Until further notice we have hit pause on the Media Agency of the Year and Media Network of the Year categories from our awards.
We have made the decision, along with our event organiser, in light of a number of concerns in the market around the credibility of the categories.
When we closed our entry system on Tuesday, we found that a number of media agency groups had decided they would not participate in the AdNews Agency of the Year Media Agency and Media Network categories this year. It follows the expose published by Mumbrella in late 2017 about misleading claims within Atomic 212’s previous award entries.
We respect their decision, but as a result we feel it's not credible to include the categories in this year's program.
We have refunded the entry fee to those agencies which did enter because however valid and impressive those entries were, we didn't feel it right to go ahead.
As well as a general fatigue around awards programmes in the industry, it seems their choice to not enter is based on the decision taken by our management back in 2017 around what action should be taken about the awards categories won by Atomic 212 after concerns were raised about the validity of some of the agency's claims.
We stand by that decision, but we’d like to offer a little more clarity over the decision process. There is an impression that we didn’t take it seriously - something that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Atomic 212 were the recipients of five AdNews awards last year. Shortly after the event in March, two media networks, Omnicom Media Group and IPG Mediabrands, raised concerns over several claims made by Atomic 212 with AdNews editor Rosie Baker. Omnicom Group CEO and MFA chair Peter Horgan, OMD CEO Aimee Buchanan brought it to our attention. No other groups or senior execs made contact over the issue.
The specific concerns from Omnicom Group and OMD were around the publication of Mazda, Telstra, and Coles being claimed as clients and around claims that OMD had used some of Atomic’s services. Mediabrands’ concerns were more general. No other specific concerns were raised or queried either during the judging process or after the fact.
Mumbrella’s expose on Atomic 212's over embellished award entries in its own programme, Campaign Asia and AdNews brought to light an important issue, but their reporter did not contact AdNews to substantiate any of its claims about how we were dealing with the issue.
In the email exchange between AdNews editor Rosie Baker and Buchanan (the same one that Mumbrella reported on and quoted from), the OMD CEO outlined four areas of concern: Mazda, Telstra, Coles and the claim that OMD had used Atomic's services which she said was “simply not true”.
Editor Rosie Baker followed up these claims with Atomic 212 CEO Jason Dooris which began a lengthy process which eventually spanned several months of back and forth, multiple phone calls and email exchanges. This included a phone conversation initiated by Baker coincidentally on the week of the Mumbrella awards where the same concerns were raised and put to judges on the day.
Dooris provided AdNews via email evidence for the clients in question, and several others, that showed the agency (or its tech service Path 51) had done work with the clients on some level.
Technology service Path51 was a source of some of the issues. Some of the clients Atomic had claimed on its client list were in fact clients using Path51. AdNews has seen emails and invoices that show these clients, or subsidiaries of them, have used Path51 either directly, or via other agencies.
Path51 is part owned (45%) by Atomic - something that AdNews' investigation into the claims discovered and we have seen email evidence of the agreement. Buchanan did not appear aware of this as she described it as an "industry tool".
She went on to explain OMD had used Path51 on a handful of occasions, but OMD has clarified this week that its financial systems "and all records and have no history of utilising it or paying them for a service". A spokesman did concede a "slight possibility" that a "client, creative partner, other media agency or publisher has utilised their services" but clairifed it did not believe this to be true and it was not OMD outsourcing work.
Buchanon declined to offer further comment for this piece and requested that her email not be published in full but at the time she said: "The tool is in fact an industry tool (which OMD have also used). We contacted the owner, who confirmed that Atomic were simply a customer and were also taken aback by the claims."
AdNews understands that Omnicom Group, Mediabrands and GroupM all used Path51 technology at some point not knowing that it was owned by Atomic212.
AdNews also understands that some of the confusion lay in Path51 general manager Simon Larcey, a long-time friend of Dooris who has a 10% stake in the business, denying that it was connected to or owned by Atomic, despite that being the case.
It appears that a number of networks were unknowingly using a rival's product and were being misled (deliberately or otherwise) about its ownership. Atomic was then including that info in entries in its client list.
As soon as the other networks became aware of Path51 being owned by Atomic use of the product dropped off. Dooris discussed plans to divest the businesses to stem the loss of revenue but AdNews is not aware of the current status of either company's relationship with the other.
What we did
There is obviously a lot of confusion on all sides. What transpired for our awards, was that some of those claims, while not totally clear, and potentially dubious, were technically eligible under the former criteria and terms and conditions of our programme.
It dawned on us that there were loopholes in our T&Cs which allowed overstated claims to get through on a technicality and were exploited. For instance it meant that an agency that did work for a Telstra subsidiary could claim they worked for the Telstra parent company. We didn't ask for clarity. We do now.
For example, Atomic’s work was for Telstra Health, an owned subsidiary of Telstra, it is technically true that the agency worked for the Telstra parent company, but it does not handle the whole media account. It didn't claim to but the implication was there and the assumption could be made.
Much like an advertiser that books ads with AdNews can legitimately claim that they have done business with Yaffa Media - our parent company. It’s technically true even if some of the facts are omitted.
It falls under the letter of the law - if not the spirit of the law. We're aware of the contention in the market around some of those claims but we also saw a flaw in our own requirements and we needed to make a change.
We subsequently took the decision to update and tighten our criteria for this year's programme to tackle the issues raised and ensure that in future our process matched the intent of the award. We announced this in the week we launched our awards programme in November 2017 and it’s why entries now need to outline the scope of the work they do for a client.
We stand by the decision that Yaffa Media made about the 2016 awards programme and respect the decision made by those agencies which chose not to enter this year as a result.
When it comes to other programmes in the market, We don’t know if the same decision will be made in regard to Mumbrella’s awards or B&T’s later in the year.
According to Mumbrella’s own account of its 2017 awards, its judges considered the queries and voted on whether Atomic’s entries should be disqualified. They voted that the entries - and the details within them - should remain eligible. No Atomic entries were disqualified and while the agency didn't win any metal, it was considered a legitimate finalist in six categories (Media Agency of the Year, Promo or Experiential Agency of the Year, Independent Agency of the Year, Full Service Agency of the Year, Mumbrella Award for Insight, Mumbrella Award for Culture), and a staffer was nominated for Under 30 Achiever of the Year.
AdNews hasn’t seen the specific Mumbrella entries, but we can only assume that the content and claims were similar - if not exactly the same as those in the AdNews entries.
We all put our faith in the leaders in our industry to submit award entries that our judges can trust and it's a disappointment that this has been undermined and that it has rocked other agencies’ faith in the process.
Entering or not entering awards is obviously a choice for every business to make. On a global level Publicis Groupe took the decision in 2017 to withdraw all its agencies from all global and local awards programmes for 12 months and in previous years agencies have decided to dial up or dial down their involvement in awards programmes for various reasons as they see fit. It is every agency's right to choose the decisions they make for their business.
Horgan, who has been vocal about his disappointment in the situation, says: "The ball is in AdNews' court to fix the reputation of the awards."
We will continue to review our awards process in future as we have every other year and make the choices we feel are appropriate for our programme and the industry it serves. We’ll talk to those agencies about their decision, hopefully build a constructive dialogue into next year, and hope to welcome them back in the future.
While the major media groups have taken the decision not to enter we are pleased to have senior representatives from those very same agencies on our judging panels this year - as we did last year. Their expertise, knowledge and judgement are crucial to deciding the winners.
With entries from more than 90 companies across 28 categories, the strength of entries in our new Effectiveness category, and Best use of Technology show the focus and direction the industry is taking. We look forward to celebrating the winners in March. The shortlists will be announced later this month.
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