ADVERTISING / International Audience

A festival case draws ire as well as unwelcoming buzz around a multi-awarded brand.

"BREAK FREE"

[Type of content: Journalism]

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Soon after Golden Drum, the regional award show for the creative industry, had opened its doors in Slovenia on October 18, McCann-Erickson Bucharest, an Interpublic-majority owned star agency, started coming under fire.

 

A Creative Director at a medium-sized Romanian independent agency suggested a wrongdoing on McCann’s part.

  “Dear McCann, (…) I know a lot of young people (…) that trust you and find role models amongst yourselves. I wish you fulfilled their expectations, with no exception.

I wish you broke free from the closed circle of the festival-tailored campaign cases and stepped into the circle of campaigns tailored for consumers.

It is wrong to steal a festival jury’s mind with an innovative case that was developed inside a test tube and which, in fact, has such little significance to Romanians. (…).

Valentin Suciu, Partner and Creative Director of Jazz Communication, who had published this on his Facebook wall, also mentioned McCann’s “creative ambition” and “talent”.

The case “cooked up inside a test tube” to which Suciu alluded to was Rombot, a campaign that McCann Bucharest, with business of around €38 million in 2016, submitted to Gold Drum this year.

Rombot is a computer program (a bot) that talks like humans, designed by McCann Bucharest for ROM, a compound and a major brand of the confectionery company Kandia Dulce, which had a €36 million turnover in 2016.

WHY ALL THE BUZZ?

What pushed Suciu to write that message to McCann’s creative and strategy people?

He and others in the creative industry pointed to McCann Bucharest’s tactic to build the Rombot case by using Romanians’ winter protests against a Government emergency bill*, also known as #rezist popular culture. The agency made use of powerful video images with protesters.

Well-known creative professionals started to spread comments on Facebook immediately:

  • “Unbelievable”Bogdan Nitu, Webstyler;
  • “Hahahhahahahhaha. Cool! So, Rombot is the outcome of #rezist. Write an e-mail to Golden Drum!”Ema Prisca, Independent Creative Director;
  • A former Head of Marketing in the telecom industry used the “#shame” hashtag;

[*The leftist Government, then newly installed following the parliamentary elections in December 2016, issued at mid-night, on January 31, OUG 13/2017– an emergency bill crafted to pardon corruption and abuse. Top political leaders were and still are under criminal investigation.]

 

THE AGENCY AND CLIENT RESPOND

Both the agency and the client declined to meet for face-to-face interviews and responded by e-mail.

The client:

  1. Did Kandia approve the Rombot case that McCann Bucharest submitted to Golden Drum?
  2. How do street protests against a Government bill fit a compound’s brand platform?
  3. How has Kandia Dulce responded to those who have criticized the Rombot case?

Gabriela Munteanu, Marketing Director, answered**:

“(…) Rombot is a project that had a clear objective: to trigger especially the interest of the youngsters by using a virtual platform (a chat bot), as ambassador of Romania, to understand better (fullest) ourselves and to change the way we are perceived abroad. (…). So for an international exposure, we have considered important to set the social context of dissatisfaction happening in Romania. Therefore (…) we gave a broader context of what is happening in Romania (…).

(…) As said above, the only role that the images with the street protests had in the case study were to present the social context for Rombot during the project life (…).”

The first question didn’t get a specific answer, yes or no.

**selections on topic: how the case was built and submitted to Golden Drum.

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The agency:

  1. How do you respond to critics?
  2. What is the connection between a bot*** and a street protest which had a specific mission: to abolish a Government bill that pardons corruption practices (OUG13/2017)?
  3. How can protesters against that bill be linked to ROM/Kandia?

***launched in 2016 to meet marketing objectives

Catalin Dobre, Executive Creative Director at McCann answered**:

  1. “(…) Golden Drum is a regional festival. The case wanted to take the idea and put it in a social context, so an international jury that doesn’t know much about Romania can understand it. (…) An international jury needs to understand a bit of the social context surrounding the campaign (…).”
  2. “I want to set something straight from the start. ROM does not do politics and does not get involved in politics. The presence of a few scenes from the protest in the intro of the case had the only purpose to present a bit of the social context, for an international jury. It wants to show the pulse of the society. (…) Showing the social pulse helped people understand why Romanians would have the state of mind to get involved also in a project like Rombot.
  3. “The link should not be seen in relation with politics. The link is the will to be actively involved in any type of projects that connect to making a difference for the country.”

**selections on topic: how the case was built and submitted to Golden Drum.

HELLO WORLD, HERE ARE SOME FACTS

“Hello world. I am Rombot (…) and I was born in extraordinary circumstances, in a country where people lost trust in politicians and are taking to the streets”, says McCann’s video case submitted to Golden Drum, and later on awarded.

Powerful video images with people protesting against the bill pardoning corruption have been utilized to strengthen Rombot’s reason for being born.

But what do facts say, in the order of their occurrence?

FACT-CHECKING#1: Rombot was launched at the end of November 2016. That means two months AHEAD OF the street protests in February 2017.

FACT-CHECKING #2: McCann Bucharest’s representatives stated in November 2016 that developing Rombot required “months of work and programming”.  That means Rombot was born most probably in the summer/spring of 2016, when Romania was ruled by a technocrat Government, headed by Dacian Ciolos, with a good reputation in the eyes of EU leaders and the international press.

The technocrat Government didn’t cause people “to take to the streets”, while Rombot was born. On the contrary, it was pretty much popular and well-trusted among the younger generation (it moved to cut bureaucracy and was open to civil initiatives, among other things).

And last but not the least: at the time Rombot was born, many young people – who had previously flooded the streets for other causes (i.e. Rosia Montana, Colectiv) – had joined the technocrat Government to work for it, not against it. I personally know many of them.

#REZIST SHOULDN’T BE BRANDS’ SHUTTERSTOCK

Facts are facts, but the creative people who openly expressed their opinions had their own reasons for drawing attention to the Rombot case.

Ema Prisca, Bogdan Nitu, and Valentin Suciu offered comments for this article:

  • Ema Prisca, Independent Creative Director: „The awards should work as benchmarks. In our market, they are not. According to Global Competitiveness Report issued by the World Economic Forum, Romania is positioned on the 100th place out of 137 countries when it comes to usage of marketing and consequently communication. We are very primitive and nobody cares. The awards in Romania are short-cuts to careers for some and a source of confusion for the rest.”

 

  • Bogdan Nitu, Webstyler: “The case suggests that Rombot was inspired by the protests that took place in February this year and positions itself as a solution for protesters. But Rombot was launched on December 1 2016 under a different purpose (…). I was there on the streets, so I feel offended that the protest and its meaningfulness were exploited in such a way.”

 

  • Valentin Suciu, Jazz Communication says that he wouldn’t make use of those video images in his work, implying that the anti-corruption protests are not like “any other Shutterstock images” for commercial brands.

 “The problem is that Rombot’s impact was crafted to suggest a mass penetration into the popular culture – and that didn’t happen. If you claim to have influenced a culture – but you didn’t, despite the festival awards you get – well, everybody in this industry feels the consequences somehow.”

But what consequences are we talking about? “Our credibility in front of the clients” - Suciu

YET: AN INDUSTRY PROBLEM

Clients? It’s much more.

Some journalists, for instance, have grown skeptical, too.

Generally speaking and referring to the broader context of festival cases, a Romanian journalist who has kept an eye on this industry for many years speaks about a common problem of the communication industry.

A majority of the works that Romanian agencies submit to Cannes Lions festival – while many of them are fine and interesting as they come – are unnecessarily, overwhelmingly blinged up in festival cases, which include obvious inaccuracies and dubious claims”, Costin Ionescu, who reports for Hotnews.ro website, commented for this article.

Here is such an example, brought to attention on Valentin Suciu’s Facebook wall by the owner of a top PR agency: Leo Burnett claimed that their ad with Stefan cel Mare (a ruler in the 15th century) convinced Romanians to go out and vote, hence Klaus Iohannis won the Presidential Elections in 2014.” 

But ad critics worldwide have pointed at various harmful advertising practices for a long time. I would mention here Bob Garfield, a feared and influential columnist for Advertising Age at the time I met and talked to for an interview during a Cannes Lions edition a decade ago.

Cannes Lions is the annual gathering of award-seeking creative people that tracks the biggest share of public attention and money.

Cannes Lions is also the ad event where a chicken sandwich costs €32, as Business Insider puts it in few words, so as to send a clear message.

OUTCOME VERSUS CASES

What would be the message?

This might be one: A too aggressive PR buzz around awards has throughout the years built the general impression that the communications industry’s priorities are awards, parties, personal ambitions and egos, rather than clients’ business objectives. The money poured into this awards industry has started to fuel more and more press headlines like this.

Hence, another relevant question around ROM, a multi-awarded brand, arises:

WHY ARE MONEY-CONSUMING AWARDS RELEVANT FOR CLIENTS’ BUSINESSES?

Kandia Dulce’s representatives were invited to talk about business results. The company declined to disclose ROM’s market-share evolution over the past five years.

“Business details are not relevant in an article about Rombot communication’s campaign”, Gabriela Munteanu, the company’s Marketing Director explained.

Mihail Neagu, who until this summer had been Kandia Dulce’s Commercial Director, also declined to reveal market-share figures, citing ethical reasons  as he had left the company to run another business.

But Neagu accepted to answer one simple question, since he was in charge of selling ROM, when Rombot was launched: “What impact did Rombot campaign have on sales?”

The answer came quickly: “It didn’t produce any impact”.

Results versus award-winning cases. This might be the story about Rombot, after all.

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About the author:

Larisa Ghitulescu began to keep an eye on the communications industry in 2002, when she started to work as a financial journalist. Throughout her activity, she has reported on several Cannes Lions and Golden Drum editions as a Media & Advertising editor for some of Romania’s leading business titles, i.e. Business Magazin, Ziarul Financiar and Money Express. Nowadays, she is working as an independent practitioner in the communications industry, building projects for teams (leadership), journalism, education, and Himalayan storytelling.

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