Update, 7 July: Grey has announced that it will give back the Bronze Lion. A statement from the agency reads:
During Cannes we said the app was real and its creator, Grey for Good in Singapore , is a highly respected philanthropic unit that has helped numerous non-profit organizations. Moreover, Grey is one of the most creatively awarded agencies in the world with the highest ethical standards. We won over 90 Cannes Lions this year alone so there is no need for scam projects. However, given the unwarranted, unfair, unrelenting attacks by unnamed bloggers, we are putting an end to this and returning the Bronze Lion so there is not even the hint of impropriety or a question of our integrity. The saying no good deed goes unpunished is apt in this case.
Our original story dated 22 June follows:
CANNES - Cannes Lions chairman Terry Savage, questioned Wednesday at the festival by Campaign Asia-Pacific, said the organisation will not make a hasty decision about an app by Grey Singapore's Grey for Good arm, which won a Bronze Lion in Promo & Activation despite being derided as a fake.
"We are aware of this, but in the heat of Cannes, we won't make any hasty decisions to rescind any award," Savage said. "We will do a proper review as soon as possible, contact Grey for fuller background information and then make a decision after that. It's that simple."
The app, called 'I Sea', which Grey stated it had developed on behalf of MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station), a Malta-based organisation, purported to help crowdsource the rescue of migrants lost at sea using satellite imagery. However, after online critics pointed out that rather than live images, the app was showing the same static map images over and over, Apple pulled the app from the Apple Store. MOAS also distanced itself from the app, and the controversy is now receiving global news coverage.
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Campaign Asia-Pacific has reached out to Grey Singapore for comment but has not received a response.
The agency released the following statement from Owen Dougherty, chief communications officer, on Wednesday afternoon (Cannes time):
The I SEA app is real and was designed by Grey for Good in Singapore, our philanthropic communications arm, that has a great reputation working for many worthy causes around the world. We said it was in a testing stage and they have some satellite issues to work out. For some reason, a developer unknown to us has pushed the story that it is fake or a hoax. Grey Group is one of the most creatively awarded global agencies around and we adhere to the highest ethical standards.
It went in the App Store on April 26th and we were, and are fully confident, it would work with the right satellite image delivery. That's where our people ran into some problems.
But the app is real not a fake or a hoax. We win tons of awards fair and square.
Earlier, the agency had issued the following statement in response to questions about the app's legitimacy:
I SEA—an app developed by Grey for Good in support of MOAS—aims to bring humanitarian and technological efforts together in order to have a concrete impact on the continued refugee crisis at sea. Currently in its testing period, the app is a tool which crowdsources the ability to scan the sea for migrant vessels in distress. With global forced displacement having reached an all-time high (65.3 million people at the end of 2015), any efforts to help those fleeing war and persecution are greatly welcomed.
The I SEA App is currently in a testing mode. At this time it is loading and mapping satellite images to its GPS coordinates and users are able to report an anomaly in their plot of sea. The report function is sending out an alert whenever a user flags something in the plot of sea they are watching. During this testing period, the satellite images available are not in real-time. Grey for Good are still working to optimise the technology, but we are proud of what we have achieved so far and are grateful to all those who have shown interest in helping to improve the app further.
For its part, MOAS issued a statement that read in part:
As a global NGO that rescues people at sea, we are approached by countless number of companies and innovators who would like to contribute to our cause. We make it a point to try and give advice according to our own experience in the field of search-and-rescue and in line with our humanitarian principles.
Grey for Good is a well-intentioned pro bono arm of a globally known ad agency. When they approached MOAS with the idea of an app that could crowd-source the ability to identify vessels in distress we provided input based on their real world experience. Among that advice was the need for real time input to save lives. Their goal was to feed MOAS relevant information and engage users in the idea of saving lives.
We were dismayed to discover that real time images were not being used. We have since discontinued our relationship with Grey for Good and spoken candidly about our disappointment to the media.
At Cannes Wednesday, Eric Cruz, AKQA Shanghai ECD, spoke with Campaign Asia-Pacific about the 'scam' issue, specifically in relation to the pace of technology development.
“I am not a fan of such 'initiative work or concept pieces' that are unable to substantiate the technology behind it when you lift the hood on the app," Cruz said. "In general, there are too many of them and they seem like more PR exercises than anything. Here’s where it becomes difficult for me: I’ve seen a lot of these ‘scams', but one year later they become real when the technology behind it matures. The dilemma is that you have to sell the ‘concept’ for it to happen, but for it to be celebrated at places like the Cannes Lions, it has to be real at this point of time and not a blank concept."
Cruz said Cannes Lions needs to handle the issue appropriately, and related the controversy to some of the work he saw as a member of the Digital Craft jury.
"Perhaps the work should not be awarded as of now," he said. "Once Cannes awards something, it’s very hard to take it back. We have to take a harder stance on this kind of stuff. Perhaps Cannes should have waited until there is better evidence of the technology before it is allowed to be entered. Even in this year’s Digital Craft submissions, many of them couldn’t even be shortlisted, as we called ‘bullshit’ on it for not being able to substantiate the tech behind it. We have to think about this issue in a deeper sense. Conceptual work is good and pushes us forward, but only as long as we don’t abuse that in terms of putting out stuff that is frivolous and has insufficient proof. Some of the most innovative people in the industry are not paying attention to these festivals because of this."
Cruz lamented that ‘cause-vertising’ leads to fatigue, which may lead to the reflexive dismissal of work that does truly have a higher purpose and a chance to "save humanity".
Guy Hayward, global CEO of KBS+, told Campaign Asia-Pacific he has seen "creative departments basically shut down for a month before Cannes to do such work", with clients complicit in the tactic.
Chris Gokiert, president of Critical Mass, struck a slightly more moderate tone, saying scam is "a very extreme word that suggests deliberate misrepresentation. "There is merit in making a prototype that can be a breakthrough, but there are more brownie points to be gained when the actual functions and distribution channels of the piece of work are thought through", he said.
Hayward added that the Creative Effectiveness Grand Prix is the festival's most significant award, "just because it is inconvenient to prove that your work actually works".
"Also, if the topic is child slavery, comparing a campaign about that with a campaign for washing powder is apples to oranges," he said. "Judging them in the same categories is not comparing degrees of difficulty. So I am for the idea of separating commercial work and charity work—it is long overdue."
Closer to home, Fiona Bartholomeusz, the managing director of Formul8, an independent agency in Singapore, called the work "opportunitistic".
"It's one thing to be behind a scam campaign, it's another to be opportunistic about a humanitarian crisis, which unlike the app, is very real," she said.