And the awards industrial complex rolls along.
As it always has. Every year after the awards season ends, there's the inevitable outcry over "scam" ads. The ads that won awards glory, only to be revealed later to be something less than full-on marketing initiatives. Ads created without a client on board, ads that didn't run or that ran only one token time, at 4 a.m., to meet award shows' entry requirements. This year JC Penney's "Speed Dressing" dominated the scandal list. The spot was, it was said, entered by a rogue production company without the knowledge of the agency that created it, Saatchi New York, and was, ostensibly, made without the knowledge of JC Penney (there are many things wrong with this scenario, the scapegoating of Epoch not least among them). Then there was the series of Amnesty print ads juxtaposing Olympic sports, Chinese athletes and torture created out of TBWA Paris. The ads sure were striking, but after they won at Cannes, Amnesty disowned them. But here's the thing—Amnesty did reportedly allow the ads to be run once so they could, yes, qualify for awards show entry. Other scam complaints followed—including the particularly brazen Leo Burnett India entry for Luxor Highlighters which won Gold in Print among other Lions. Luxor, is, apparently, not even really a client of the agency, but that's no matter to agency creative director KV Sridhar who said, straight up, in the press that the ads were created specifically for awards judges. And on they went, the revelations of awards given to not-quite ads.
In many cases, it's the ad agency that has sacrificed ethics for hardware. But when Ad Age revealed that no less a company than P&G, Marketer of the Year at Cannes, was doing what many had suspected— using Cannes as a big old focus group—it became clear that agencies weren't the only ones abusing the awards system. P&G won Gold this year for its Crest TV "You can say anything with a Smile," campaign, created by Saatchi New York. But, like last year's Tide "Interview" spot, the Crest work only got a token one-time airing. A P&G spokesperson said last year that the "Interview" spot was "aired very minimally in one small market: Buffalo, New York. The reason for that was to meet the minimum requirement for Cannes entry." (Representatives of P&G did not return emails requesting comment.) Based on winning spots' performance at Cannes, they would go on to a public platform—maybe the Super Bowl, which is where "Interview" ended up, and which will be the likely fate of Crest. Instead of taking a risk with an idea, trusting its agency and stretching its processes to put something new into the consumer world, P&G fronted some dough for a campaign that, like those Luxor ads, was created to win favor from an elite group of agency creatives. So, in its attempt to "be creative" P&G has created a classic, uncreative P&G process and perverted the awards process into the bargain.
None of this is cause for concern if you've already decided that awards are silly anyway. But, the fact that the vast majority of agencies keep entering awards and thousands of ad people go to awards events implies that as an industry we've very clearly decided that awards matter (I can count on one hand, with digits to spare, the number of agencies I know that don't enter awards on principal). Ad awards do, apparently, serve a purpose. For agencies they are recruitment and new business tools. For creatives they're career builders. For marketers... well, what are they for marketers?
We believe, as an industry, that great creative works. Which means that an award-winning marketer is a successful marketer. So, while some agency people resented the crashing of their Cannes party a few years ago by an army of pleated-chinos clad MBAs, in general, marketers caring about awards was good news. It meant that even process-bound marketers would realize that creativity works, would empower their people to back great ideas, would chose vision over testing, would trust, would risk... would live! But, instead of doing those things, some marketers, aided by their agencies, chose to create some weird, unhealthy awards feedback loop.
Shouldn't awards be rewards? Rewards for doing the hard work of creativity, for applying the intellectual rigor necessary to get great work made? It makes the industry more credible when what we celebrate as the best serves its intended purpose.
So how does the awards machine move forward with meaning and dignity? Well, maybe it doesn't. Maybe we are getting too earnest about this. After all, when marketers like P&G win awards, doesn't everyone win? If a big packaged goods type brand can become a beacon of creativity, the next marketer will be inspired to do creative things, that marketer's agency will be able to do creative things, attract clients that want to do creative things, and so on. And, as we've observed and written, many creatives are more motivated now by real world feedback than industry kudos. Increasingly, the creators we speak to are more interested in YouTube views, parodies, press and other more reliable indicators of the market impact of work. And if the ad business keeps moving in the direction that it should be, agencies will be creating products and services and content that will mean a whole lot more than awards—they'll mean revenue. For the agency that creates something on the order of Nike Plus, and has a stake in it, awards are suddenly going to look a bit more... quaint.
At present, it falls to awards entrants to honor the spirit of what awards really mean, and, well, we've seen how that's worked out. Everyone grumbles about system flouters after the awards season is over but there's no real fallout for offenders. Juries can't be expected to be the sole gatekeepers. A jury's job is evaluating work. Yes, judges can raise red flags for work that appears suspect but they should be able to safely assume what they are looking at is, in fact, brand creativity.
So, awards show organizers need to take more responsibility. They should, as Nancy Vonk suggests, bar entry the following year for those who submit scam ads. That may cut into some of the entry fees that loose entry guidelines provide. But awards organizations might want to consider the long term effects of awards being continually devalued by bogus winners. Currently, Cannes entrants must include a client name and contact. It's not clear to what degree that's enforced or how often organizers contact clients. (Cannes organizers did not respond to requests for comment). But even if client contacts were checked more rigorously, that's only addressing the completely bogus ads—those that had nothing to do with a marketer. As we've established, clients themselves are responsible for perhaps the more common, and insidious, let's-run-it-once offenses. Cannes guidelines say that a client must have paid for the media for an entry (if paid media is applicable) and the show can request a media schedule for anything shortlisted. It seems that if the show exercised this right, many problems would be solved. Wording could be added to indicate entries should represent bona fide marketing initiatives that were released to a general or specified audience and the show could disqualify the Bend, Oregon-type efforts.
If we want awards to be a boondoggle, a fun little circus for ad industry workers to amuse themselves, then that's fine. But if awards are meant to respect the place of advertising in the world of business, if they're meant to recognize the pinnacle of the art and science that moves markets and people, those who run award shows and some of those who enter them have to do better.