the ethically squeamish turn for food and drink of unimpeachable integrity?

Fear not: I have the answer. Out with that Stellenbosch and in with Placido Rizzotto, a wine made exclusively from grapes grown on a mafia don’s confiscated vineyard.

And if Rizzotto (named after a famous Sicilian union leader bumped off by the mob in 1948) isn’t to your taste, then how about some bottles of Calabrian olive oil, or Pugliese breadsticks?

All courtesy of a consortium called Libera Terra (Free Land), set up in the last decade to farm the estates of convicted mobsters.

Libera Terra’s success has been based on a simple proposition. However delicious those sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, mozarella and focaccia, you can never be quite sure where they come from. Organized crime has its grubby paws on quite a lot of the Italian organic food industry. Particularly in the south, home of Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the ‘Ndrangheta.

Legislation passed about 13 years ago has begun to change all of that. Organisations like Libera Terra were encouraged to come forward and exploit confiscated mafia estates for social benefit. Something like 4,500 estates (not all of them farms – villas and apartments as well) have been expropriated and passed into the hands of student cooperatives during that time.

Libera Terra acts not only as a kind of kitemark, offering quality and ethical reassurance, but also as a marketing agency for groups of approved co-operatives.

The latest financial update to come my way suggests a turnover of about $6m. A figure the more remarkable given that it has been achieved in the teeth of torched mafia-free vineyards, vandalised farm equipment and systematic intimidation by the relatives of jailed mafiosi.

All very well, you say, but where do you get this stuff? Ah. Until recently distribution has been confined to Italy – mainly through specialist outlets, but one or two supermarkets as well.

Now, however, Libera Terra is branching out, with a marketing push in the rest of Europe. I gather Germany is the principal target. The Germans are so right-on about these things that they have published a list of 400 Sicilian businesses which refuse to pay the pizzo (mafia protection money). The idea is to give German tourists the option of shopping only at places that don’t line mafiosi pockets.

Whether Britain is also in Libera Terra’s sights I have no idea. For those who can’t wait to eat their pizza minus pizzo, I suggest tackling the organisations’s website, where a number of products can be bought direct (although only by businesses it seems).

Polman gambles on sustainability paying off

December 7, 2010

Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, is either a very wise or foolish man. At this stage it is difficult to tell which. All we can say is that he has embarked on a courageous and momentous enterprise.

Ogilvy & Mather, which recently won Unilever’s multi-million pound corporate development account from Fallon, will shortly unveil details of the company’s 10 year sustainability strategy – Polman’s brainchild – to a largely unsuspecting public.

We’ve heard a lot about companies commitment to the mantras of corporate social responsibility – the Triple Bottom Line (3BL) of People, Planet and Profit. But frankly not much action, since Marks & Spencer’s milestone Plan A initiative in 2007. Polman’s plan is a lot more ambitious than M&S’s – and a lot more risky in the open-handed commitments it makes to supporting causes that may boomerang on core corporate objectives of profit and brand share, if mishandled.

To give the flavour of the plan’s ambition, it commits Unilever to source 100% of its agricultural-sourced products sustainably; to halve the environmental footprint of all its products – not just at the manufacturing stage, but from suppliers through to consumers; and to tangibly benefit the health of 1 billion people. All this in ten years. Even Polman admits he does not know how it’s going to be accomplished – yet.

The measure of the risk is this. Unilever is a major public company dependent upon the goodwill of institutional investors and their financial advisers. These people deal in quarterly earnings assessments, not ten-year plans based upon ‘idealistic’ notions. There’s still very little appetite in the City for the “Planet” element of the 3BL. So far, so good for Polman’s reputation: he has delivered 6-quarters of uninterrupted earnings growth. For now, they’ll humour him. But what happens if, at some future date, ‘Planet’ gets in the way of ‘Profit’?

Similarly marketing and brands. Polman has taken the visionary step of placing marketing, communications and Unilever’s sustainainability policy in the hands of its chief marketing officer, who for the first time is a board-level executive. That certainly advances the cause of joined-up strategy at the highest level. But it may give Keith Weed, the CMO in question, a few headaches when he comes to reconcile the consumerist ethic with a creed which is, in some respects, anti-consumerist.

There’s more in my Marketing Week column this week, not least some speculation on why Polman is prepared to take such an enormous gamble with his hitherto unblemished career.

Why BP shouldn’t pump money into Gulf coast tourism budgets

May 17, 2010

With Barack Obama poised to repeal the trifling $75m ceiling on BP’s liability for cleaning up the oil spill, supplicants have wasted no time in bringing their financial demands directly before the oil giant.

Most of these demands for compensation seem entirely reasonable. A fishing industry brought to its knees by the Deepwater Horizon blow-out needs restitution. Conservationists grappling with an environmental disaster about to afflict the ecologically-sensitive Mississippi and Louisiana coastline are desperate for every clean-up dollar they can get. The $20bn local tourist industry faces massive lay-offs and a collapsing infrastructure…

But here’s the bizarre bit. The US Gulf states believe that not only should BP pay compensation for their ruined tourism industry, it should also provide a massive injection of funding for their marketing budgets. From Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour downwards, the general view of officialdom seems to be that BP should dig generously into it coffers to run a series of reassurance campaigns pointing out that the beaches remain open for business. BP has responded fairly generously so far to proposals, with the result that the financial demands being made on it are steepling.

While sympathising with the plight of the Gulf of Mexico tourism industry, I think there are two fundamental flaws to this “marketing initiative”. The first is that, with no end in sight to the oil leakage, a message of reassurance is pretty pointless – and may even be counter-productive. Sure, the beaches may be open for business right now, but what about in two months’ time? Personally, I would be very underwhelmed if, having bought the reassurance message, I were to find myself sharing beach space with a dead porpoise and several tarry sea birds flapping about disconsolately.

The second point is this. Just because BP has a moral and legal obligation to clean up the mess and compensate those who have been blighted by it doesn’t make it the ideal paymaster for a massive tourism booster campaign. Quite the contrary. BP will be in the brand doghouse for years to come thanks to its incompetence in handling the Deepwater disaster. And the fact that it is a British company (as opposed to a US one) exacerbates matters. The Brits, from James Mason onwards, already provide perfect casting material for Nazis in Hollywood movies. What BP has, or hasn’t, done will only deepen that stereotypical prejudice. The last thing BP needs to be seen doing is “manipulating” the local tourism industry with a whitewash campaign.

In this crisis, the lower profile its assistance the better.

BP brand plunges from Deepwater to Ground Zero

May 11, 2010

I’m beginning to feel sorry for Andrew Gowers. Having had an exemplary career at the Financial Times, he had the misfortune to become its editor. In the wake of a complex and expensive libel case, he was ‘let go’  by senior management in 2005. With contacts like his, why worry though? A glittering future in PR beckoned.

And so it proved when he became head of communications at blue-chip investment bank Lehman Brothers London. How was he to know that, in two  short years, he would be at the epicentre of the global financial meltdown? Never mind, pick yourself up, dust yourself down and move on to…BP. Weeks later, the Gulf of Mexico explodes into uncontrollable life.

Avoiding reference to Jonah, I’ll confine myself to the observation that, for a man with Gowers’ peerless experience of crisis management, he seems to have been pretty slow on the uptake. Yes, he’s been indefatigable on the airwaves, mainly pointing out that it’s not all BP’s fault. Which it isn’t: try the Swiss-based company which leased the rig to BP, and the US maintenance outfit which passed the defective shut-down valve as fit for purpose. Also, BP is only a two-third investor in the oil well. But no one wants to hear about that; certainly not President Barack Obama and the American people.

What Gowers, and his colleagues, conspicuously failed to do was mobilise their chief executive fast enough. The oil rig explosion took place on April 20. BP may not have known the leak’s rate of flow, but it certainly knew this was a very serious industrial accident indeed. Yet it was not until three days later that the company released its first statement from group ceo Tony Hayward and, as far as I can make out, not until May 3 that Hayward himself made a broadcast public statement.

Did it really take that long to determine this oil spill is quite possibly the worst man-made ecological disaster to date? Not in the minds of journalists who – like nature – abhor a vacuum, and fill it with speculation. And not – crucially for any crisis management specialists these days – in the social media space, where any half-way decent speculative theory gets magnified a gigafold. Does Gowers or BP viscerally understand this? I suspect not. Until very recently, if you had looked up “BP Oil” on Google you would have found hundreds of references to the incident – on blogs, Twitter, YouTube and the rest, but almost none seeded by BP itself. Does BP imagine its investors take no notice of all this? £19bn knocked off the share price suggests otherwise: they will get their information wherever they can.

Credit where credit is due, Hayward is now cleverly framing the disaster as a common threat, with BP in the front line of resistance. His language has an appealing Churchillian ring to it. But the initiative may already be lost.

Of course, from a corporate standpoint, BP’s caution is entirely understandable. Make light of the disaster while it is still unfolding and it projects an uncaring image which will do endless damage to the brand later. Rash admissions, on the other hand, will expose it to years of litigation, with its toll on management focus and corporate profits. No one knows this better than Hayward, who has spent three years cleaning up the company’s reputation and settling claims after the March 2005 explosion at  BP’s Texas City refinery, which killed 15 workers and injured about 170. Corporate negligence ill fits the image of a company that has struggled hard to position itself as environmentally friendly with a cuddly logo and a $4bn alternative “Beyond Petroleum” energy initiative.

And yet all that misses the point. The speed of mass communications these days no longer permits – if ever it did –boardrooms to dictate the pace of events. Another fine example of crisis mismanagement, admittedly on an infinitesimally smaller scale, reinforces the point. Johnson & Johnson is rightly considered a model in consumer marketing circles for the way it dealt with the 1982 Tylenol scare, in which seven people died after some pain-killer capsules were laced with cyanide. But now it has come a cropper, after the US Food and Drug Administration warned that some of its proprietary over-the-counter medicines for children (including Tylenol) had too much active ingredient in them, and thus failed to reach the acceptable public safety benchmark.

Although there is no evidence of anyone being harmed, and J&J acted promptly and efficiently in organising a voluntary recall, it failed to explain itself to anxious parents, who have become increasingly restive. They quickly availed themselves of Twitter, Facebook and various parenting blogs to express their frustration at not being able to get a straight answer out of the company about what was going on. This is only the latest of a number of poorly explained recalls, which could have catastrophic knock-on effects for the company’s reputation. As one parent, quoted in the New York Times, put it: “Another recall for baby Tylenol. Well no more baby Tylenol, back to generic brand.”

Although J&J can scarcely blame the forces of nature for its self-inflicted disaster there are, nevertheless, parallels with the BP situation. In both cases, the companies seem obsessed with procedures and asserting internal control, which conveys the unfortunate impression that cover-up rather than communication is the ultimate agenda.

As I commented in my blog post on the Maclaren baby pushchair crisis last autumn, a bunker mentality is the default company reaction in these situations, and it’s actually disastrous. True, some crises are worse than they seem; acting upon them could aggravate their severity, whereas left alone they may quietly subside. But can you really afford to take that risk? Suppose this is the big one, the corporate reputation-wrecker?

Whatever you do, don’t hide behind PR flunkies and hope it will go away. Get the chief executive out there early, personally engaging with the media. Maclaren didn’t do that, with disastrous results for sales in its main market, the USA. BP and Toyota eventually did, but I bet they wish they had wheeled them out earlier.

ASA puts top greenwash perpetrator in the dock – HMG

March 17, 2010

Much self-congratulation at the Committee of Advertising Practice, which formulates the advertising regulatory code, and the Advertising Standards Authority, which enacts it, after steering through a comprehensive update of the code, that will come into force later this year.

News of their success could not have broken at a more propitious time.

The most eye-catching element in the new package is a promised crackdown on greenwash. Nothing is better guaranteed to get the public hot under the collar than bogus science used to imbue an advertising message with cheap charisma. And, as luck would have it, the ASA has just been given a prime opportunity to pillory one of its principal purveyors, in a magisterial display of the potency and impartiality of the self-regulatory system. The perpetrator in question is no less an organisation than HMG, or rather Ed Miliband’s part of it, the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Climate change claptrap?

Sent down from the dock in disgrace were two press ads – part of a much wider £6m campaign – that used nursery rhymes to sensationalise a message about climate change. The ASA found that the language used to describe a future world beset by violent storms, long droughts and severe heatwaves “should have been phrased more tentatively.” Somehow, I don’t think careful use of the subjunctive mood would have had the same impact, even in the hands of skilled copywriters.

But the ASA is here addressing a wider issue than the legalistic application of language. Climate science has been forced on the defensive by an unfortunate cocktail of conspiracy and cock-up. Last year eminent climatologist Dr Phil Jones admitted that he had effaced certain inconvenient statistics which failed to fit his own dramatic theory of change.  Meanwhile, the august InterGovernment Panel on Climate Change has been forced to eat humble pie after it was revealed that its authoritative claim the Himalayan glaciers will melt away by 2035 was completely erroneous.

If the science is that flaky, what business has government being so categorical in its public service campaigns? One answer may be: electioneering. The equally controversial TV version of the DECC campaign has so far escaped the censor’s pen, but has become mired in controversy of a different sort.

Ofcom, the media regulator, is currently looking into 700 complaints that the commercial was, in effect, a form of (illegal) political advertising aimed at influencing public opinion ahead of a general election. Proving, or disproving, that charge will be extremely difficult since, unlike the effect of drink on driving, or of a high fat, sugar and salt intake on health, the facts of climatology are not open to strict empirical investigation.

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