Cannes awards spat masks war to the needle between de Nardis and Sorrell

July 4, 2013

Mainardo de NardisWPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell has rightly been basking in the reflected glory of the Cannes sunshine. Three successive years, three successive triumphs as holding company of the year at the International Festival of Creativity. It’s the pinnacle moment for a strategy – his own as it happens, but one for which worldwide creative director John O’Keeffe has done all the hard implementation – designed to kick into touch that old myth about Omnicom’s creative supremacy.

Martin, they used to say, has Asia (meaning he’s a shrewd strategist) but John (Wren, Omnicom CEO) has all the brands. Not any more. In the eternal battle for Cannes “statues”, WPP notched up a convincing lead of 2067 points over Omnicom, in number two position with 1552. Publicis Groupe trailed in third place with 989.5 (where did that half-point come from? No idea). Just to rub the triumph in, a leading WPP agency, Ogilvy & Mather, became the first network ever to win more than 100 lions and its Sao Paulo shop was named agency of the year. So now Martin can boast about having the brands, as well as Asia. Which is more than Alexander the Great could ever do.

But when it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. A few days after the festival ended, news that Omnicom was crying foul over the final Lions tally left Sir Martin spluttering into his breakfast of fresh strawberries at Connaught’s. His temper will not have improved on learning the identity of the trouble-fête behind all this mischief: none other than Mainardo de Nardis, CEO of Omnicom’s principal media planning and buying network, OMD Worldwide. Mainardo (pictured) and Sir Martin go back a long way…

More of that in a moment, though. First, let’s get down and dirty with some relatively boring Cannes festival award technicalities. The substance of de Nardis’ complaint is that WPP media company GroupM has massively over-claimed in putting out a statement – last Wednesday – saying it had won 45 awards, more than any other media agency holding company. Not nearly so, according to Omnicom. Thirty of the Lions (i.e., awards) claimed by GroupM are not verified on the Cannes Lions winners’ website.

Doh? Well, a majority of GroupM’s wins should be disqualified because its subsidiary agencies were not specified in the original competition entry. WPP may well have won something, on the creative side, but for whatever reason, failed to catalogue the media achievement. After the wins were announced, according to Omnicom, GroupM assiduously went back to each entrant agency and requested they be listed as the media shop for the work.

“Gaming the system,” says de Nardis, and a clear violation of the Festival’s rules in spirit if not in the letter (Cannes does make allowance for a few genuine oversights, but not wholesale ones). “Rubbish,” responds GroupM: just a few inadvertent errors and when the Cannes deadline for amended entries is published tomorrow (July 5th), all will be vindicated.

OMD, by the way, won 19 awards, which are seemingly confirmed on the Cannes website. So, if we subtract 30 from GroupM’s claimed 45, we can see that OMD has everything to play for.

All this might seem a storm in a teacup to most readers. But fuelling Sorrell’s irritation is some history. Mainardo de Nardis was once a senior WPP executive and the relationship with Sorrell did not end pleasantly.

Specifically, de Nardis headed WPP’s CIA.mediaedge, these days called MEC, before leaving for Aegis in 2006. Ironically, in view of what has come later, it was WPP which accused de Nardis of not abiding by the rules. Indeed, it became so convinced that de Nardis was playing a double game – working for a rival while still on WPP gardening leave – that it issued legal proceedings against him. Interestingly (from a revelatory point of view), the matter went to trial and quite a lot of Machiavellian shenanigans tumbled out concerning de Nardis’ relationship with Marco Benatti, another former WPP executive who was at that time country manager of CIA in Italy. Although they have managed to fall out from time to time, de Nardis and Benatti were (and probably still are) closely tied by family and business interests – for example, they once ran Medianetwork Italia. Benatti was himself the subject of WPP court proceedings, for alleged breach of fiduciary duty in failing to disclose a major holding in an Italian company, Media Club, which he had helped to acquire on WPP’s behalf in 2002. The trial lumbered on until 2008. Anyone interested in the minutiae of these (apparently) dusty events might look here and here.

So, nothing personal in this statues kerfuffle, eh? One other thing guaranteed to pour salt into old wounds is the prestigious Chanel account, recently up for repitch. Incumbent media agency? MEC. Prospective winner (according to the gossip at Cannes, possibly generated by de Nardis himself): OMD. Actual winner, declared yesterday: WPP, in the guise of a new bespoke agency, Plus – which harbours elements of MEC and Mindshare in its media-buying element.

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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.


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