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Commentary: Scam ads, Ford, JWT, Bobby Pawar, Colvyn Harris, Kardashians…

There are many sides in a controversy like this. But the real concern is whether creativity was sacrificed at the altar of convenience

Commentary: Scam ads, Ford, JWT, Bobby Pawar, Colvyn Harris, Kardashians…

There are many sides in a controversy like this. But the real concern is whether creativity was sacrificed at the altar of convenience 

Kalyan Kar

April 1, 2013

What a week we passed through last week. It was pure grist to the mill. A scam ad, India’s largest ad agency in the eye of the storm, one of the best known global automobile brands running for cover, the sacking of one of India’s best-known Chief Creative Officers, and the Kardashian sisters thrown in for good measure…Phew!

Much has been written by us and our competitors. So let’s skip the details. Everybody is talking about right and wrong – and if Bobby Pawar and Vijay Simha Vellanki were sacrificed at the altar of convenience. Opinion is rightly divided. From what I know, Bobby, after “putting” in his papers, made a getaway to Gulmarg to cool off in cooler climes, far from the madding crowd.

But the last word has not been written on this sordid chapter in advertising industry’s contemporary history. If one were to go by talk in the usual watering holes and social media, Bobby has earned a lot of sympathy following his sack. Here are two I picked up from Facebook.

Said Vivek Srivastava, Jt MD, Innocean, on his FB wall: “Advertising has found two new saints: St. Bobby the patron saint of scam ads and St. Colvin the patron saint of cover-Ups! All rise...

Ravi Kiran, an entrepreneurial evangelist and former Starcom Mediavest South Asia CEO, on my FB wall: “Do companies like Ford and JWT really know how to understand and cope with social behaviour? What if the ads were not created for the awards? Would they have been more acceptable?”

A former WPP senior hand wrote in a Whatsapp exchange: “WPP group bosses have never been known to stand up for their colleagues.”   

And then there was the long article on Facebook by Prathap Suthan, Founder Director of The Bang in The Middle.

At the heart of the controversial incident are a few basic issues. One, everybody agrees that scam ads have become rampant in Indian advertising simply for the sake of winning awards. Two, was Bobby Pawar solely responsible? Three, what about the role of Ford, the client? Four, what role did JWT South Asia CEO Colvyn Harris play in all this?

The fact of the matter is that winning awards and being top of the heap, read Agency of the Year kind of certificate, is all too strong these days. In the Indian context Abbys are big. Ogilvy & Mather, arguably the strongest network agency in the country at present, decided to pull out of the Abbys this year. Team O&M had the heaviest baggage of metals to carry back from Goafest last April.

With Ogilvy out of the fray this year, could JWT, India’s largest ad agency, afford not to be the numero uno agency this year? Besides, could it afford to be outgunned by a tiny agency called Taproot headed by none other than Agnello Dias, its former NCD?

The pressure must have been immense on JWT to win big this year at Goa. JWT needed to show its creative mettle more than ever before – and the onus was on Pawar, brought in with a lot of expectations. JWT, under Bobby as CCO, had even put in place three NCDs soon after he joined in January 2012.

Pawar himself summed up the reality in a comment to AdAge: “Every agency head says, 'We want you to win awards'. What do you think is going to happen? It's the bean-counterisation. You have to get so many points at Cannes. That's a matchbox and a powder keg, and you shouldn't be surprised if it explodes."

And like hell it exploded last week with the Ford Figo scam ad.

Scam ads have almost become a norm at the global level. It is common knowledge, and disturbingly so, that in most cases there is pressure from the top ranks that leads creatives to push limits to win awards that will get them network agency of the year status at prestigious award shows. The ad fraternity is well aware how the Cannes Lions has become a creative arms race between WPP and Omnicom Group since the Festival introduced a holding company of the year award some years ago. It is perhaps this syndrome that got JWT India in a mess at the India level too, in its efforts to prove a point that it is not really behind Ogilvy India.

But why is nobody talking about the creativity aspect in these Ford Figo ads? As Ravi Kiran has raised the question, what if the ads were not created for the awards? Would they have been more acceptable then? In other words, had these Ford Figo ads been published as a regular campaign, would Bobby Pawar and Co. got away and been feted for great creativity? That’s anybody’s guess; after all, one of the ads featured the Kardashian sisters in a kind of bondage situation and that would not have raised a lot of muck. As for the ad featuring former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and playing on his scandal-ridden history of sex scandals, well, he is not the first politician or celebrity who has been lampooned in an ad campaign.

What about the Benetton ads which have always run into a storm? They were never scam ads, just controversial and irreverential enough to get under the skin of many. Benetton has played with skin colour. In its ‘Unhate’ campaign, it has shown global leaders like Barrack Obama and Hu Jintao kissing each other…. But most importantly, the company has always stood by its creative team and widely published its ads in all corners of the planet.

Shock ads have long been a part of Benetton's publicity strategy, with photographer Oliviero Toscani's famous campaigns featuring death row inmates and people dying of AIDS. The bottom line: Benetton has proved to be a gutsy client and had the courage to back its creative team.

In the current case involving JWT India and Ford, this was the vital element that was missing. Ford chickened out the moment the Figo scam ads hit the Internet after being uploaded on the Ads of the World website. Pawar & Co. also hit another snag. The Ford Figo ads were never intended for publishing. Now that is one heck of a serious thing because it straight away puts it in the scam ad category because they were officially entered by JWT India for the Abbys.

Niranjan Kaushik, who has launched Acid Brand Communications with his partner with Sameer Desai, 2011, has brought the debate over scam ads beautifully in his blog ‘Ramblings’ titled ‘This is not in defence of Bobby Pawar. But then again, it may be

Kaushik writes: “We will celebrate awards but we will shun scam. We will continue to chase awards as an industry, we will want to be known as the coolest (read most-awarded) agency in the country.

“We will hire cool creative minds like Bobby Pawar to head our agency because we want to be known as the most awarded agency at Cannes next year. We will put unreasonable pressure on that guy to go out and win at all costs. We will expect him to do it despite “international brand guidelines. After all, it’s that quality that brings out the champion in you, isn’t it?

“In that process, a cheeky Ford Figo campaign comes out of JWT. It is an entry at Goafest, which means it clearly comes with the blessings of the client, at Ford. Nothing can be entered at Goafest without a client approval letter, and we all know that.

“After it comes out, it goes viral. And pisses off Berlusconi’s supporters (if he had any). And it pisses off the Kardashians.  And it pisses off too many idiots on social media.

“Ford reacts to the international flak.

“JWT needs to retain the business, it needs to look like a responsible and responsive agency.

“So what does it do? It sacks Bobby Pawar.

“It sacks the guy for trying to create an atmosphere in the agency where creative minds can flourish.

“It sacks him for trying to create an environment he grew up in.”

In a sense, that brings the tale to Colvyn Harris and the top management. From all accounts, including chats with those who run the Goafest Awards, the top management of JWT India was fully aware of these Ford Figo ads being entered. In typical bureaucratic style, Pawar was dumped as he had signed the entries. And Ford sacked a senior India executive who too had signed the entries from the client side.

But why didn’t the JWT top leadership stand up for the creative team? Till shit hit the ceiling – in other words, till word got out that these were scam ads – everybody was willing to go through with the ads. Once the controversy hit the headlines, everybody ran for cover and found two scapegoats – Bobby Pawar and Vijay Simha. And JWT has for now retained its biggest global account, Ford.

As Charulata Ravi Kumar, a former senior executive at JWT India, and currently CEO, Product of the Year India, said, “Creativity and therefore by extension advertising is mistakenly construed by many to mean total freedom and a license to say what you please. Creativity cannot and should not be curbed. But it cannot operate in defiance of all laws. One must understand the difference between loose and random creativity and a well channeled, purposeful one.  While creative teams must be made conscious of the sensitivities, the onus of filtering the work and chanelising effort in the right direction must be on the management. The responsibility of legal implications lies with the management. Getting rid of pawns does not abjugate the king.”

And she a great suggestion: JWT should now consider releasing an ad that has the three leaders at the top similarly gagged in the boot of a Ford car and a headline that says: "Sorry FOR D mess!"

However, one is not sure that the story has ended here. The Kardashian sisters have threatened to take Ford to court. If they do, and depending on the outcome, JWT India may have further problems on its hands. Ford wouldn’t be too happy with a legal suit of this kind. It is not Benetton. And Sir Martin Sorrell is a tough man. He knows how to protect business interests, and the Ford account is far too precious for WPP. Cover-ups don’t always work.

Related stories:

JWT gives marching orders to Bobby Pawar over Ford Figo ads

Ford and JWT eat humble pie with misguided creative

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