Awards: Who Needs Them?

It’s awards season, but as the industry weathers shrinking budgets, a talent crisis, and the world is battered between one crisis and the next what is the role of awards in advertising today?

By Elliot Leavy

It’s been almost 70 years since the first International Advertising Film Festival took place in Venice and since then the ceremony has had its fair share of ups and downs. 

One of the most iconic and defining moments was in 1995 when Sir Frank Lowe, then Cannes jury chairman, refused to award a Grand Prix by claiming none of the work was good enough. 

That seems very different to the scenario today, wherein many accuse advertising awards ceremonies as exercises in the industry marking its own homework and giving itself a hearty pat on the back. 

“That’s when awards become strange,” says Martin Beverley, chief strategy officer at adam&eveDBB, “when the objective within an agency becomes to win the award in the first place, rather than [it just being] a by-product of doing amazing stuff”. 

This is why, Beverley argues, it is odd that there is no people’s award judged by punters rather that the industry itself. “To be honest, when it comes to brands like John Lewis we care more about the Mumsnet survey where they pick the ads they love the most than some juries,” he says.

This is the main charge against advertising awards today - that they do not reflect the everyday person on the ground. Beverley says: “The public's perspective is just so absent at times that it just becomes myopic: missing the point that if it's not famous and popular in the real world, it's unlikely to actually be effective.”

“I think that's a bit of an outdated discourse,” says Harjot Singh, global chief strategy officer at McCann. “I think it's important that as an industry we embrace the power of awards and make them what we want them to be versus just letting them happen to us.”

What Singh is referencing here is how the sheer number of awards in the industry leads to accusations of indulgence — but, as he explains, this is the wrong way to be thinking about them.

“We have to understand that awards are our industry’s currency. Now of course not all currency is the same, but if you think about awards as currency you start thinking about them in a healthier way. If you were to invest in markets or in portfolios that were currency led, you would invest in currencies that have proven some level of stability and strength that generate and create value over time.”

From here, Singh argues, you can begin to see the value of awards a bit clearer. “I think any award that can prove the business case for what it is we do as an industry — build brands strategically — is valuable, because there is a narrative in our industry that we are losing its magic”.

The second most important are those awards that show the power of creativity. “As this,” Singh argues, “gives clients the material they need to be able to argue for investment in future advertising work.” Those awards that can prove outcomes beneficial in terms of branding and creativity are therefore those that are most valuable. 

At a wider level, Publicis Groupe chief creative officer Ben Mooge says that awards still matter. “They matter because they’re a collective bar-setting for the rest of the industry. ‘This is what good looks like’ – and it forces you to look out of the day-to-day rounds of feedback and amends and up at what’s possible, [and] that it could be you next time.”

Sue Unerman, MediaCom’s chief transformation officer, agrees, “When agencies are made to have the discipline of writing an awards entry - getting their logic in order, representing the consumer insight in the best possible way and proving that you have achieved against the objectives - that is undoubtedly a very useful exercise.”

But there are two sides to awards for Unerman, and the other is actually judging the awards themselves. “It means,” says Unerman, who has spent the last two years convening the IPA Effectiveness Awards, “that I see the best of the best creative in the industry”. This matters, she says, because “the link between sizing, effectiveness and creativity and awards is fairly well documented”.

Inevitably, the agencies that produce the best work will attract the best talent. “For me personally,” says Beverley, “it proves you’re doing the best stuff and that naturally leads to better talent. For me when I was a young planner I looked at the APG awards and knew I wanted to get one”. 

But are all awards equal? For many this is the main problem with awards today: the sheer quantity of them. As Beverley says: “It’s almost like game theory you know ‘they're entering so we should enter’. Imagine if we focussed on a few select awards, saving ourselves some time and money that we can use elsewhere to stronger effect. 

Whatever your own thoughts on awards in advertising today, it is probably wise to approach them with the words of Leo Burnett’s global chief creative officer Chaka Sobhani in mind: “I love this industry but I don’t make work for it”.


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