David Bernstein: Cheats, at times, prosper

Should the creatives who doctored an original ad in order to win an award be ostracised as cheats, or were they just unlucky to be caught?

Paul Belford and Nigel Roberts of Ogilvy & Mather submit an ad for COI Communications to the Campaign Press Awards. Believing that what actually appeared could be improved upon, they doctor the original and win an award. They are found out. Members of the creative ad community are enraged. John Hegarty, chairman of this year’s jury, calls for tough sanctions on cheats and seeks the support of five former presidents of British Design and Art Direction.

But what’s this? The current D&AD president – in his other job as executive creative director of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO – has just employed the services of Belford and Roberts.

Campaign (26 April) reports on, and stirs up, the ensuing frenzy among agency bosses and creative chiefs. Of 11 interviewed, six would also hire them, three wouldn’t and two aren’t sure. Potential hirers stress the team’s talent and brilliance. One says, ‘They’re one of the best teams around and no one died.’ Some imply that the ‘crime’ is common and that the culprits are unlucky to be the first to be found out. The most significant comment? ‘I don’t know because I’ve never met them.’

Clearly then, it isn’t a matter of right and wrong. As with John Reid’s defence of the pornographer’s donation to New Labour, moral judgements don’t apply. Principle takes a back seat. Nice blokes, especially if ‘incredibly talented’ can be excused their misdemeanours. In the real world it would appear things aren’t black and white. And the creative director of Grey (sic) says ‘there are not that many good people around’. Depends what you mean by good. Virtuous, worthy, of good repute, commendable? (see Chambers).

And what is a ‘good’ ad? One that wins the plaudits of one’s peers. Good ads win awards. Careers are built on gongs. Gold brings gold. As creative director, I must have read over 2000 CVs. I doubt if 10 per cent of them referred to the commercial success of the products and brands the creative applicants worked on. Interestingly, those that did originated from creatives in smaller agencies, often regional and, unsurprisingly, those in direct marketing where priorities are different.

In 1980 advertising brought some sanity to the honours business by instituting the IPA Advertising Effectiveness Awards. By a sadly ironic coincidence, opposite Campaign’s feature on Belford and Roberts was an obituary of the awards’ creator, Simon Broadbent. It was written by his son Tim, who was convenor of the judges in 2000. Simon was a creative-friendly research man. He believed that research, by proving a link between advertising and business success, could only improve the standing of creatives. He helped to calm the adversarial nature of the interdepartmental dialogue. Research ceased to be regarded as a stick with which suits could beat creatives. Instead, it could aid understanding of the communi

cation process and improve execution. Today it is hard to believe that before 1980 ‘virtually nothing was publicly available about the economic value of advertising’.

Advertising is a bastard art in the middle of an inexact science. Unfortunately, the glamour of the media, especially television, tempted many in adbiz to believe that bastard artists were in fact legitimate and before long they too would have their own Cannes festival.

However, is artistic merit a suitable criterion in a business whose purpose is strictly commercial? How do the judges assess work – especially from foreign parts – the context of which they are unsure about and the efficacy of which they can only guess at? Would this ad, design, promotional scheme, whatever, move some imagined recipient towards identification with or even purchase of the brand?

Responsible judges make use of some such mental grid, however, in my experience, jury discussions revolve exclusively around innovation, difference and technique.

What improvements, I wonder, would the average creative team make to an entry were they given the chance to perform Belford and Roberts’ trick? Would they increase the size of the illustration, change the typeface, add a smart sign-off? Or would they incorporate a coupon, website address or other direct response mechanism to make the ad more effective?

Your guess is as good as mine. But then, what do we mean by good?

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