Grey Grudgingly Returns Bronze Lion It Won at Cannes for Questionable ‘I SEA’ App

Calls attacks on the project 'unwarranted, unfair, unrelenting'

Without acknowledging any wrongdoing, Grey Group said Wednesday it is returning the Bronze Lion it won at the Cannes festival last month for a refugee-locating app that some critics had deemed fake—and which the agency itself said was not yet usable.

There were problems with the "I SEA" app, created by Grey for Good in Singapore, even before it won the Lion in Promo & Activation on June 20. Earlier that same day, Apple removed it from the App Store after a tech blogger questioned whether it was real. The client, a privately funded migrant rescue service called Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), also distanced itself from the app.

Grey initially stood by the project despite withering criticism, saying the app was real and that the agency was working toward making it public. But on Wednesday morning, the agency washed its hands of the project with a harshly worded statement putting blame for the entire ordeal on the project's critics.

"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," the statement says. "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."

As of Wednesday, the case study remained up on Grey Group Asia Pacific's YouTube page:

Grey's decision comes one day after a senior marketing executive in Hong Kong—Alastair Bullock, global senior manager of sponsorship and social media for Formula One team Infiniti—excoriated the agency in a personal LinkedIn post titled "An open letter to Grey Singapore: Why I will never hire Grey as an agency in my lifetime."

"This is possibly the saddest moment our industry has faced," Bullock wrote. "This award was won on the back of faking a solution to the refugee crisis. … If (and I stress this is a very personal opinion) I was a client of Grey Singapore, hell Grey Global, I would give them one chance to return that award and not resubmit anything next year. That would be a generous 24 hour deal. No excuses, no clever PR release. Just a simple return or they should not be working for me in any capacity."