Telling clients there’s a magic formula for advertising only encourages them not to take agencies seriously

The former Campaign deputy editor Jeremy Lee gives us the inside track on the stories that have got the ad industry talking.

Among the sun-reddened faces at the end of the first night of festivities on the Carlton Terrace, Maurice Saatchi was not to be seen.

M&C Saatchi's 'holy grail' formula

Nils Leonard was there clutching his Promotion & Activation Grand Prix, awarded for Grey London’s 'Life Paint' campaign for Volvo, and looking both tired from judging the Design Lions and emotional for winning the top prize. But among the assembled sweaty crowd, of Maurice (admittedly an unlikely late night boozer) – or indeed any of the M&C Saatchi coterie – there was nothing.

Cynics have suggested that faces at M&C Saatchi should be considerably redder than even the most pasty-skinned Brit even at this early stage in the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Because last week, in a remarkably well-timed and executed PR stunt (?), the agency announced that it had cracked the "holy grail" of marketing with a formula that mapped the correlation between "the investment in the art and science of a brand and their financial outcomes".

There was even a pseudo-scientific equation to go along with the pre-Cannes big reveal and there followed acres of press and radio coverage that didn’t examine this messianic claim any further. But red faces there were none – M&C Saatchi seem to have got away with it – cue sighs of disbelief from other members of the planning community.

In fairness – and in a handy twist – M&C Saatchi promises to reveal the full details of the magic formula next week so those same planners might yet have to eat their hats, but the timing of the announcement from an agency that has gone through some rocky patches, and was therefore in desperate need of positive coverage, should raise suspicions.

Away from the celebrations of the best creativity the world can offer, the back-slapping and the gallons of Domaines Ott, the reveal of a new strategic alliance, piece of research or global initiative has long been a tradition of Cannes week – there will doubtless be several more such examples over the next few days.

All generate a bit of PR, are generally denied the scrutiny they deserve (having been swept up in the whole rosé-fuelled bonhomie of Cannes) and, on the whole, are entirely meaningless. While they may give a small boost for the agency’s self-esteem, I can’t help thinking that they can also undermine advertising’s strong case to be taken seriously among the client community.

With this in mind, it was notable that the M&C Saatchi announcement was made at the same time that the IPA came out strongly to denounce the way that Heinz was holding its advertising pitch.

With many shops rightly already baulking at the eye-watering prospect of waiting 97 days to get paid (and think for a minute of the impact that will have on smaller suppliers down the supply chain), Heinz also announced that it was to run an e-auction – a wearyingly familiar experience, most notable during the UK government’s muddled process to establish a roster for the Crown Commercial Service.

Such practices devalue the creative process to little more than the acquisition of widgets and show how the dead hand of procurement can never grasp the admittedly intangible value of creativity. But sadly these practices are on the rise.

So it was good to see the IPA, which has tended to be organisation that errs on the side of caution, to be so vociferous in standing up for the interests of its members and calling out what looks like sharp practice – more power to Paul Bainsfair’s elbow. Few would disagree with his statement that as well as being unfair on agencies, Heinz is also in danger of limiting the creative solution that it deserves.

But equally, when agencies are guilty of producing such apparently flimsy pieces of research, with an eye on producing positive PR rather than demonstrating proper rigour, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised that some clients are failing to take the advertising industry too seriously. No matter how many Lions end up tucked under their arms as they fly home with at the end of the week, their tans may be now a deeper brown.

Follow Jeremy Lee on Twitter @jezzalee

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