The Conversation

Awards are only 'creative onanism' if you've never won any

Awards season is upon us and it's the opportunity to celebrate, learn and progress

By claire beale

A few years ago I was sitting next to a meaty marketer at a glossy industry awards show. It was a more amusing evening than I’d been expecting; my dining companion kept up a witty bitchy commentary throughout, liberally spitting the phrase “creative onanism!”, along with gobbets of rubber chicken, when each of the winners was announced.

He started the evening convinced he was there to bear witness to a shameless orgy of creative backslapping, far removed from the realities of the business of selling stuff. And he ended the evening conviction unshaken. “What’s Sarah in Swindon supposed to make of that?” he asked me after one joyfully surreal TV ad scooped a top prize. “At least she’ll notice it and remember it,” I replied. “She might even enjoy it.” He snorted amiably.

My dining companion was entertaining enough. But wilfully obtuse.

Let me tell you about another man I sat next to at a more recent awards dinner – this year’s British Arrows awards. Mr Pablo de Ocampo is the director and curator of moving image at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. I wondered why he was in London attending the British Arrows awards. It turns out that the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is a major sponsor of the British Arrows. Hmmm. I wondered why.

Well, for the past 35 years the Walker Art Center has been holding a week-long festival showcasing the most creatively-awarded British TV advertising. And it’s not a festival for the advertising and marketing industry, it’s a festival for real people. And it’s not a free side-show: people pay to go and see the ads. And they pay $15 a ticket, and they turn up in their thousands. It’s the Walker Art Center’s most successful annual event, it’s held in the run up to Christmas and it’s a major feature of the Minneapolis holiday season. Sarah of Seward clearly makes something of our award-winning ads; creative onanism be dammed.

Let’s be clear. Ads exist to sell. They’re more likely to sell if they are entertaining, informative, amusing, original. And all the ads that are like this also ‘sell’ advertising - they create a context that means real people are happy to see commercials, want to engage with them, find them a not-unpleasant addition to their daily lives. Heck, real people on the other side of the Atlantic are PAYING to see our ads.

And they’re PAYING to support our industry awards. Because industry awards contribute to an environment that propels better work.

As we face full frontal into awards season, many big agencies have been spending thousands and thousands of pounds entering the major shows, taking days and days of careful planning to decide which work to back, and are braced for the collective corporate emotional journey of competition. Yes, entries and attendances are being cut in recognition of tougher times, but the business rationale and the emotional pull of the awards are holding firm.

Agencies make this effort because awards represent an important moment to kick back and celebrate the industry, feel excited about being part of it, to hang out with people they haven’t seen for ages, have some fun. All of this is vitally important lifeblood. And when the dust’s cleared the next day, agencies make space on the shelves in their reception area for the trophies that prove they are respected by their peers and competitors.

Crucially, winning creative awards can help agencies win business, attract the best talent, retain good people. Being involved in the judging process affords an invaluable opportunity to discuss and dissect ads with the best of your peers. And the winning body of work forges a common understanding of what excellent looks like and sets a benchmark for others to aspire to, keeping standards high and people motivated and inspired. It’s definitely not all about the good-feels.

And if it’s real world empiricism you’re after, then there are plenty of highly regarded, brutally rigorous Effectiveness awards that painstakingly assess whether work has worked (though in over twenty years I’ve never been to a fun Effectiveness awards show - the creative parties are always the ones to be at). The very best agencies have creative awards and effectiveness awards side-by-side on their shelves.

As far as I know that meaty marketer with his cynical take on creative awards has never won one. Which means he’s never experienced the leverage a creative award might give him in getting the best out of his agencies, or even his own board. He’s never experienced the pull a big creative award might give him in attracting ambitious fresh marketing talent. Or how it might help him land his next big job, or a nice pay rise.

And he’s never experienced the satisfaction of knowing that somebody across the Atlantic is actually paying to appreciate the work he’s produced.

He almost certainly doesn’t care. But if I told you who he is, I think you’ll agree that he should: if he paid creative awards more respect he might work out how to make standout advertising.

To anyone who rolls their eyes when the subject of creative awards comes up, I say you’re passing up an opportunity to learn and progress.

To every agency and marketer who is confident enough to back their work by entering this year’s big awards shows: good luck. It all matters.


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