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How a dentist and a corrupt French Commissioner are responsible for weird science and Kill Bill videos

Another day, another European Commission web communications mess. Today it’s “Science: It’s A Girl Thing” and this video. The website for the initiative is here, and reactions that range from The New Statesman to the very rude tweets. This is just three months after the Commission had to pull a Kill Bill video due to the perception that it was racist, although at the time of writing the new science video is still up.

Why, oh why, is the Commission screwing up like this?

The answer can be found at the end of the 1990s. It was a low point for the European Commission with Commissioner Édith Cresson found guilty of fraudulently employing her dentist, leading to the resignation of the Santer Commission. As a result throughout the 2000s we saw the progressive tightening of the rules for being able to bid for Commission work – as anyone who has ever bid for EU work will testify, the paperwork required is now extraordinary and burdensome.

So how does this apply to web communications? Essentially there are only a few companies in Brussels that are large enough and well connected enough to bid for the large web communications contracts and jump through the bureaucratic hoops to get the work. Mostra, one such firm, was the agency behind the Kill Bill video, and it’s another one of the big Brussels players Tipik behind the Science website (do a WHOIS lookup for science-girl-thing.eu and you get the details shown in the screenshot here). Add to this the need for the Commission to outsource a lot because – like national administrations – it’s practically and presentationally easier to do that than recruit new staff internally.

As I see it, the bureaucratisation of the procurement process might have improved financial management in the strictest sense, but – in web comms at least – it has created an uncompetitive closed market, and within that agencies that produce poor quality work. Today’s furore will not be the last while this arrangement persists.

[UPDATE 23.06.2012, 0945] A number of people have pointed out that Emakina made the video, not Tipik. The latter only hosts the site. I think the main gist of the article remains valid though.


21 Comments

  • Hugh |

    Think you’re being unfair on the BXL comms companies. I agree the procurement process is inimical to managing decent communications and I’ve seen it from both sides. However, I would identify the root cause of this, and similar aberrations, as the driving spirit in EU comms, to which the contractors tend to resign themselves in a spirit of the “client is always right.” Also, the effort of preparing bids and project handling in an institutional context leaves little over for the exercise of critical faculties that could counter the burning desire of preponderantly amateur comms officials to look cool/be loved, a desire that can be traced more to Margot Wallström than Edith Cresson.

  • Juan |

    Hello Jon,
    I am the proud manager of the people at Tipik who work hard in extremely tense conditions to provide the best possible services to institutions.
    I started in 1990 on the promotion of Erasmus, as a solo operator. The level of paperwork was as it is today.
    I accept it because I think it is a firewall against lobbying and maybe even corruption.
    I am not well connected. As a matter of fact, few people at the EC or the EP know what I look like (fortunately). I know that my colleagues work hard and well, and I do not necessary feel that I should hang around at cocktail parties to improve our chances to get a contract.
    And, obviously, I am aware that anything related to communication must be subject to comments and criticism.
    However, I am disappointed to see that, again and again, comments such as yours fall into the same trap of confusing legitimate, well-documented criticism with easy gossip. And that, when proved wrong, one replies that the main gist of the article remains valid.
    I think that the title of your post is eye-catching and that you have been carried by it.
    I propose to you to discuss this subject either on this forum or in person.
    Maybe you will discover that there is no such arrangement, who knows ?

    Juan Arcas

  • Jon |

    Juan – count yourself lucky that the critique was on a blog and I can and do correct what was written! But the basis of what I wrote – about the way the Brussels communications environment works – remains very true, regardless of which agencies are involved in this particular case.

    I do not blame Tipik or Mostra or Emakina as such – the business model makes sense. But these firms are the product of the incentives from the Commission, and the way the Commission contracts communications work, and there are serious problems with that.

  • Ryan Heath |

    several thoughts:
    1. jon is right, the framework contract system at the Commission is terrible. one day I’d like to stop being a full time member of staff and supply speeches on a freelance basis to people at EU who need speeches, rather than a permanent full time speechwriter. what would be a win-win is basically impossible for the reasons Jon describes.

    but 2. that doesn’t really have anything to do with this video, which far from being the product of a narrow or risk averse culture is actually proof of the EU willing to take risk.

    3. majority reaction thinks it was a stupid risk to take … but that’s also a highly self interested and elite reaction (one i have sympathy with though)

    4. why elite? because have you noticed that there aren’t any 14 year old girls complaining about this? they are the target audience but its adult men and women complaining. the same people who have failed to get more girls into science.

    5. It wasn’t the EU that failed to get girls into science- they are just experimenting to try to beat the existing problem. Commission may have failed this time (its still an open question) but I applaud it for trying. it would be terrible if reactions like this shut down future risk taking.. and that’s a likely outcome critics are ignoring

    6. it’s so easy to criticise… now let’s see how you would do it better – how would you get 14 year olds interested? remember these are people who love justin bieber and ignoring these elders to go off kissing boys/men and girls… and no one has succeeded in 20 years of trying. i’ll clap the critics when they put up ideas to match their words.
    personally, i like this: http://lookslikescience.tumblr.com/
    but i am a 30-something man and my opinion should not count for all that much in this debate

  • Juan |

    Fair enough.

    But I rest my case: the EC hired Emakina, a newcomer on this market (so you see it is possible for new companies to win a contract with the E institutions), precisely because they are specialised in corporate, innovative, web-oriented comm project. Their business model is not EC communication.

    Now how come these guys, who have excellent references in the corporate business, deliver something inappropriate ?

    Is it because :
    1. (Jon’s theory) the EC system drives a limited number of companies to win all the contracts and therefore deliver poor quality, or
    2. (Juan’s theory) institutional communication is a rara avis, a very tricky exercise where you must be politically correct, multicultural, avoid humour or “second degré”, and still come up with something efficient.

    Consider me an valid interlocutor on this, except at 17:00 (wine tasting with friends) and from 21 to 23 (Spain meet France on the field..)

  • Jon |

    Or there’s a 3rd answer (alluded to by Hugh above) – that the people checking this in the Commission are not attentive or politically astute enough to realise when they have a problem on their hands

  • Mathew |

    There’s no easy, single answer. I work in a competitor to Emakina and Tipik, and used to work in another, and I can tell you that both companies have done excellent work for the EC, and at least one has done cr*p wrk for the EC. And you can probably say that for just about any company in the sector.

    How can this be? How can the same company have such different outputs, working for the same client?

    The short answer is that there is no such thing as “the EC”, at least in this context. There are dozens of different DGs (each with its own culture), and in them hundreds of Units, full of thousands of people, any of which at any time could be put in charge of a “comms project”.

    These comms projects, moreover, can be enormously diverse – from campaigns like the one that prompted this post, to projects which are fundamental to implementing EC programmes and policy. Even the degree of paperwork can vary enormously, as there are different sorts of ways such work can be subcontracted.

    In such an environment there cannot be “one” explanation, or even 3.

    But after many years in this biz, I personally have never seen evidence of – or at least, have never benefited from – the power of connections. It’s easy to believe, looking at Place Lux on a Friday night, that the comms business is something like the lobbying process, but it’s simply not true. The tendering process for winning work from the EC is punishingly difficult, and the downwards pressure on prices and costs is intense.

    For this reason most people I know in the sector are involved in EU-oriented comms for personal reasons – they’re definitely not in it for the money, which is better in other fields of marcoms. This is probably one reason for the problems – there are a lot of inexperienced amateurs treading water while they wait for another concours, and many large professional outfits ‘gave up’ long ago on working with the EC because the rates are too low and the project administration and tendering costs are too high.

    There are, nevertheless, some new competitors every year – noone in the EC comms sector had heard of Emakina, for example, a few years ago – but not enough. An enlightened approach to public procurement by the EC would encourage innovation and diversity in their comms supply sector, and improve management internally.

    Unfortunately, as far as I can see, there is no internal process within the EC allowing best practice exchanges and learning – just last month, for example, I introduced some people to some website concepts I first piloted for another DG ten years ago… In such a non-learning organisation, it’s surprising that there are not more KillBills and GirlsInScience.

  • Juan |

    Hugh definitely has a point. I also think that the consequence of the outsourcing, which Jon has pointed out, is that the communication expertise never grows inside the institutions. It is indeed a non-learning body (hi there, Matthew).
    Finally, one last point. Institutional comm is too shy, but even the least astute decision-maker should have been aware that some subjects are touchy:
    http://www.alinoa.be/dvdpost-et-emakina-condamne-pour-rent-a-wife/

  • Catherine Butler |

    FYI, the science video has now been made private on Youtube. However, a mirrored version is still available here.

  • Dick Nieuwenhuis |

    Few comments (not on the video, thanks!). Emakina worked for the Commission before on audiovisual stuff (sorry Juan) and did an excellent job there. I produced a few years with them a booklet plus CD plus Flash-thing on he web about the many videos produced by the so called Relex family. We presented it also at MIPCOM in Cannes and it was well received. A similar product had been made earlier by them about environmental projects, if I recall correctly.
    What Matthew says is correct and he knows as he was inside and outside.
    A final remark: just tell how often global companies (Microsoft, Nestlé, even Apple and also Greenpeace) get it entirely wrong in a campaign. Uh? So this can happen to us as well, no?
    And we can in no way spent the amounts of money on this as they do. Taxpayers money, you know!
    Especially if the company and project officer (I was that a thousand times) has to serve so many different masters inside the house, avoid conflicts with the 700-something members of the EP, 27 mothers-in-law (called Member States), etc. A miracle that under these conditions we manage to produce good things (now and then)!

  • Alex |

    Juan: EU procurement processes aside, just replace ” girl” with “black” or “gay”, and replace the “girly” video stereotypes with similarly hackneyed stereotypes of those groups, and perhaps you can see why people were offended? I don’t care whether it was personally your idea, or you signed off on it – if you are taking home any public money from this debacle, you deserve all the criticism you get.

  • Toni Cowan-Brown |

    Hi there,

    In reaction to Ryan’s comment about who criticised this video most, and in reaction to all the ‘Juans’, ‘Jons’, ‘Dicks’, ‘Mathews’ out there.

    I am a young 20-something girl/women and I for one have to struggle on a daily basis to fight of stereotypes, and male prejudice – if I could I would underline ‘daily basis’. Something, which I will probably continue to do for years to come. At conferences, I am more often than not mistaken for the hostess, the slide pusher, secretary – you name the stereotype I have been pushed into at some point. I am grateful for the few people that do take me seriously regardless of my young age, gender and the fact that – shock horror – I am the author and creator of a fashion blog in my spare time.

    Personally, I am sick of it and I really didn’t need a video like this one to enforce an already very strong stereotype that young girls are only interested in what is ‘pink, pretty and fun’. Young girls, need people to be shown that they can do something that is fun, adapted to them but that also has some meaning.

    Where is the message that as a woman your impact in science could be life changing for all the other women – and men – out there? Show us, the potential of women in science; looking into safer and painless child birth, new techniques for X-ray to detect breast cancer faster, finding new ways to test cosmetics that doesn’t involve cruelty to animals (if you really want to keep the cosmetic and girly pitch) and teh list goes on… Why not even look at how women can bring a different view to the world? Women like Marie Curie have made a difference, and have done things that a man would have probably not done to help advance science, like for example preferring not to patent her work allowing for fellow scientists to continue the research without unnecessary interferences.

    I for one was shocked about the video and very much disappointed. On my way to the DAA on Friday I came across the campaign, and I am afraid that right from the get go my draw hit the floor. A lipstick replacing the ‘I’, the hostesses simulating a strip-tease in blow up balloons that looked very much like the hamster cage/ball I purchased for my hamster when I was 7, and then the video. I am afraid it went from bad to worse and the young women and girls I spoke to could not see the link between all of this cosmetics and all the other ephemeral stuff in the video. Where was the content, the message? Because yes, women too are interested in the content not just the pretty PR fluff that surrounds it.

    Finally, this video has more appeal to young men and boys than it does to young women and girls.

    Indeed, it is easy to criticise but this type of criticism is needed to get things moving, this is not the way in which I want, as a proud European citizen and young women, the Commission to be innovative.

    The positive outcome of all of this is that, now more than ever, I want to go into business with women, I guess I have the Commission to thank for that!

    I thought this debate needed a wonen’s perspective!

    Toni

  • Mathew |

    @Alex, if you’d read Jon’s post you’d know that Juan’s company didn’t do the video. Moreover, it’s the client who signs off on it, not the supplier.

    @Dick, I agree that Emakina can do good work. They were a partner of ours on a project for the Your Business portal, and made an excellent video.

    @Ryan, I agree with a lot of what you say regarding risk-taking – risk aversion will lead to bland comms work which won’t help anyone.

    I have also seen other people pointing out that the people up in arms about this video are not in the target audience. As a scientist-turned science writer, I plead guilt … except for the fact that I have two teenagers at home.

    They are not all “people who love justin bieber and ignoring these elders to go off kissing boys/men and girls… “. My teenage daughter – intelligent, likes literature, history and art as well as pop music and facebook, and hates the bieber – could literally not believe her eyes when I showed her that video. She thought I was joking that it was produced by the EC.

    Any parent of teenagers can tell you: patronising them is not a good way to convince them of anything. Anyone who can remember being a teenager should know the same.

    But this was an operational mistake, and we can expect more of them if everyone thinks the EC can save the world by producing videos for YouTube. It can’t, and maybe it shouldn’t be trying to.

    There is an established body of social science and psychology work analysing why more kids in general and girls in particular don’t do science. There are many concrete policy recommendations emerging from this research – I doubt many include creating patronising pop videos aimed at 14 year olds. By then it’s far too late, for one thing.

    So why not, instead, support the professionals in the field? I imagine most national governments across Europe have looked at how best to interest girls in science. The Americans and Australians certainly have. Maybe the EC could add value here by rating and curating this research, helping countries learn from each others’ experience across national and language boundaries, rather than trying and failing to do everything itself from Brussels?

    Just a thought.

  • Mathew |

    @Alex, if you’d read Jon’s post you’d know that Juan’s company didn’t do the video. FYI, it’s the client who signs off on it, not the supplier.

    @Dick, agree that Emakina can do good work. They were a partner of ours on a project for the Your Business portal, and made an excellent video.

    @Ryan, I agree with a lot of what you say regarding risk-taking – risk aversion will lead to bland comms work which won’t help anyone.

    I have also seen other people pointing out that the people up in arms about this video are not in the target audience. As a scientist-turned science writer, I plead guilt … except for the fact that I have two teenagers at home.

    They are not all “people who love justin bieber and ignoring these elders to go off kissing boys/men and girls… “. My teenage daughter – intelligent, likes literature, history and art as well as pop music and facebook, and hates the bieber – could literally not believe her eyes when I showed her that video. She thought I was joking that it was produced by the EC.

    Any parent of teenagers can tell you: patronising them is not a good way to convince them of anything. Anyone who can remember being a teenager should know the same.

    But this was an operational mistake, and we can expect more of them if everyone thinks the EC can save the world by producing videos for YouTube. It can’t, and maybe it shouldn’t be trying to.

    There is an established body of social science and psychology work analysing why more kids in general and girls in particular don’t do science. There are many concrete policy recommendations emerging from this research – I doubt many include creating patronising pop videos aimed at 14 year olds. By then it’s far too late, for one thing.

    So why not, instead, support the professionals in the field? I imagine most national governments across Europe have looked at how best to interest girls in science. The Americans and Australians certainly have. Maybe the EC could add value here by rating and curating this research, helping countries learn from each others’ experience across national and language boundaries, rather than trying and failing to do everything itself from Brussels?

    Just a thought.

  • Marina |

    Great to see all these people who know about the business discussing openly and bringing up lots of valid points!

    If I can add just one additional fundamental problem with EC communication: it often lacks a clear link with political priorities. Campaigns regularly end up leading a lonely life in a space devoid of links to the target audience and to the relevant policy context. For this specific campaign, I am left to wonder which of the main goals of current Commission R&D policy is going to be reinforced by it. I personally can merely find some indirect links.

    As a result (or perhaps it’s the source of the problem), first of all, many of the countless campaigns that are launched every year are never evaluated properly. That is in terms of finding out how one or the other policy goal was supported. Just think about all the ‘awareness raising’ campaigns that lack any idea of what needs to happen once awareness has been raised.

    Secondly, campaigns run from ‘Brussels’ are by default badly placed to reach many possible target audiences. As an example related to this Women in Science campaign: in the Netherlands, over the last twenty years, there has been a series of campaigns to interest girls in science. Some of the slogans used can be considered part of the national cultural heritage. Why would the European Commission believe a relatively short campaign, starting from scratch and run from elsewhere would be (more) effective than what is and could be done nationally?

    As much as I applaud the goal of interesting girls for a career in science, it also points towards another common problem: the fact that the goal is right in principle doesn’t excuse us from thinking about whether time, place and institution are the most appropriate one to run a campaign and run it successfully.

    All in all, as long as European communication is considered more as a playground rather than as a serious way to help make political goals a reality, the most it can amount to might just be controversies of this kind.

  • Mathew |

    There are definitely odd things going on in this site – it takes several ties to load, and published my comment twice.

    Moreover, @Toni, your comment wasn’t live when I wrote my second one, so I couldn’t address it. You seem to think I defend the video. I was in fact one of the first to raise questions about it on twitter (Thursday, Friday). As I mentioned above, I have a teenage daughter and needless to say I don’t want her to have to put up with the sort of crap you describe.

    But you’re not alone. Just yesterday a female colleague – someone with many years in even project management – told me one of her EC clients told her that he “couldn’t really see the difference between an vent project manager and a hostess”. Sound familiar? Most sexists I know are in the EC – behave like that in a company and you’d be shown the door.

    @Marina, you’re right to say that “Secondly, campaigns run from ‘Brussels’ are by default badly placed to reach many possible target audiences.” However, Brussels is ideally placed to help those closer to the ground (and hence better placed) learn from their peers in different countries. Hence my suggestion to create less, curate more.

  • Mathew |

    err, that should have been ‘event project management’ and ‘event project manager’ … sorry!

  • Jon |

    A few practical points about comments here:
    1. I have been away in Cyprus with lousy internet, so haven’t been able to approve comments as fast as I normally would. Apologies for that.
    2. If you include more than 2 links in a comment WordPress might automatically assign your comment as spam.
    3. If you keep using the same name and e-mail address for comments, and you’re reputable (and that does include you Mathew!) then you comments will appear immediately.

So, what do you think ?