Unlucky Penney: Epoch Caught With Its Pants Down


The flap surrounding the spot in the name of JC Penney that won a bronze Lion at Cannes, only to be withdrawn after Penney said it never approved the ad and it never aired, brought to the fore the problem of speculative or scam ads being submitted to awards shows. And although some suggested, for example, that the International Advertising Festival create a new category for spec work, it’s clear that there’s no easy answer to something that’s been going on for a long time.

The problem has persisted for as long as BBDO executive creative director Susan Credle has been in the business. Credle, one of this year’s Film jurors, said that in the jury room, when sifting through some 4,600 entries, “you have to assume the work is legitimate.” She added: “We rely on the creatives to play by the rules and if you are not, you make it an unfair game.”

In the latest episode, production company Epoch Films entered a spot called “Speed Dressing,” said to be for JC Penney. The spot depicted a teenage girl and boy practicing to see how fast they can dress before meeting up at the girl’s house, presumably to make out downstairs without getting caught by the girl’s mom.

But after Epoch won the bronze and the spot appeared on YouTube, JC Penney cried foul, saying it didn’t approve or condone the content, and asked its lead creative agency, Publicis Groupe’s Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, to apologize. Saatchi, which was listed in the ad’s credits, said it regretted the ad’s message but added that it had nothing to do with the entry and laid blame at the feet of Epoch.

By week’s end, Epoch had withdrawn its submission, thereby relinquishing its Lion. Epoch declined to discuss the circumstances surrounding the spot’s production and entry into the Film category, whose rules state that entries “must have been made within the context of a normal paying contract with a client, except in the charities and public services categories.”

Although the festival reserves the right to vet the entries with the clients the ads are ostensibly produced for, it was unclear if “Speed Dressing” was verified by the festival. Calls to Cannes representatives were not returned.

The episode generated chatter in the blog-osphere that accused Saatchi — and former New York chief creative officer Tony Granger, who also was listed in the credits — of submitting work that hadn’t run. But Granger, now worldwide cd at WPP Group’s Young & Rubicam, said he had nothing to do with the creation of the ad, noting that he stepped back from direct client involvement after he resigned from Saatchi in November, though his contract kept him there through April.

Though Granger said he found the work to be “fun” and “beautifully done,” he added that “in my mind, it’s not right for JC Penney, and I wouldn’t have approved it.”

Credle also was impressed with the entry’s beauty and cleverness. “From a filmic standpoint, there was a freshness to it,” she said.

Aspiring talent often produces work on spec to demonstrate skills and launch careers. And it’s possible that the Epoch spot was produced with similar intentions. The director was Mike Long, a former creative director at Saatchi who joined Epoch last year.

Matt Miller, president and CEO of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, which includes a spec category in its annual AICP Show, said there is value to including spec work but it needs to be categorized as such. “It’s important for directors,” he said. “You have to keep it separate. They have to be looked at specifically for what they are — conceived in special arrangements and a special way.”

Perhaps adding a spec category to the Cannes festival would bring clarity, but as one creative director who served on another jury at Cannes this year put it, everyone knows which ads aren’t real, and even winning ads are often displayed in shows as different versions of what actually ran. Indeed, it’s an industry-wide problem that discredits the value of any award. “It’s all bullshit,” the cd said. “But people will enter and come as long as they are giving out trophies.”