Colombo Telegraph

How Leo Burnett Solutions Skinned A Lankan Lion To Get A Cannes Lion

By Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

It is my contention that a sizable proportion of the most creative writers (and artists of course) in the country are in the advertising industry. Makes sense.  There’s more money in that business.  This doesn’t mean however that writers in advertising have compromised their art.  They do their own writing and the smarter ones squeeze their hearts into copy, getting past client servicing personnel and clients themselves.  Their best work, however, tend to be discarded.

Some of them obtain relief from corporate briefs when they are tasked to develop public service campaigns or are engaged in one-off ‘feel good’ creative exercises.  I like to think that this is when they are at their creative best.

One of the most innovative creative exercises I’ve seen recently is the Independence Day campaign dreamed up by Leo Burnett  Solutions Inc for the Maubima newspaper.  It was an easily executable idea developed around the preeminent symbol of ‘independence’, the national flag.  The flag was printed on a page with the reverse page also carrying the flag (in reverse).  Easy instructions on how to cut it, roll up the adjacent page and turn it into a flag you could stick somewhere or even wave around. Neat idea.

The excellent work was duly recognized internationally.  This is how one newspaper reported:

‘Leo Burnett Solutions Inc. created history by being the first ever Sri Lankan agency to be recognised at the prestigious Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity by winning metal in the Best Consumer Engagement category for work done for the Mawbima newspaper, with the agency’s national flag concept.  The Cannes Lions Festivity this year hosts over 11,000 delegates from over 90 countries from the creative community all gathered in one place to celebrate creativity. The national flag initiative was created by Leo Burnett Sri Lanka in partnership with Starcom to celebrate the national day by creating a nationalistic feeling amongst all Sri Lankans by turning a national newspaper into a national flag which engaged people like never before.’

A Sri Lankan creative team, using the national flag on Independence Day to ‘create nationalistic feeling’ and being rewarded internationally, MasterCard would say ‘Priceless’!  A Cannes Lion is something to be proud of.  A Cannes ‘first’ warrants greater pride.  Doing it with the flag, with the nation and for the nation, tops everything.

K.A. Dharmadasa the vegetable vendor

I remember that ‘pride’, not on account of flag-waving and piggy-backing on Independence Day, the former just makes me weary and as for the latter, that part of advertising useful as it is never excites me; I remember the pride because it was a Sri Lankan effort that was acknowledged, especially by an international panel of judges in an international advertising festival.  I am not the kind to dwell on such things.  Sri Lanka fought a war that was supposed to be unwinnable and won; those who played their part got on with their lives. That’s it. Same with this ‘pride’.

Until one day a couple of weeks ago.

The place: the Jathika Pola in Narahenpita.  The exact location, a keera outlet.  The individual concerned: Kumarapperuma Arachchige Dharmadasa.  Male.  Probably 70 years old.  This might sound like work-notes for a shoot, being quite the props-models-location mix.   The fact is, it was.  Not at that moment, but before.

Here’s the story.  Leo Burnett Solutions Inc submitted this campaign to Cannes.  The submission included, apparently, a 90 second video clip, offering background spiced with a nice ‘war-is-over-hope-is-here-again’ line, tasteful and non-intrusive music, and naturally a bit of wordplay with the name of the newspaper, which means ‘motherland’.  It included, at the end, snapshots supporting the delivery claim: people from all walks of life carrying/waving the ‘Maubima Flag’.  The clip is very well edited. Powerful.  Crafted to move an outsider to the point of applause.  I saw the clip, but in a hurry.  Thought it was well made.  That was it.  Until I ran into Kumarapperuma Arachchige Dharmadasa at the Jathika Pola.

He was in that clip.  He was one of the several individuals captured on camera holding a ‘Maubima Flag’. There were others too: a shop keeper, a vegetable vendor, a kid on a bike, a bus driver, a child inside a bus, a child waving a flag out of a bus-window and some kids at the beach planting a flag atop a sandcastle and a tailor.

I asked Dharmadasa about the flag.  ‘Mama danne naha mahaththayo….mahaththuru vagayak avith kodiyak deela, kodiya alla ganna kiyala poto gaththa!’  [I do not know sir…some gentlemen came, gave me a flag, told me to hold it and took some pictures].  He was, then, not someone who had been swayed by a good advertising campaign to buy the ‘Maubima’ to make a flag to wave on Independence Day. He was a model dolled up for a scam exercise!  And this in a ‘nationalistic’ campaign using the NATIONAL flag on INDEPENDENCE Day!

K.A. Dharmadasa the model

A closer look at the clip was warranted. I was shocked.  It is abundantly clear that not just Dharmadasa but everyone in that clip are ‘models’, add-ons roped in to serve the greed of some people who clearly didn’t give a hoot about the true meaning of independence or the dignity of citizenship.

‘On Independence Day ‘Maubima’ sold out within hours of its release,’ Leo Burnett Solutions Inc softly bragged.  We don’t know about that.  What we know is that Sri Lankans don’t have to spend 50 bucks to buy a paper just to make a national flag.  Flags of all sizes come up all over Sri Lanka during Independence Day celebrations.  It is strange then that only this ‘Maubima Flag’ was visible.  It would give the impression that the only flags out on this day were those printed in the newspaper.

This was an unadulterated scam, all the more deserving of censure because it was prostituting the idea of independence and the national flag.

It raises certain questions.  If an agency has no qualms about hoodwinking a panel of judges, would they really give a hoot about hoodwinking potential customers targeted by a client?  Can we expect them to be concerned about ‘ethics’ in advertising?  And if they can cheat the Cannes judges would they even think twice about cheating their clients?  If they can lie about what their ‘nationalistic’ campaign did would they not lie about what their other creative efforts could accomplish?  Is this a story that is peculiar to Leo Burnett Solutions Inc or is it common to the rest of the industry?  Are ‘scams’ par for the course when it comes to ad awards?

The truth is that Scam Ads (sometimes called ‘Scads’) have got agencies, CEOs and creative directors into hot water around the world.  They are described as a chronic problem, a sort of dark underbelly of the industry where agencies and individuals trying to win awards submit work that’s never been approved by a client or run more than a couple times.  In this case, a submission of an idea that didn’t ‘run’ the way it is claimed to have.  Last year Cannes stripped independent Brazilian shop Moma Propaganda of two Lions won at the Cannes awards for apparently fake ads for Kia Motors Brazil. Yes, clients are also taken for a ride.

Just last month Leo Burnett asked to withdraw two radio spots for Tata Salt Lite after they each snagged gold and silver awards in the radio and radio craft categories at the Goafest. Apparently there had been questions during the auditing process whether the spots had been commissioned, paid for by the client and broadcast commercially or if they were “proactive” work by Leo Burnett. Even cursory archival perusal of scam ads would show that a lot of big name agencies are as guilty.

We need to conclude here.  Not all great creative ideas deliver.  Not all great creative ideas are meant to deliver. Some great creative ideas are executed with the express purpose of submitting for prestigious awards.  Some such campaigns are marketed with equal creativity, finesse and elegance and can sometimes hoodwink judges who might not necessarily be acquainted with the particular social and cultural terrain, in this case Sri Lanka, newspapers, Independence Day, the national flag and what people do or do not do with it on Independence Day.

The creative team at Leo Burnett Solutions came up with a novel idea.  It probably didn’t deliver.  That makes it into the nice-idea-but-won’t-work column.  Those who did the clip were, on the other hand, spot on!  They delivered.

I feel sorry for those Cannes judges. I feel sorry for the ‘Maubima’, the newspaper and the motherland. I feel sorry for the creative team.  I might have felt sorry for Kumarapperuma Arachchige Dharmadasa but I think he wouldn’t have lost any sleep.   Those who dreamed up this scam at Leo Burnett Solutions probably sleep well too.  That’s the pity.

*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at


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