Grey Group said it is returning the Bronze Lion it was awarded at Cannes for its "I Sea" app to put an end to the torrent of "unwarranted" criticism and speculation about the legitimacy of the entry.
The agency has been embroiled in controversy ever since it was discovered that the app, designed to help locate refugees in distress at sea, had been pulled from Apple’s app store because it was displaying static, not live map images.
A spokesperson for Grey released a sharply worded statement today defending the app, a position the agency has maintained since the uproar began shortly after the entry won in Promo & Activation. He said the agency was returning the Lion to end the "unfair, unrelenting attacks" on the agency and the integrity of the philanthropic unit that created the app, Singapore-based Grey for Good.
"During Cannes we said the app was real" and its creator "is a highly respected philanthropic unit that has helped numerous nonprofit organizations," said Owen Dougherty, chief communications officer of Grey Group, in the statement.
Grey is "one of the most creatively awarded agencies in the world with the highest ethical standards." The agency won more 90 Lions this year, "so there is no need for scam projects," he continued.
"However, given the unwarranted, unfair, unrelenting attacks by unnamed bloggers, we are putting an end to this and returning the Bronze Lion so there is not even the hint of impropriety or a question of our integrity," said Dougherty. "The saying no good deed goes unpunished is apt in this case."
During the festival, the agency admitted there were problems with the functionality of the app, but said the app was "not a fake or a hoax," but was in a "testing stage" and that there were "some satellite issues to work out." At the time, Cannes festival representatives said the organization was reviewing the details with the agency and no "hasty" decisions were going to be made.
Reached today via email, Philip Thomas, CEO of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, said that the organization had been in "constant touch" with the agency since questions about the entry first surfaced. "There is so much complexity and detail involved in a situation like this, we discuss with the agency concerned the various options," he said. "In this case, Grey chose to withdraw the entry and therefore forfeited the Lion."
Grey made the decision to return the award a day after Ali Bullock, global senior manager of sponsorship and social media for Formula 1 at Infiniti Motor Co., posted a scorching "open letter" to the agency on LinkedIn explaining why he "will never hire Grey as an agency in my lifetime."
Bullock blasted the agency for winning accolades off the backs of suffering refugees, posting the now well-known image of a toddler who drowned while his family was trying to reach safety to help make his point. "This isn't someone passing out at Cannes from too much Champagne; this is no joke. It was a human life lost for the most tragic of reasons. Hope of a better life. And Grey won an award off the back of this," he wrote. "Did the champagne and caviar have a salty taste as you celebrated your win? Imagine the salt consumed by people drowning ... A truly horrid way to die."
The post also laid blame on the industry and its reliance on awards for encouraging bad behavior. "When did the cost of winning and using this as tool to reel in a new client come to this? Have we as an industry sunk so low that this becomes acceptable? This is but one example and it has been an open secret that this has been going on for years," his post continued.
Bullock’s denunciation of Grey is an example of growing fatigue surrounding industry awards shows and the perception that they celebrate work made specifically to win awards. In the Grey case, the organization for which the app was made, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, released a statement that said they did "provide input" on the development of the app but distanced itself from the project. "We were dismayed that real-time images were not being used," the statement said. "We have since discontinued our relationship with Grey for Good."