D&AD Lack of Black Pencil Advertising

Question of the Week

What does the lack of D&AD Black Pencils say about the state of advertising?

While the industry did win 40 Pencils collectively, does the Black Pencil shortage point towards a decline in sector-wide standards?

By Conor Nichols

The 2023 D&AD awards - a celebration and benchmark for outstanding creativity - saw the advertising industry attain 40 coveted Pencils. Adam&eveDDB stole the show, not only winning the prestigious Agency of the Year prize but also taking home the only Yellow Pencils awarded to the sector (three) for its powerful Last Photo campaign for Calm. Of the remaining 37 Pencils awarded, 15 Graphite and 22 Wood Pencils were given out, with Ogilvy UK also winning big with its Hornicultural Society campaign for charity Relate. Despite the general success, however, the lack of Black Pencils awarded in advertising was inescapable.

Reserved solely for truly groundbreaking work, just two Black Pencils were bestowed - one in the Visual Effects category to Electric Theatre Collective for Pharrell Williams' music video Cash In Cash Out and the other in Product Design to Abby.World for its Heartbeat Drum Machine campaign for The Swedish Heartchild Foundation. While these are both wins for the design industry, there is definitely a feeling that the advertising sector has missed out on the big prize.

Richard Brim, the chief creative officer at adam&eveDDB and this year's D&AD President, feels that adland should take the absence of the Black Pencil with a “pinch of salt”.

“There was some very strong work on the table, and Black Pencils are an anomaly, they’re not a given,” Brim added.

How does the rest of the industry feel about the situation? Have certain campaigns been shunned? What does the lack of Black Pencil say about the state of the industry’s work over the past year? Should adland take heed of the design sector’s success?

Laurent Simon, chief creative officer, VMLY&R

When I started out in this industry, I didn’t know they were even a thing… the elusive Black Pencil. They were so hard to win that I thought Yellow Pencils were the top award. In fact, in the last 60 years – since D&AD’s first award show - only 103 Black Pencils have been awarded. It’s a tough crowd.

That said, the lack of industry recognition for advertising this year is deeply uncomfortable. Especially when, collectively, we’re on an upward journey. For me, it’s the Yellow Pencils to really take note of. They serve as a much better barometer to read the state of our industry. Black Pencils, meanwhile, play a widely different role - they are more than industry navel-gazing. They allow us to star-gaze and interrogate the very essence of human nature. A Black Pencil makes the seemingly improbable, unthinkable, impossible… possible. That’s its power and wonder.

It proves that unicorns are out there. They may be unbelievably elusive, but they do believably exist. And as such, the creative quest finds inspiration. So, while the 2023 ceremony didn’t uncover its latest Polaris, I do know that many more blue moons will illuminate those May nights and eclipse what has come before. That’s the least I can wish for 2024.

Mark Elwood, executive creative director, Leo Burnett

The Black Pencil is the ultimate creative accolade. As D&AD say, it’s reserved for ground-breaking work. Does that mean that because an ‘advertising’ idea wasn’t awarded a Black Pencil in 2023 it reflects the sorry state of global advertising? Nope, not for me, because Black Pencils should hold us to the highest standards possible.

Surfer, Gorilla, Grrr, Meet the Superhumans, Womb stories, Lost Class are all pure lightning strikes of craft and creativity. If in 2023 we all collectively didn’t make the grade for Black, then so be it. Should we all try harder to win one in 2024? 100 per cent. I personally like the reminder of just how hard that task is. My reflections on the 2023 awards were that more Graphite and Yellow Pencils should have been awarded. There was some truly great work that deserved better than ‘in book’ in old money.

Ete Davies, EMEA chief operating officer, Dentsu Creative

I'm not convinced that the lack of Black Pencils in 2023 alone would be enough for the ad industry to draw any conclusions yet. Advertising still had a strong showing across the Yellow Pencils, with around 30 advertising ideas. 2022 had several advertising ideas that were awarded both Black and Yellow Pencils in a range of categories. There's an argument that both 2023 Black Pencil winners (for product design and visual effects, respectively) are more a reflection of the fact Craft, Design and Innovation are equally, if not more, important than advertising for the D&ADs.

More fundamentally, as creativity and technology combine to solve even more complex challenges, and while our media landscape continues to exponentially evolve and become even more fragmented, I suspect we'll see more 'non-advertising' ideas winning eminent creative awards. For the ad industry, that means expanding our definition of advertising, as well as the opportunity for storytelling innovation that new technologies will provide.

Laurence Thomson, joint chief creative officer, McCann London

There have been years where there have been no Black Pencils at all, and none in traditional ’advertising’. I think the two Black Pencils winners are outstanding. In particular, the Cash In, Cash Out music video for Pharrell Williams shows masterful levels of craft with great aplomb – it’s an aspirational piece that sets the bar for work to come. Congratulations Mr Rousselet (and thanks for Just Eat Snoop Dogg, by the way).

When celebrities are also ‘brands’ in themselves it could be argued that Cash In, Cash Out is a piece of branded content for Pharrell. Similarly, Heartbeat Drum Machine was created for a client/brand, The Swedish Heartchild Foundation, and as such I believe it to be advertising. Albeit advertising that doesn’t conform to ‘traditional’ premises. But that’s the beauty of D&AD, it’s a show that celebrates all facets of design, craft, and art direction.

There has been some amazing work created this year to boot, The Last Photo for ITV/Calm, See My Pain for Nurofen, Apple The Greatest to name a few. D&AD is a notoriously critically tough forum. To win there means something, and to win a Black Pencil - truly I believe, is the creative industry’s most coveted accolade - reserved only for truly ground-breaking work.

So not all that bad really … cloudy with a spot of sun.

Helen Rhodes, chief creative officer, BBH

It is a shame that no Black Pencils were awarded for advertising this year but the bar is high and that’s a great thing. In the last 10 years only 29 Black Pencils have been awarded. To get one is to reach the pinnacle of our profession and we all need something to aim for. I’m so pleased Cash In Cash Out got one for Visual Effects. That’s a piece of work you would be happy to have lopped a limb off to create. Each frame is dripping with the insane level of love and craft that has been poured into it. It actually blows my mind how a group of people created that from scratch and that’s the reaction you want to get from a piece of work that is good enough to win a Black Pencil.

Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is what can advertising learn from the world of music videos. They seem to be the area where a lot of directors and production companies do their best work. Why is this? More experimentation, less client involvement, longer time lengths to tell a story and luxuriate in the beautiful visuals. If we can sprinkle some of this into our advertising then next year might be a different story.


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