Vodacom, Cell C spat takes nasty turn
Vodacom’s advertising agency, Draftfcb, has accused its former executive creative director, Grant Jacobsen, of unethical behaviour over Cell C’s new advertising campaign and has warned it may sue him for damages.
Now the tussle is getting ugly, with Draftfcb CEO John Dixon suggesting Jacobsen used confidential Vodacom information in Cell C’s advertising war with its bigger rival. Jacobsen has rejected the accusations, saying they have no basis in fact.
Jacobsen had been involved with Vodacom’s rebranding campaign — the operator changed its brand and colours on 1 April to bring it in line with parent Vodafone — while still at Draftfcb. Jacobsen left the agency at the end of December to join rival DDB SA as executive creative director.
DDB recently signed Cell C as a client. Its campaign for Cell C, launched last week, includes a television ad that disparages Vodacom’s decision to rebrand to red and took flight just five days after the latter unveiled its new brand identity to the public.
Dixon suggests Jacobsen used information he gleaned while working on the Vodacom account at Draftfcb to develop Cell C’s new advertising campaign and says the television ad had to have been produced before Vodacom took the wraps off its new brand campaign.
“Producing a TV ad has a long lead time,” Dixon says. “There is no way that ad could have been produced in response to what they saw in the public domain. The timeline makes us suspect that confidential information has been shared with Cell C.”
He says the timing is “of concern” to Draftfcb. “Grant developed all of the Vodacom ‘red’ stuff that is in the market at the moment. He didn’t produce it — that happened after he left — but he had intimate knowledge of all the scripts and the use of the meerkat and all of the Vodacom characters in the campaign,” Dixon says.
“He knew how simple and central the initial rebranding was — namely, that ‘Vodacom is red’. He understood that and, by implication, could make it appear that [the red rebranding] is insubstantial and that is what he has done.”
But Jacobsen says Cell C’s campaign was produced at very short notice, with three television ads featuring Cell C “chief experience officer”, comedian Trevor Noah, being shot on the same evening Vodacom officially took the wraps off its new brand.
He says Cell C first became aware of Vodacom’s new brand image days before the official launch through marketing material that was already available in community newspapers. Vodacom was also painting its banner at the top of the Ponte tower in Johannesburg red. And websites, including TechCentral, published details of the redesigned brand several days beforehand.
“We shot the ads on Friday, 1 April,” Jacobsen says. “It was one of the most rushed shoots I have done in my career. I was writing scripts on the set.”
Radio ads that form part of the campaign were recorded several days later. “If I was using preexisting knowledge, why didn’t I write and shoot this campaign in February?” Jacobsen asks, adding that he’s prepared to share corroborating evidence showing schedules and bookings for the shoot and edit.
“If I was going to use my knowledge to get one up on Vodacom and Draftfcb, the last thing I’d be doing is shooting in the middle of the night in Cape Town, on Friday, 1 April, and editing on Sunday, 3 April, and post-producing frantically through the night on Monday.”
Jacobsen says he can state “categorically” that he shared no confidential Vodacom information with Cell C executives. He says he continues to “love and respect” the Vodacom brand, which he helped nurture for five years.
“The last thing I want is for a real conversation about network and technological leadership to turn into an in-house fight between a couple of ad agencies,” he says. “That has no benefit for consumers at the end of the day.”
But this is a fight that seems far from over. Draftfcb and Vodacom have written a letter, by way of their lawyers, to DDB asking for answers, Dixon says. He says the agency may sue Jacobsen for damages.
Jacobsen says neither Dixon nor Vodacom has approached him for his side of the story.
Meanwhile, the Advertising Standards Authority is considering a complaint lodged by Draftfcb on behalf of Vodacom against Cell C’s latest campaign. Vodacom has objected to Cell C’s television ad, featuring Noah, in which the operator claims to have SA’s “number one network”. — Duncan McLeod, TechCentral