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Opinion and Insight
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Australia and the Anonymous Trolls of Adland

LBB Editorial, 2 weeks, 4 days ago

Can anonymity online truly allow for honest debate and critique? LBB's Laura Swinton investigates

Australia and the Anonymous Trolls of Adland

Straight to the point humour. Lateral thinking innovation. World class talent. Australian advertising has a lot going for it. But one thing that the rest of the world might not know about Adland Down Under is that it also has a fine line in online sniping, with anonymous industry commenters taking to news sites and forums to share their views on the latest work.

This week one strategist took to the local trade press to vent his frustrations at the critical commenters. Jamie Watson, a strategist at M&C Saatchi, wrote ‘A Response to Anonymous Commenters: You’re Killing Our Industry’ for Campaign Brief, calling out the trolls. 

Speaking to LBB, Jamie says that he decided to write the piece after a ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ moment.

“I can't deny that it was the comments that I was reading on a campaign that I've worked on and on a colleague's opinion piece. Of course I read these comments in greater detail and they hit closer to home. But they were really just examples of what happens week in, week out on these sites - as I said, I'm not trying to defend specific pieces of work or articles.”

He says that the frustrations are shared by colleagues in the industry – particularly given the difficult transitions faced by agencies around the world right now. “I've had several unprompted chats with people in the agency and from others, about how embarrassed it makes them to be in the industry. We've all had to defend the industry and its role in culture. It's a place where so many smart, talented, interesting people are attracted to, but it was the bitter, negative and often childish that attract the attention.”

It’s not the first time someone has stretched their neck out above the line to take on the anonymous below-the-line bitching. Back in 2006, David Nobay (now CCO at Marcel Sydney, then Saatchi & Saatchi Australia ECD) wrote an equally scathing attack on the trolls. Not only did it open the doors to professional sabotage, he argued, but it also represented a colossal waste of man hours when juniors were playing keyboard warrior while on the clock.

Since then the team at Campaign Brief have instituted a policy of moderating comments that are personal, but debating the quality of campaigns is fair game. “It was far worse in the early days of the Campaign Brief blog (2005 to around 2008), particularly when the comments were unmoderated! Since we had to start moderating it's been harsh on any perceived average to awful work, but no personal abusive comments get through now," says Campaign Brief editor Michael Lynch.

There is an argument that anonymity allows for honest debate and critique. In response to Jamie’s piece, one commenter who was singled out in the article explains that by not putting his or her name to comments they don’t need to worry about leaving a digital trail for potential future employers.

Copy Paste says, “It's true I don't want future employers to know who I am. But, I anonymously praise as much as I criticise. Are we supposed to applaud everything that comes out? Well done tiger, at least you tried.”

In the piece, several people argued that being able to call out work that they see as derivative or mediocre without fear of reproach is a way to raise the bar. On the other hand others see the potshots as being creating an unhealthy environment that doesn't make room for creative risk taking. By and large, says Michael, the wisdom of the crowds bears out - really good work will see positive comments outweigh negative at a ratio of 80:20.

But if the quality of work in the industry should be rigorously examined and critiqued, is anonymity really the best way to achieve that? "​On the anonymous point, it was interesting that some commenters said that this was integral to keeping honest feedback in comment sections," says Jamie. However others have argued that if you're going to give feedback put your name to it, be respectful and be constructive, just as you would at work. This is all I'm asking you for. Feedback and critique is vital, it pushing us to be braver and better."

For Rob Belgiovane, co-founder and ECD at BWM Denstu, the trolls are an annoyance ('tragics in need of attention'), but he doesn't think that their existence restricts creativity. "I don't believe it makes any difference to creativity but a positive supportive environment is definitely more conducive to great work," he says, adding that the best way to examine and critique work is "with well researched, insightful commentary that people can take seriously, show their clients and learn from to improve things."

"I think more educated critique would help raise the bar creatively and stomp out mediocrity (not accepting it, as some commenters said I was suggesting)," agrees Jamie. "Look at other creative industries, film, music, art, all these industries have professional critics, unbiased, respected and reasoned responses to work. Whilst there are elements of it in advertising, maybe that should become the norm, not nameless people in the comments section?" 

The article also elicited positive responses, with many joining in to support Jamie. 

Others said that the industry’s reputation for snark was an embarrassment. It’s something that’s often cited as a particular problem in the Australian advertising industry – but is it really a uniquely Australian problem?

Rob Belgiovane reckons so. “Yes, definitely worse in Oz predominantly due to the tall poppy syndrome and the appalling negative attitude of the Australian trade press...it's more fun for junior journos working for magazines with a circulation of 10 to dump on everything rather than write an insightful story. This, I believe, lends credibility to the trolls.”

For Jamie, who is originally from England, he's not sure if it's necessarily just an issue in Australia. "Everyone loves a bitch and snip at fellow agencies, we're all guilty of it, but I felt in the UK there was generally more respect given to each other, an understanding that we're all looking to create bigger and better work. Competition fuels excellence, criticism kills it."

Michael isn’t so convinced that Australia is the worst offender when it comes to anonymous online industry bitching. “Not really, just look at Agency Spy in the US for far worse (unmoderated) comment streams, and comments for CB Asia can be pretty harsh too. So in terms of a global 'spite chart' the US would top the table, followed by Australia/NZ and Asia,” he says. 

Genre: Digital , People