by Herman Manson (@marklives) Two very interesting but diverging stories ran on Thursday, 7 November 2013, in, ironically, two media products that also shares a newsroom. Both cover the MetropolitanRepublic/Loeries awards scandal, which saw the agency stripped of its awards for entering work that did not meet entry criteria, and then blaming its juniors, the broader ad industry and the Loerie organisers when caught out (it did eventually take full responsibility for its actions).

Too harsh a reaction?

One, published in the Financial Mail, suggests that MetropolitanRepublic — coming in for sanctions from not only the Loerie organisers but also the ACA (which found it had brought the organisation into disrepute) and the Creative Circle (which found it had brought “the entire industry, but most particularly the creative disciplines of the industry, into disrepute”) — is facing too harsh a reaction from industry bodies and associations. “…[A]s different bodies queue up to mete out their own punishments, there is a growing sense that the industry should ease up on its pursuit of the disgraced agency,” the story reads.

“…Innocent parties have already been hurt in the retribution meted out to MetropolitanRepublic,” the Financial Mail  continues in its reporting. “Clients whose campaigns legitimately won Loeries have seen their recognition snatched away as part of the agency’s overall disqualification. The latest actions may have a deeper impact on MetropolitanRepublic itself and the more than 100 staff.”

Over at Business Day, Anton Harber, an adjunct professor of journalism at Wits University and a regular columnist for the paper, seems to have taken an opposing view. He’s castigated the industry, MTN and the media for giving the agency a slap on the wrist:

“Coverage in the media has been slight, especially if you compare it to how quickly the misdeeds of sometimes obscure and small-time public officials can make the headlines,” writes Harber. “This agency damaged itself, without doubt, but it also hurt the industry, the Loeries and the credibility of a corporate sector that purports to oppose corruption, demands strong action when it is in the public sector, but eases up when it is in its own backyard.”

A difficult story to cover

Let me start by pointing out that this has been a difficult story  to cover. After several early media interviews in the wake of the scandal, in which agency execs set blame firmly on its junior team, MetropolitanRepublic declined all further comment or interviews.

Its client, MTN, is also declining media interviews. “We are directing all media requests on this matter directly to Metropolitan Republic,” says MTN. “From MTN’s perspective, this is a matter that rests principally with MetropolitanRepublic and as such, should be managed directly with and by them.”

The ACA itself, after sending out a media statement that pretty much ripped MetroR a new one, has declined all further requests for comment, with a standard reply sent out to all media queries on the matter:

“Thank you for your request regarding further information on the ACA’s sanctions imposed on MetropolitanRepublic,” reads the ACA statement. “The matter was an unfortunate and isolated incident which has been dealt with through a process of self-regulation in line with the Articles of Incorporation of the Association. The ACA’s position was comprehensively expressed in the media statement issued 31October 2013 and the matter is now deemed closed and dealt with, therefore we will not be making any further statements or comments on this matter.”

All toeing the same line

It does appear a bit cosy, doesn’t it? The agency, the client and the industry body all toeing the same line — no comment — hardly makes for a transparent environment, and effectively stifles any balanced conversation on the issues at hand. And it’s a conversation we should all be having, make no mistake, with input from all parties involved. If self-censorship might not rock the boat, it won’t save it from sinking, either.

In short, MetroR won’t give the real story, although it has apologised; MTN says it believes “the necessary actions have been taken post this incidence and moving forward, to ensure this never reoccurs,” but won’t give details on those actions; and the ACA, claiming strict sanctions have been imposed on MetroR, won’t provide details on the supposed sanctions, including a figure for the fine imposed or which board/operations-committee members have been affected by its decision to suspend agency membership for a year.

I agree with Harber that the private sector, and the media, is quick to jump on public sector shenanigans. MTN, by not publicly sanctioning its agency, does appear soft on the face of it, if only by virtue of its silence.

Print media especially, meanwhile, has less and less capacity to cover the advertising industry, having divested from specialist reporters. The last print title dedicated to covering the industry, AdVantage Magazine, was killed off by Media24 earlier this year, and Finweek recently dropped its coverage of the ad industry. Online media is relying heavily on churnalism rather than journalism.

Why specialist reporters are important

Harber’s column is an example of why specialist reporters are important. For one, he’s missed that the remaining trade media has covered the scandal extensively and from various angles (MarkLives certainly has…). He’s also missed the ACA and Creative Circle (only released yesterday) sanctions  already imposed on the agency when he wrote, “We have not heard from other industry bodies, all of whom should be insisting that the agency — and the responsible individuals — be banished from competitions and industry organisations for at least five years.”

On the flip side, I don’t buy the Financial Mail’s “too many red cards” angle, either. The agency cynically exploited images of impoverished children it claimed to have helped, but really didn’t, to win an award. Its actions mocked its peers, its client, the people of the country it was claiming to assist and the awards organisers. It was utterly shameful.

MetropolitanRepublic has messed up big time. BIG TIME. The sanctions now being imposed are appropriate. Of course the agency staff has sympathy from the industry, especially those much-maligned juniors. But let’s keep perspective — next year it will be back, entering awards with legitimate work.

It would be unfortunate if MTN, MetroR, the ACA and the broader industry miss an opportunity to evolve best practice as an industry. It’s something that can only happen if the silence is replaced with constructive and transparent dialogue.

Media coverage (available online) on the scandal:

DMMA: Loeries disqualification of MetropolitanRepublicLoeries
MetropolitanRepublic apologises to Loeries, marketing industry
MetropolitanRepublic’s Project Uganda stripped of Grand Prix

MetropolitanRepublic hit with ACA sanctions as Loeries fallout …
Loeries strip MetropolitanRepublic of all awards after Grand Prix …

Screen Africa
Statement from MetropolitanRepublic re Loeries and MTN

Ad agency in Loeries scandal
‘They should not have stripped our Loeries’

The Media Online
MetropolitanRepublic sanctioned by ACA
Talking scam advertising with Cannes Lions CEO

Business Day
Fine feathers fly at the Loeries

Slap the ad agency around a little

Mail & Guardian
Technology the fly in the Loeries’ ointment

ACA imposes penalties on MetropolitanRepublic
Loeries and the marketing industry receive apology from MetropolitanRepublic

Creative Circle sanctions MetropolitanRepublic
Letter from NY: Matthew Bull’s house rules for entering award shows
ACA suspends MetropolitanRepublic membership
Hermaneutics: Lessons from MetropolitanRepublic’s Loerie nightmare
Industry reacts to MetropolitanRepublic Loeries scam ad scandal
No more interviews, says MetropolitanRepublic
What MetroR, MTN should know about education in Uganda
MetropolitanRepublic in Loeries scam scandal

Herman Manson


Hermaneutics is a column by editor Herman Manson (@marklives). It indicates opinion as much as reporting.


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