Must try harder

In Advertising, Communicate, Published journalism on November 24, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Everyone was talking about digital at this year’s MENA Cristal Awards, but the prizes told a different story

Originally published in Communicate, March 2010

“This to me doesn’t feel like an awards show, it feels like a big family reunion,” said John Merrifield, creative at large of TBWA/Asia Pacific, and the president of the MENA Cristal Awards jury. He was on stage at the closing ceremony of the snowbound advertising extravaganza in the mountains above Beirut.

The Cristals has always been as much – many would say more – about networking as it is about awards, and this year was no different. The Middle East’s extended family of admen and adwomen sheltered together from a blizzard, swilling Chateau Kefraya and putting the marketing world to rights in the lobby of the Faraya Intercon. Merrifield was right – it did feel like a family gathering.

And the gala dinner would have felt more like and awards show if the judges had given away more prizes. This year, few Cristals were handed out to the assembled creatives, with no Grand Cristals awarded in some disciplines. Judges said the quality of work wasn’t up to standard.

Richard Pinder, chief operating officer of Publicis Worldwide and president of the festival, tells Communicate, “I was quite disappointed that the level of work was not as good as I remember from the region.” A drop in creativity is not unique to the Middle East, however; Pinder says the credit crisis has heralded a global creativity crunch. “What has happened worldwide is that the quality of work has fallen in the last 12 months, as a result of risk aversion of clients and agencies, and time pressure and money pressure and all the other things,” he adds.

Not everyone was so kind. JWT Mena CEO Roy Haddad, who presided over the Corporate and Integrated jury, told the awards ceremony, “We benchmark the best in the world, and we are very far away from the best in the world.” In the Cyber, Radio, Corporate, and Daily Press categories, no Grand Cristals (for being best in the discipline) were awarded.

“They are trying to avoid saying, “the tallest midget,” Pinder tells Communicate. “They are trying to say what the best piece of work is, and ask if it’s of a standard that deserves a Cristal. If not, we are just demeaning the Cristals. I think that’s the right way to approach it.”

“We stuck to the formula that has made the event successful: a mixed jury bringing together agencies and clients,” says Christian Cappe, CEO of the Festival.

“This year the jury has been very selective. The result is a prize list of a very high quality.” He adds that the jury and the Cristals organizers went to lengths to confirm the validity of awarded campaigns. To avoid being tainted by the rash of questionable “ghost ads” that have infected awards shows in recent years, the Cristals brought in independent auditing company Ipsos to oversee the judging.

The prizegivings were lively, though, with a familiar mix of inebriation, enthusiasm and energy among the agency tables. The Media category was a duel between Starcom (which took five Cristals) and OMD (which won four, plus a special jury mention). In this category, traditional agencies competed with media units, lending credence to the assertions of Pinder and others that advertising work is becoming less categorizable by media, and is more often based on an idea translated across numerous channels. Leo Burnett Beirut won a Cristal for its Pert Plus “Stop the Suffering” campaign, which contained TV, online and ambient components, and JWT Beirut took the Media Grand Cristal for their launch of Le Mall shopping center.

That was during the first round of the prize giving. By the final night, the media agencies had largely escaped down the snow-struck mountain, and the tables were packed with trad ad agency folk, watching what became a two-horse race between JWT and Leo Burnett. Overall, JWT took 12 Cristals and Leo Burnett took 13. Each network won three Grand Cristals. Leo Burnett Cairo won the Festival Grand Cristal for its Melody Entertainment work, and JWT Dubai was the highest-ranked agency.

Leo Burnett took the top spot on the agency rankings, followed by JWT, then TBWA/Raad. Then, due in part to a quirk of statistics, Expression, the Dubai-based indie shop. Its network consists of one office in Dubai Media City, but it ranked higher than Impact BBDO.
Although entries were down this year, with 849 campaigns submitted, compared to last year’s 1,000, organizers say attendance increased; 530 delegates attended, up from 450 in 2009. “We are very happy with the outcome of this fifth edition of the Festival,” says Cappe. “We have experienced a significant increase in the number of delegates coming from all the countries in the MENA region.”

DIGITAL DISAPPOINTMENT. The Cyber category only saw two crystals awarded: Leo Burnett Beirut’s “Save Zahra” for Exotica, and the Web component of Leo Burnett Beirut’s Le Mall launch.

“We looked at the work that came out of the Middle East and it was pretty disappointing,” Yousef Tuqan Tuqan, CEO of Flip Media and Cyber jury spokesman, told delegates before announcing the winners. “I don’t think anyone in our industry will argue with that.”
The region’s digital work gives little cause for envy, he told the audience, saying the industry is driven by compromise – on budgets and on time. “We are the last guys in the pecking order, and that has to change,” he said.

Many of the official discussions, debates and round tables – as Tuqan pointed out – had been given over to grappling with the challenges facing digital in the region.

At a session on digital as a way to tackle recession, Yahoo’s regional director of advertising Hussein Freijeh addressed communication problems between traditional and new media practitioners when he spoke about a social media platform his company put together for a P&G fragrance brand. “We bypassed all our benchmarks; in some cases we doubled our benchmarks,” he said. “But client satisfaction was very low at the end of the campaign. Still [the client] doesn’t know it was a success.”

The problem, said Freijeh, was the measurements they used. “Three minutes interaction time, 5,000 uploads, 300,000 page views and 50,000 unique visitors on a very minimum budget” might be impressive to those who understand digital figures, he said, but it’s top-of-mind recall and purchase intent that brand managers want to measure. “We have to help this brand [manager] by investing in research tools that help him understand that this activation will help him get to his objectives that he promised his management,” said Freijeh.

Digital is not an economic cure-all, said Wassim Bassil, regional managing director of RMG Connect, JWT’s digital agency. “Now it’s being branded as the savior of the recession,” he said. “I don’t believe that is the case.”

However, clients are becoming more educated about the benefits of digital, rather than just tacking it on to an agency brief. “More and more, on the client side, people understand what [digital agencies] mean,” said Bassil. “So we started getting along with them, working directly with clients, which gave us more and more space to start changing the way things have been going on for the past few years.”

TALKIN ’BOUT A REVOLUTION. A man who knows about changing the way things have been going is Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev introduced perestroika, the restructuring process that allowed his country to break away from the staid economic model it struggled under until the late 1980s. He was at the reigns of the USSR in 1991, when it shattered into the Russian Federation and a number of breakaway republics.

The cold war was over and a new era had begun.

He was at the event to promote his Green Cross International environmental organization and receive a Cristal of Honor. Although in a press conference Gorbachev justified his advertising outings as a poster boy for Pizza Hut and Louis Vuitton by saying he needed the money to fund his various charitable organizations he heads, his speech to delegates didn’t touch on advertising at all. Rather, it looked at making the world a better place. He spoke at length of a new world order based on weaning big corporations off hyperinflation and overconsumption.

Those sentiments are not necessarily good news for advertisers, but delivered at a festival where much of the debate was about how advertising can be restructured in a digital age, and what award categories creative work falls into, they might sow the seeds for advertising’s own perestroika. If the old system falls, the new one could be just as greedy and corrupt, but at least agencies might win some more awards.


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