The annual ad awards glut defies critics and here is why

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Sitting amid the 2,000-plus black-tie dinner guests at London's D&AD (Design & Art Direction) awards last week, one could only marvel at this time warp of an event: an awards show about which an entire community obsesses all year-for better and for worse.

Yes, it's awards season. In the last two or three weeks alone, we've had the Effies and the Art Directors Club, the One Show and the Clios, plus D&AD, to add to the earlier Addys, Andys and "Festivals." Tonight, there's the AICP Show (Association of Independent Commercials Producers) in New York, and next week is the big one: the Cannes International Advertising Festival.

In this economic climate, it is highly unfashionable to speak up in defense of awards shows-and I am not about to do so. There are too many, and this year several really did appear entirely self-justifying. It seems impossible they can all survive.

But so much in the ad industry still thrives when we all know it shouldn't. Look at TV's "sweeps." Many competitions have had entries (not D&AD) and attendee numbers badly hit by the downturn but will survive.

The only real threat to the status quo would be a concerted action by combined "big-cheese" creative directors, as was tried unsuccessfully in Germany (where a cabal got together and threatened to boycott Eurobests, the Cannes Festival's sister competition). It is therefore more interesting to examine just why awards still appear to matter-despite the arguments against them.

At the risk of antagonizing friends, there is only one competition that appears capable of influencing business in 2003: Cannes. Success there can lead to a client switching business, an agency appearing a more attractive acquisition target or a network appearing a more attractive acquisition suitor. Not even the Effies, wherever they are held internationally, really have this power. Cannes has it because, even today, it provides an information service (bringing to notice the previously relatively unknown) to which domestic awards can no longer aspire.

Cannes is partly about agency recognition. Domestic awards are really about individual recognition. As recently as 10 years ago, awards like the One Show were written up in The New York Times with individual creative credits given. The next day a headhunter would call offering to double your salary if you moved to another agency.

Today, the press is jaded about awards competitions precisely because there are too many-each claiming to be unique in some way. Beyond the trades, the "morning after" report is lucky to get "addenda" notice in the dailies. But those who need to know who was behind the winners (creative directors and recruiters) still know. The awards remain one of the best methods available to creatives by which to build a career.

In an ideal world, more agencies would pay creatives and help advance their careers based on successful client sales alone. But in that world more clients would pay their agencies based on the success of their sales.

Until that happens, awards will remain a "currency." Creative people are human, too. They want and need recognition-especially when recognition translates into hard cash.

Stefano Hatfield is contributing editor to Advertising Age and Creativity

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