Opinion: Your creative license is revoked

If you want to know what’s fundamentally wrong with agency-client relationships and the damage scam ads do beyond just being bad for the creative industry, you need look no further than the J. C. Penney Company debacle that unfolded during the Cannes Lions last month.

If you were sleeping through the Cannes coverage, or if you had better things to do, let me bring you up to speed. A TVC, although it was more of an YTC (YouTube commercial) as no media was bought for the spot, was made for and featured the US apparel outfit J.C. Penney. Titled “Speed Dressing”, the spot showed two teens timing themselves while practising taking off and putting back on their clothes before meeting at the girl’s house and telling her mother they were going down the the basement to “watch TV”. While the spot won a bronze at Cannes, what got many upset was it appeared to condone teen sex.

Oh and there was one other small problem — the client hadn’t even heard of it until it won at Cannes and started appearing on YouTube.

J.C. Penney was furious, stating it had no knowledge of the spot nor did it approve it, and blamed AOR Saatchi & Saatchi or at least a former Saatchis employee. CMO Mike Boylson grilled Saatchis when he was made aware of the spot. Saatchis then released a statement saying it was created by a third party vendor without J.C. Penney’s knowledge or consent, by which they mean production shop Epoch Films, which actually entered the spot for Cannes. However, it seems unlikely there isn’t at least a dotted line back to Saatchi & Saatchi, and Boylson speculated in the media that it might have been a side project by someone whose day job was working on legitimate J.C. Penney campaigns. It does seem naive to think that Epoch wouldn’t have at least hinted at the scam ad it was making to Saatchis.

The good news for Saatchis is that Boylson told the Wall Street Journal, “Our relationship with them is beyond the scope of this one incident”.

The “incident” created plenty of blog chatter and, particularly on the ad industry related blogs. There was plenty of support for the theory that it was a good spot and probably the best thing that could have happened to J.C. Penney. Some conspiracy theorists even claimed it was all orchestrated by the client to stoke up the buzz machine, which is an interesting theory but seriously flawed considering the crisis talks that Boylson forced Saatchis into, along with the humbling apologies the agency had to make.

Even if this award-winning scam ad does create a branding coup for the client, no one outside the brand’s tent – no agency, production house or renegade creative — has any right to hijack a brand in such a way for personal glory.

In the best agency-client relationships there is an inherent understanding of each others’ pressures and business objectives and a sense that we are all pulling in the same direction. The obscene arrogance that leads to creative work being assembled outside the usual processes and without the knowledge let alone consent of the brand’s custodians can only damage agencies’ reputations, and lead to the sort of thinking agencies hate, where clients see them as simply┬ávendors and not┬ápartners.

Creative agencies are more than ever under intense scrutiny to prove ROI and act in a synergistic way with their clients, and incidents like the J.C. Penney affair take the agencies back to the bad old days when clients and the general public viewed them as slightly up the rung from used car sales men, lawyers and journalists.

Sure, clients are often not brave enough, particularly in this part of the world, and agencies have a vital role to play in expanding client marketers’ horizons about where they can take their brand, but it has to be done as a consultative process.

Another question mark has to be placed against the validity of Cannes Lions itself. If its judging process can’t at the very minimum establish the creative is at the very least signed off by the client and actually had some media spend associated with it, then surely that casts doubt on the value of the awards.

If agencies and individuals are rewarded for doing work with none of the boundaries built in by a brand’s prevailing profile, the need to meet a specific brief and good business parameters, then all the festival is really celebrating is art, and I think they already have a festival for that — it happens about a month earlier at the same venue.

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