A hotbed of hate or forum for debate?

A hotbed of hate or forum for debate?
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Advertising by its nature divides opinion and stirs debate. Because of this, the people who create it must expect a certain amount of criticism of their work. In the best cases comment threads on industry websites can become a forum for robust, open and honest discussion.

At their worst they can descend into petty and unjustified personal abuse and a forum to settle vendettas and embarrass a rival. This is what M&C Saatchi regional creative director Tom McFarlane describes as a “hotbed of hate”.

“The industry blogs are eating, and destroying, our young,” he says. “The blogs should be a showcase for young talent – somewhere they can receive encouragement, or informed opinion on how to improve their work. I have seen young copywriters and art directors devastated by the vitriol directed at their work – often their very first TV or major print campaign.”

Founder of recruitment firm Hourigan International, Anthony Hourigan says the culture around the comments is giving Australia a bad reputation in the rest of the world. “I think it’s a blight on the Australian advertising industry, and the comments are absolutely gutless. It reflects very poorly on our industry globally,” he says. “It’s a unique issue to our industry, and I think we have an awful reputation abroad for not supporting each other and the work out of this market.”

The debate around anonymous commenting is not new. Despite this Communications Council CEO Margaret Zabel says it is still something which is bubbling away in the background” and is regularly mentioned to her by agency heads.

Campaign Brief was the first ‘blog site’ to launch in 2006, allowing people to have their say anonymously. Initially unmoderated, it unsurprisingly led to a steady stream of personal, and often borderline libelous commentary.

In 2008 Mumbrella was born, and founder Tim Burrowes admits he was “surprised” by the culture which sprung up around commenting on the site, quickly moving to pre-moderation, filtering the most dangerous remarks. AdNews and B&T soon followed suit, and suddenly the advertising industry had multiple channels to air their thoughts and frustrations.

Comments taken from the threads of various industry sites.

In 2008, the suicide of a creative in Chicago was attributed to vitriol sprayed at him on a US industry site with unmoderated comments. This led to consternation amongst many creatives, and in 2011 the Communications Council tried to organise a round-table event for editors from the various trade press to discuss the issue, but it was called off at the last minute and never made it back onto the agenda.

According to Burrowes, the move by all the sites to pre-moderation has led to a dampening down of the vitriol, with the truly personal attacks and most libelous comments never published.

Despite this he admits: “Every single time we post about a creative agency’s work, it brings out the worst behaviour. Unfortunately that behaviour has become normalised within the agencies. It might be those behaviours formed very early on, but we see different levels in creative than in other parts of the industry.”

Campaign Brief founder Michael Lynch says the vast majority of negative comments are about the campaigns themselves, rather than the people who created them.

“Although they take it personally, they’re normally about it being a really crap ad,” he says. “It’s more often than not about the work. I think people are honest if ads are good or bad. It’s the bad agencies that are scared, that’s the real truth.”

Both admit there is a problem with some agencies taking to comment threads to slag off rivals, especially if there has been a contentious pitch, although there is also the phenomenon of “astroturfing”, with agencies posting positive comments en-masse to make their work look better.

Burrowes adds it can be a challenge knowing when to moderate commentary, especially when a slew of personal comments come through from different people about the same person: “You wonder whether you’re stopping people from having a fair say at some points”.

But, both Hourigan and McFarlane say the tone of some commentary makes the industry look unprofessional, both to clients and to the international community. “How does their (clients’) agency look when they go to the industry blogs and see their new campaign trashed?” adds McFarlane.

“They’ll feel embarrassed, and then they’ll blame their agency. The knock-on effect is less trust next time they are presented with a less-than-orthodox creative approach.”

Hourigan says while other countries do have sites allowing anonymous commenting, which attract derogatory comments, “it doesn’t seem to have the impact and power”, with many of the international talent he has recruited telling him they are “shocked” by the culture on the sites.

Both say the culture is stifling creativity within the industry, with would-be innovators increasingly playing safe, for fear of a backlash. Hourigan adds: “Creatives should feel free and be supported by their own. Where is the nurturing support? If people put their names to opinion, it would stop so much of the negativity, and force bullies to stop hiding behind the internet.”

But the right for anonymous commentary is defended by both Burrowes and Lynch, who say it allows readers to have the safety to express their honest opinions, while sign-up processes are inevitably laborious, and time-consuming, and ultimately put people off contributing.

Lynch adds: “It doesn’t work. Everyone’s shit scared, no matter who they are they don’t even want to be seen as liking something because other people will come after them. They’d rather stay anonymous, even if it’s a good piece.”

Burrowes also points to those who are able to contribute because of their anonymity adding real value to debates and clearing up misconceptions, where they would otherwise be forced to stay silent.

But McFarlane is quick to dismiss the notion of anonymity facilitating free speech and honest debate. “Frankly how can it be honest discussion if you don’t know who you are talking to?” he says.

“Would anybody watch a Geoffrey Robertson hypothetical if all the panelists were masked? Would David Stratton movie reviews have any more clout if he were anonymous? It’s absolute heresy to use the word ‘honest’ in the context of anonymous blogging.”

The Communications Council is working to quell the deluge of commentary by speaking not only to publishers, but also asking agencies to integrate their new social media guidelines into their HR policies, giving staff a stricter code of conduct.

“People on both sides need to take responsibility, and everyone needs to do more. There is still a long way to go before people in our industry feel comfortable expressing their opinion freely,” Zabel concludes.

This article first appeared in the February 15 edition of B&T Magazine.

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