Why, after all the professed cynicism, the jaded attitudes and the it's-cool-not-to-give-a-shit posturing that so many agencies and creative people like to affect these days, is the apparent interest in winning them greater than ever? Why are the shows more controversial than they've been in years (remember that whole Frank Lowe, no-Grand Prix flap two years ago?), why is what wins (and what doesn't) still a source of gossip and conjecture, and why is attendance up and entries up and even the number of competitions up?
I wonder about this all the time. I don't know, maybe I'm just naive, but it seems that as often as I go to an awards show, and let me say unequivocally that, unless your name happens to be Donald Gunn, I have probably been to more shows than you (on average between four and six a year for the past 14 years), the one thing that everyone likes to do is dump on whatever show they've been to right after it has concluded. The work sucked. It took too long. The presenters were bad. The food stunk. Or there wasn't enough. The video looked like shit. Where did they get that band?
Over and over, it's a regular refrain. When you go to the big for-profit shows like Clio and the New York Festivals, you run into hipsters from trendy agencies or production houses who immediately start making excuses as to why they're there. "Oh, you know, we won something, I don't know what it is," they'll say with an offhand nonchalance bordering on sarcasm. It's never enough that you just went to see what won, went to see people you don't get a chance to see very often, went just for the hell of it. There's always this thing about going, about entering, about the whole awards show game. Everyone acts like they're unimpressed.
It's a cover-up, that's what I think. Despite what many say, awards drive the business, and creative people, agencies (including the ones that don't seem to pay much attention to them) and even clients care about them more than most are willing to let on. More specifically, the desire for acceptance and acclaim drives it. Awards just happen to be the most easily accessible manifestation of such. As a result, creatives have an insatiable need for them. You have to remember, says Lee Clow, that creative people have a combination of "giant egos and naive insecurity. They need validation for their work, and they don't necessarily get that from clients." Instead, they go looking for that, and a smidgen of self-esteem, from their peers.
Let's try to put all this in a bit of context. Cannes starts next week, the New York Art Directors Club awards were a week and a half ago (on the same night, it's worth noting, as the Effies), the One Show and Clio took place within the last month, right after the Andys and the God knows how many local Addy shows. It's peak season for metallurgy.
We queried 10 of the more or less major competitions: Cannes, Clio, One Show, ADC, International Andys, National Addys, New York Festivals, Ad Age Best (I know, I said major, but they're family), Mobius, AICP and the London International Festival. We asked what their total entries were and their standard entry fee for a single entry. Then we did some math.
Now, it's taken for granted that most competitions inflate their entries, but even by more or less conservative standards we came up with the figure of about $12 million spent on entry fees alone for these competitions (actually, London International and AICP are not included, because they did not disclose their total entries). Twelve million bucks. This does not include any fees spent on local competitions, nor does it reflect the time and money spent by agencies and production houses on preparing their entries, ordering dubs and reprints, shipping and handling, tickets for galas, travel to same, entertainment afterwards, yada yada yada.
By the loosey-goosey standards we applied here, the total entries for these combined shows came to over 80,000. That's a lot of print ads and TV spots. And when you consider that, of the above named competitions, only a handful have significant numbers of foreign entries, you can imagine what these figures must be like when you go global and include the rest of the friggin' world.
Awards, whether they're handed out by nonprofit industry trade groups or for-profit private entrepreneurs, are not just big business, they're a big deal. But then, as Lee Garfinkel of Lowe & Partners/SMS says, "As much as we bitch about the shows, we still want to win."
They work in a variety of ways, awards do, on both a personal and a business level. "It's really quite complex," says Arthur Bijur of Cliff Freeman & Partners. They can affect everything from a young copywriter's self-confidence to an agency's ability to recruit top talent to a client's belief that, despite whatever misgivings it might have had, it picked the right agency and then bought the right campaign. At the heart of all this is validation, say many of the industry's frequent award-winners. Awards, and increasingly good press, whether it be consumer or trade, are the great validators of our choices, the backers-up of our perceptions.
For younger creatives, they're a calling card, a way to achieve instant stature, often earned for work that's not particularly visible in the marketplace. A lot of what the shows are about are not so much what you win but the exposure your work gets, to headhunters and creative directors alike. "Awards are the matchmaker between agencies and creative people," says Jeff Goodby.
Sometimes they merely serve to remind the juniors in the shop that the more senior people still have what it takes. "If you're going to be a creative leader, you have to have the self-confidence to want the younger people who work for you to be celebrated instead of yourself," says Lee Clow. "But I still don't mind seeing my name on something every once in a while." Goodby might agree. "I still like to win, I still get depressed when I don't," he says with a sigh. "It's common for people who've been in the business for a long time to pretend they don't care about that stuff anymore, but if you look closely they're usually people who're not winning them anymore."
"I'm 41, and I'm still thrilled to get stuff in the One Show," says Bob Barrie of Fallon McElligott. "But it meant more to me 10 years ago."
For an agency and its reputation, winning awards speaks volumes about the environment, about the priorities, about the opportunities presented there. "It's a battle cry," says Donna Weinheim of BBDO. "You win them and good people will flock to you."
Do they help agencies win business? "I don't think it helps at all," says Goodby, "but I might be alone in that view." You're half right, Jeff. The answer is hard to pin down. Winning on a regular basis helps raise your profile as an agency, for sure, and it makes the agency attractive to prospects, but that's about it. Afterwards, it's what won you the awards in the first place that has to make the sale. "We don't have a trophy case in our office, and we don't emphasize them at all when going after new business," says Barrie. "We emphasize smart thinking. We don't stress awards at all unless they're an Effie. I think the head of IBM could care less if you have an Art Directors Club cube."
First and foremost, of course, you've got to win the damn thing. What drives the craving to collect awards? "I have no idea, other than it's such hard work to come up with these ideas, and you put so much of yourself into them, that you want someone to come along and tell you that it's good," says Goodby. "Its frequently the only measure of your worth," adds Neil French of O&M. "If a campaign is successful, the agency gets all the credit and the increased business. Not the writer/art director. There are many, many 'classic' long-running campaigns for whom no one would be able to attach a progenitor. Awards give individual credit. The downside is, of course, that effectiveness has nothing to do with it-and in this context, shouldn't."
Which of course raises the old gnawing issue of client cynicism. They're supposed to hate the damn things, right? Point to them as signs of creative self-indulgence. Cite the hugely embarrassing number of competitions as evidence that creative people only care about their egos and their paychecks, not moving products.
Well, not exactly, as that little nerd in the Hertz spots likes to say. "They care, believe me, they care," says Bijur. It's that validation thing again, about being popular and feeling that you know what you're doing. Winning awards "makes clients feel secure," he says.
"The knee-jerk reaction is that they don't care, but the real truth is that they love to win them," says Goodby. "They're overtly cynical about them because it's not cool to say you're hiring an agency for something as ephemeral as winning awards."
Ah, yes, but among these pretenders are a few visionaries, the ones who see through the fluff to the heart of the matter. "Smart clients who understand the role that creative advertising can play in the marketplace and who understand the dynamic of creative people and their egos are probably not adverse to them," says Clow, who's worked with a more than a few over the years. "Unfortunately, the number of clients that are that astute you can count on one and half hands."
For Clow, there's more at stake here than being able to sell and produce good work. As advertising increasingly becomes a part of pop culture, the best of it is being singled out for high praise. He likes to see it celebrated, "whether it's in an international competition or in the pages of USA Today." What's most important is that "the product of this industry be treated with more respect in the general culture, like it is in Britain." At the same time, it's also important that "the edgier, braver stuff is recognized by our industry, for those are the people who are trying to push the boundaries and find the new edge that's going to be part of our art form."
Most of these creative people say they can't imagine not entering their shops' work in competition. They see it as necessary, a part of playing the game, a price of doing business, particularly if you want to be judged largely on the quality of your work.
If a major award-winning shop dropped out of competition, says Barrie, "it would be like the Moscow Olympics-it would devalue the awards. If the top people were not competing, then winning is not as exciting, or as relevant."
Clow says he's tired of hearing about agencies that make a point of trashing awards and proclaiming that they're not going to enter anymore. "I think they don't have the maturity to understand the true role of the shows."
Besides, says Goodby, if you don't play along it takes a lot of the fun out of the business. It's a hoot to talk about what won and what didn't. "You have to be a joyless slug if you don't like these things." Ah, yes. That elated rush when you get to run up on stage and grab something with your name on it. Seems there's no time like the first time. You'd be surprised how many remember it.
Bob Barrie's first was for One Potato Two, a restaurant in Minneapolis; it earned a merit in the New York Art Directors Club book about 12 years ago. "That I can remember that is kind of sick," he laughs, adding that he can't remember the last award he won. For Neil French, it was Gold at the British TV Awards, circa 1970, for a used-car commercial. "The production company entered it and I threw the plaque away because it was ugly," French recalls. It was eight years before he won the next award, a big one, he claims, for a Tefal TV campaign. "By then I'd learned the value of the things, and I was unbearably smug for months." John Hegarty's was for El Al, and it earned a D&AD nomination and a Silver for Illustration in 1969. "It felt great," he says, not surprisingly.
Clow also made his mark that year, winning an award from the L.A. Ad Club for a PSA to promote voting. "I still have the statue in my office," he says. Lee Garfinkel won a One Show Silver Pencil for a direct mail postcard he did for Subaru at Levine Huntley his first year in the business. His second year, he won another Silver for TV spots that had to be recut from :30s to :10s. Both were assignments he got because he was a junior and no one else wanted them. "It made me think that maybe I could be something at this," he says. It's nice to know he was as understated back then as he is today.
More perspective on awards, this time from Nizan Guanaes of DM9 in Brazil: "In 1989, I won four Lions in Cannes, two Gold and two Bronze. I was a young copywriter, I was 31 years old. I called my mother and told her I had won four Lions, and she said, 'Yes, but have you lost any weight?'
"Awards are part of our business, but they're not our business," Guanaes continues. And while it's simply delightful to win them, and his agency has been doing it for years, he is quick to point out the obvious: "Our business is to build brands, to earn market share and to be efficient." Of course, a couple of