Around this time of year, several tons of hardware are distributed throughout the advertising industry. About the only thing more prevalent than the trophies being given are the annual and semi-standardized complaints they inspire about the relative merit of awards. The most common among them include: there are too many shows; there's too much politics involved in the judging process; they favor small agencies and obscure campaigns that have little to do with the real business world; and the same agencies win every year.
There's a bit of truth--and more than a little fiction-involved with each of these complaints, but first I think it's important to discuss why awards are critical to those of us who consider creativity in advertising to be a priority.
Awards are the great equalizer in this business. In advertising, sheer bigness often compensates for mediocrity-but not when it comes to judging advertising. Once the work is laid on the table everybody's on an even playing field. At that point nobody wants to hear about your agency's media clout or your global network. All that matters is the idea, laid bare. Is it any wonder that big agencies don't like awards shows? Their inherent advantages are stripped away, and what's left exposed often isn't pretty.
Awards also help to develop a creative tradition and culture at agencies. An agency that wins awards consistently, and for a wide variety of clients, develops a self-image that is focused on the work. That mentality is passed down to new employees, regardless of which department they're in, and the result is an institutionalizing of high standards. The winning of awards, year after year, serves the same functions as a good quality-control system; it tells you, and the client, that there's a process in place designed to produce good work, and that the process is working.
Clients do consider such things, even if they sometimes like to deny it. You may notice that the client who insists that awards mean nothing is often the same one who can't help peeking at the trophies on your shelf. That's only natural; the awards represent outside validation that the client made a smart choice in selecting you. And forward-thinking clients also like the idea of being associated with progressive work. Not to say there isn't cynicism among clients toward awards. A lot of clients believe that there are too many awards handed out, and that agencies sometimes care more about winning than selling. They're right to be suspicious on those grounds. I think the smarter clients know how to balance their attitude toward awards somewhere between abject worship and cynicism. They look at it as icing on the cake; if the campaign sells and wins awards, so much the better for everyone. If it doesn't work and wins awards, you'll be celebrating alone.
Perhaps one of the most important functions that awards serve is to boost the morale of people within the agency. Sometimes creative people are scoffed at for being proud of awards, with the implication being that it's just an ego trip. And yet, for some reason, it's OK to be proud of sports trophies or academic honors. To me there's little distinction between the two-they both represent recognition by your peers. What's wrong with being proud of that-particularly in a business where you experience rejection on an almost daily basis? A little bit of recognition can heal a lot of wounds.
That recognition, by the way, boosts more than just egos. It can help a small agency and a small campaign to be widely seen, even with a limited media budget. And that award-winning work is seen not only by potential clients, but also by potential employees. Awards serve as a great recruiting tool. People in schools read the books to help them decide where they want to go, which means that the most creative agencies get to pick from among the best talents out there. And you don't have to do a sales job on these people, or offer them huge bonuses to try to compete with the big-agency recruiters. They want to work for you. The reality is, none of the top people coming out of school today want to work for the big New York agencies. That attitude is partly a function of awards.
Are awards shows unfair to the big agencies? Should we create separate shows, or separate categories, so that big agencies and their clients won't feel left out? You hear that case being made sometimes, but I don't buy it. In fact, I think it's pathetic. If big agencies aren't winning awards it isn't because of discrimination against them or because their clients are too big to do good work. Those are weak excuses. Big clients do buy good work, but only from agencies capable of doing it and properly presenting it to them. Most of the big agencies are set up to move money through the agency with the least amount of resistance. They're willing to do anything to achieve their ultimate goal-retain the client. Even if that means giving the client work that is beneath what they should be running and less than what they should buy. Big agencies will feed the machine at any cost. They shouldn't be given awards for that.
Having noted the positive aspects, it should be said that there are some problems with the current state of awards. There are simply too many shows (and too many categories within those shows). As shows become niche oriented, there's no general standard to measure against. This ends up confusing all but the most highly informed insiders. No one else knows the difference between the shows that really mean something and those that don't.
What separates the good shows from the also-rans? Primarily, the judges. Their ranks should be comprised of people who have proven themselves creatively-and who have done it repeatedly, on a variety of campaigns. Their work should reflect a diversity of styles and a range of experience. Some of the judges can and should be young-but they should be experienced, nonetheless. I have a problem with judges whose claim to fame is an award-winning campaign for a Frisbee throwing contest. They have neither the maturity nor the historical perspective to make the literally thousands of educated yet subjective decisions required in judging a show. They also tend to vote for this year's Frisbee throwing ad.
Another problem I have with awards is the tendency to reward work that is conceptually solid and well-executed-but also familiar. In many cases, the books look too similar from year to year because judges vote for work that has become an accepted formula in the advertising vernacular. Last year's ads, with a new headline. Unfortunately, the judging process is such that if something is really extreme and different it will tend to polarize the judges. Some will give the ad a 10, others will give it a 4. And then along comes a good, solid, familiar ad, and it gets 8's all around and comes out ahead. I wouldn't mind seeing such work reach the finalist stage, but I think the medals should be reserved for work that challenges our preconceived notions about how advertising should look and sound. One of the purposes of awards shows should be to showcase the new. I know there's not much work like that out there. We should do more of it or give fewer medals.
I also think there are some myths circulating about who wins awards. One is that small agencies are doing all the winning. Another is that certain agencies tend to win all the time because of awards show politics. I think these perceptions don't mesh with reality. First of all, if there are any agencies dominating shows these days it's the mid-sized creative agencies such as Fallon McElligott, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Wieden & Kennedy and The Martin Agency. These are agencies with large national clients; there's nothing penny-ante about what they're doing.
Is there politics involved in voting? Yes, but it probably works as much against a hot agency as for it. On the one hand, judges who admire an agency may be predisposed to vote for that agency-but on the other hand, they may be harsher because they're judging against the standard of that agency's best work. Then, too, there's the backlash effect in which judges say, "These guys have won enough awards, they don't need any more." Of course, that shouldn't happen; we should be judging each ad in the context of this year and this show-but it's hard to do that.
Finally, there is the problem of "fake" advertising designed to win awards. The One Show has begun taking precautions to guard against this phenomenon, which is good, but some responsibility lies with agencies, too. Good agencies should not be seeking out obscure or artificial clients in order to win awards.
I know it's been argued that this is perhaps not such a bad thing for an agency to do, because winning awards-even for a barbershop-allows creative people to flex their muscles and builds morale. I understand that argument. But my concern is that it may lead creatives to believe that the only accounts they can do great work on are the tiny ones. If that happens, this "barbershop approach" could polarize an agency so that award-winning work is separated from the money-making work.
Historically, the agencies that are considered truly great are the ones that have had the ability and perseverance to consistently produce great work on both the biggest and smallest accounts-award-winning work that builds both their business and their clients. That, to me, is the most important achievement of