Goafest 2009: Who is to blame?

By Prajjal Saha , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Advertising | April 01, 2009
The Economic Times slaps egg on Goafest for the second year in a row but the organisers are powerless to act against it. Or, The Case of the Juries That Can Keep No Secrets

You know the facts. Goafest, the advertising jamboree organised jointly by the AAAI (Advertising Agencies Association of India) and the Ad Club Bombay will take place between April 2-4 at Goa. And yesterday, March 31, The Economic Times played spoilsport and revealed a partial list of winners. This is a less awful repeat of a similar performance last year when the business daily printed a list of the winners the day before the Goafest awards were announced.

In its fourth year now, the festival has gained size in India and gained popularity even outside it. As the organisers claim proudly, Goafest is already the biggest festival of its kind in Asia. It would like to be taken as seriously as the International Advertising Festival, Cannes.

The breaking of news about the winners has seriously damaged that ambition: after all the sweat that has gone into it, the revelation makes the show look tacky. What can be worse?

ET has been criticised for publishing this news but is it the only one to be blamed? What about the jury members who had signed non disclosure agreements (NDAs) to keep quiet and had nevertheless spilled the beans? Wasn't confidentiality their prime responsibility rather than that of ET?

Assuming that the information published in ET is correct (they got it right last year), it is evident that the leak couldn't have come from a single source. Take a look at the jury process.

Each category - such as Print, TV or Direct - is judged by 10-12 jury members. In a category, two jury members can't belong to the same agency, and across all traditional categories put together, there can't be more than four members from the same agency. Overall, the organisers ensure that there isn't over-representation from any agency.

From among the innumerable entries at the awards, only those works of advertising that receive the support of six jury members in a category make the shortlist. These entries are then discussed by jury, and the bronze, silver and gold winners subsequently decided. The process is video recorded and validated by Ernst & Young, a management consultancy (which, incidentally, refused to comment on the matter to afaqs!)

It is evident that, going by the script (and the NDAs signed) a jury member could not - or should not - have been privy to information about another category. When you consider that the ET report mentioned awards from more than one category, it would seem to suggest that not one but several jury members spoke out of turn.

Colvyn Harris, chairman, Goafest 2009, blames it on the journalists saying that even if the media is privy to information, ought it to be publishing the news prematurely? Harris described the printing of the report as "immoral and unethical".

When afaqs! asked Harris if the Goafest committee intended to act against the daily which had deliberately done damage for the second year in a row, he had no definite answer. Also on whether it intended to act against the jury members who gave away the winners to the daily, he merely said that it was difficult to identify them from among 108 judges.

Harris tried to make the best of the situation by pointing out that Goafest stood for more than just the awards: "It's also about knowledge and learning which the international speakers bring with them." Perhaps, but there is no doubt that the awards are the main attraction.

Why does ET persist with playing spoiler? When afaqs! called Rahul Joshi, ET's executive editor, he refused to comment. One argument is that the media is within its right to scoop news whenever it can and that ET is merely performing that duty. But this seems a rather mindless interpretation of the freedom of press where the damage a report causes is far greater than any perceivable benefit - and to whom, pray?

It made me think back to the Cannes festival which I have reported on two years in a row. Would ET have dared the organisers there in this way? I seriously doubt it. That is why there is a suspicion that ET is humiliating the Goafest organisers to merely demonstrate its clout - and to show that nobody in the advertising business can do anything about it.

Every year, more than 450 journalist from different parts of the world, and from publications both known and unknown, make it to Cannes. These journalists are informed about the results at least 4-6 hours in advance. However, the information is embargoed till the awards events are over. And to my knowledge there hasn't been any incident where any publication has published the information.

There are two reasons why a journalist follows the instructions, religiously. Firstly, it's fear. If anyone violates the embargo, both the journalist and the publication will be banned from covering the awards.

ET could argue that it had violated no embargo, and that they had broken a story that they were not beholden to keep back. True, but the Goafest organisers are within their right to decide that they don't want the presence of a media brand which systematically humiliates them. What stops them barring ET from the festival? Conversely, if a smaller media brand had done what ET did, would our doyens of advertising have been so nonchalant? All of us know the answers to both the questions.

To return to Cannes, the second reason that journalists tend to value the institution of these awards is because the reporters get the respect they deserve. At Cannes, every journalist is taken into confidence and briefed on the results. At Goafest, the journalists are provided with the results some time as late as 11 pm at night, only after the final awards ceremony is over. The facilities are primitive and reporters are left to fend for themselves and file the stories for the next day.

I have personally taken up this issue with a senior member of the Goafest Jury a few months ago. In return he had promised to take up the issue with the committee. But nothing seems to have happened.

Nobody has come out smelling of roses. Instead of brushing the incident under the carpet the organisers should formulate a policy to deal with it - even if it means taking an unpopular stand. Or else they can expect to get pushed around each year.

© 2009 afaqs!