THE 1998 ZENITH LIST: THE QUALITY GOES IN BEFORE THE FAME GOES ON: OUR ANNUAL RANKING OF THE TOP WINNERS AT SOME OF THE SEASON'S MORE IMPORTANT COMPETITIONS.
Now that awards season is over, the canapes cleared, the formal wear tucked back into the closet, it's time for Creativity's annual Zenith List. The Zenith is a highly advanced qualitative and quantitative assessment -- though mainly quantitative -- of the top 10 creative agencies in the United States, with a Z-weighted triplecount tally that can only be handled by several Cray supercomputers. Huh? All right, so we went through the winners' books and used a stubby pencil to make little marks on a cocktail napkin. Our points of reference were the International Andy Awards, the Art Directors Club Awards, the Cannes Lions, the Clio Awards and the One Show. Then we calculated the Best of Show, Gold and Silver winners from the aforementioned festivals, assigning point values to the different prizes, depending on which show we thought had the most demanding judges and the best reputation. Is this a perfectly fair and accurate way of deciding the most creative agencies? We doubt it. Some agencies don't enter certain shows. Others have won big with only one campaign, legitimizing reservations about their long-term creative quality. Others didn't win and we believe they should have. With that disclaimer, looking over this group, we see that the usual suspects are there -- and as for the few surprise showings, check out the work and we think you'll agree this recognition is well-deserved.
1. Goodby Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco
Yeah, yeah, so what else is new? The venerable Goodby ends up on top. No surprise, except that the sheer creative longevity of these guys is now almost as legendary as the way they keep renewing and redefining their work. It must have caused not-so-mixed feelings at Wieden that Goodby not only took away a piece of the Nike business, but proceeded to come up with positively riotous commercials for Nike skateboarding gear. Juries loved those spots. Goodby also scored with a risky but well-timed departure from the "Got Milk?" campaign of old (resulting in the "Town Without Milk" series), and with the Budweiser frogs saga, Isuzu's "Giant," yadda yadda yadda. This is one hotshop that refuses to cool down.
2. TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice
Though many consider the "Think Different" campaign half-baked, there's no doubt judges love it; the campaign won at least one award in all five of the shows (including both print and film at Cannes). Even the similarly controversial ABC campaign took home a silver Clio. And who knew weather could be so funny? The spots for the Weather Channel were a big hit with the judges, and rightly so. In addition, the work for Nissan, Sony Playstation, and the Infiniti "Half" spot (in which a newly divorced man chainsaws everything in his mansion in half to the strains of Barry Manilow, until he gets to the Infiniti) helped to boost Chiat to No. 2 on our list. Thinking different didn't hurt our Agency of the Year (December 1997) one bit.
SAVE ON TUXEDOS
I would feel a lot better about advertising awards if there was only one show. If there was just one, then it would mean so much more when your work was recognized. I say pick the CA annual or the One Show and be done with it. Now, I admit, it would be hard to choose between those two, and CA is pretty inexpensive to enter, so let's just keep them both. That's it, just those two. Wait, I just remembered Cannes. It's on the Mediterranean, you know? We have to enter that one, at least one or two really good spots. Just the ones that have a real chance of winning the Grand Prix. So that's only three shows. That's pretty good. Think of how much money we'll save on tuxedo rentals alone.
Oh shit. Speaking of money, I almost forgot the Kelly and Mercury Awards. They have a cash prize. It's $100,000, we should keep them for sure. And even with those two, it's only five. I can live with that. Of course that doesn't include the local show, which we have to enter just to support the community. Oh, and I also forgot the Clios. That's the only one my mom asks about. They have a TV show, and if you squint the trophy looks kind of like an Oscar. We have to keep that one. That's it, just those seven. Wait, I forgot the Andys, Obies and British D&AD. OK, 10. Just 10. I feel better already.
Harry Cocciolo is creative director at Leagas Delaney, San Francisco.
3. Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York
Thanks to Mercedes-Benz, Sony print, Courtyard by Marriott and Sprite's "Sun Fizz," judges were "Falling in Love Again" with Lowe & Partners/SMS. The agency makes its debut on the Zenith List at No. 3 after winning at least one award (gold no less!) at every show. The Courtyard spots took home two Andys, a Gold Lion and two Gold Clios. The very popular Sprite "Obey Your Thirst" campaign continues with one gold ADC cube and one silver Clio going to "Sun Fizz," in which an animated character behaves like Michael Meyers from Halloween. Also garnering one Andy and one silver Clio is the (oddly enough) incredibly catchy "Falling in Love Again" spot, featuring Marlene Dietrich crooning the song along with a string of satisfied Mercedes customers. But Lowe didn't just capitalize on humor; the Sony print is a combination of striking photography and warm and fuzzy emotion.
4. Wongdoody, Seattle
A string of account wins (alas, all small) preceded Wongdoody's sudden ascent into the Zenith Top Five on the strength of just one campaign -- the endearing low-budget spots for the Seattle Sonics basketball team. Everybody likes these commercials -- a success that, sweet irony, seems based on how uncommercial-like they look. Yes, you can make a cool spot with a Handicam -- and win the $50,000 Grandy to boot. Is Wongdoody now better, creatively speaking, than Wieden and Fallon? Nah, but it sure is fun to see Tracy and his team of 30-plus nipping at the heels of the big boys.
What's good about awards shows:
They try to measure how one agency's work stacks up against another's. Awards shows also allow for the small agencies you've never heard of to show that they are as "creative" as the big, famous shops. It's good for new business. It's one of the ways small agencies get big.
What's bad about awards shows:
Who gets awards is determined by a handful of humans whose personal tastes and chemical makeup on any given morning after a "Welcome Judges" night of drinking will cause them to favor certain ads, and inevitably cause the rest of us to wonder what the hell they were thinking. In short, the process is subjective.
Why you shouldn't care:
Only worry about your clients and yourselves. You should be doing the work that works for the client. But, just as importantly, you should be doing work that works for you. That makes you proud. That innovates. The kind of work that probably wouldn't win awards because judges wouldn't know how to judge it, having never seen anything like it before. You should be doing the kind of work that pisses off other agencies, because they would never have come up with it.
For what it's worth, I promise that when I judge a show next, I will reward the work that, in my opinion, is the freshest. The most innovative. And that pisses me off, because I would never have come up with it.
Of course, it will still only be my opinion.
Gavin Milner is an art director at Ground Zero in Santa Monica. He's had a marginal showing in awards shows lately.
5. Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis
Up from No. 8 last year, Fallon is on a roll with Miller Lite, winning big everywhere it entered, doing an impressive Gold Lion-triple at Cannes. Hip BMW work to a techno beat went Gold at the One Show, and the Time magazine work also scored, taking a Print Gold Pencil for a dramatic ad featuring a Jeep fleeing an erupting volcano. And here's some vindication for the notorious Holiday Inn "Reunion" spot, featuring a transsexual formerly known as Bob Johnson, which was pulled from the air faster than you can say "hormone therapy." It took a silver Clio, which will go nicely with Bob Johnson's dress.
6. Cliff Freeman & Partners, New York
Even without Little Caesars, Cliff Freeman & Partners can deliver; they keep their No. 6 ranking from last year's list. As usual, our 1996 Agency of the Year uses humor to its best advantage. The Sauza Web site and the Ameritech spot, in which a woman chides her husband for buying her a waffle iron instead of a cell phone, each took home an Andy. But the big winner for Freeman is the Fox National Hockey League campaign, which picked up two Golds and one Silver from the ADC, a Gold Lion at Cannes and four Gold Clios, plus the Grand Clio (but oddly enough only a Bronze Pencil at the One Show). The campaign takes relatively sedate sports like billiards, golf, bowling and squash, and adds a touch of maniacal violence to them to make them all more like hockey. Pucka, pucka.
A WIN/LOSE SITUATION
"Awards are the Grail, the goals we set and the milestones we mark our progress by. They're inspiration and stimulation. They measure us against our peers and provide a scorecard. They keep raising the bar of creativity and continue to show how high is up." Speaking of being high at a bar, my art director Mark Magic was holding court among a cluster of twilight-attractive reps, their sensibilities long numbed by Mark's oratory, which preceded yet another industry backpatting extravaganza.
"Without awards, we'd have no backing, no proof. We'd be judging our work only by sales. Imagine! Awards are the weapons we need to fight compromising clients and our own boorish management. They protect the media -- and the great unwashed -- from the wretched consequences of advertising arbitrated entirely by business."
Brave words. And noble justification of the awards phenomenon. Contrast them with this castigation of the same: "Awards are a lie. They're wholesale, inbred fraud and deception, about as legitimate as the police handling complaints about themselves. An inner clique of has-been cronies foaming and fawning over one another provides no objective yardstick of worth. Look at the stuff that inevitably wins: the glib soft drink spots -- big productions, dependent on movie-style casting, FX and slick direction. As mass-effective as Hollywood blockbusters, because that's exactly what they are. Then there are the nifty little end-runs snuck out of clever shops in the flyovers, usually for fishing poles or fertilizer. A creative contest? Huh! If you want a level playing field, give everyone the same brief. Then you'd see. Listen; like it or not, advertising is about building brands and selling products. Any artistic merit that happens to stick to it along the way is icing, pure and simple."
This rather more somber appreciation of the creative awards process was Mark Magic's assessment some hours after our perky little campaign had failed to garner either a win, place or show. Which only goes to show that awards produce as many sore losers as gracious winners.
Copywriter Jamie Graham is a VP-ACD at Arnold Communications, Boston.
7. Wieden & Kennedy, Portland
Dropping from the No. 2 slot in '97 -- along with its biggest client's market share, maybe uncoincidentally -- W&K is nevertheless racking up points for Nike and ESPN, as usual. Nike took two One Show Golds for the funny campaign with Jan Hooks leading group therapy sessions with some of the fastest athletes in the world, but could only manage a single Silver Lion for the "Cabbie" spot. Microsoft did not want to go anywhere in particular, represented only by a pair of Silver Clios in the Editing category. Not an outstanding year for the Portland perennials.
HOW NOT TO WIN A DAMN THING
At Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, we have a healthy relationship with awards shows: we rarely win. We rarely win because we enter so few of them (most shows are not in it for the artistry, but the income). We also rarely win, I believe, because we do not produce work that is "advertising awards show appropriate." Most shows are formulaic -- so predictable and rigid in what they consider "creative" that what we enter is often considered strange.
Years ago when we did the advertising for Snapple, the campaign really said nothing about the benefits of drinking natural ingredients, but instead had Wendy -- a heavyset, Long Island woman behind a tall reception desk barking about letters she had received from Snapple lovers. That campaign won nothing in the awards shows.
One of the ways to warm New Yorkers up to the new Target store (actually located in New Jersey) was to hand out free subway tokens and bagels with the headline, "At Target, we figured the best way to get you to come to our new store was to bribe you." In the awards shows, this, of course, went nowhere.
I believe awards shows are too formatted and the judges too stuck in their ways to consider new kinds of communication. Then again, maybe KB&P just sucks and we deserve to sit in the rear of the auditorium when the medals are being handed out.
Bill Oberlander is executive CD at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York, and president of the Art Directors Club.
8. BBDO, New York
Though down from No. 4 last year, BBDO's New York office still makes a strong showing. Its West Coast sister, though, is conspicuous by its absence after finishing third last year. BBDO/N.Y.'s only Gold is a Lion for Snickers' "Cologne" spot, in which basketball star Georghe Muresan does a Home Shopping Network parody. But BBDO collected Silvers for a wide range of work: a Pencil for HBO; 10 Clios for HBO, Visa (with Bob Dole), Roach Motel, Mountain Dew ("Thank Heaven," with a gang of riot grrrls updating Maurice Chevalier), and the underrated Super Bowl Doritos sex 'n' effects spectacular, where the babe in the laundromat is not a chip off the old block.
9. Kowloon Wholesale Seafood Company, Santa Monica
Meet the real Dick, creative superstar. Thanks to one client -- Jack in the Box -- and one really wacked-out regional campaign, Dick Sittig's tiny agency (six people) is this year's fast-food fast-finisher. Sittig, a former Chiat/Day creative director who directs with @radical media, picked up the client after Chiat and Jack parted ways. Besides directing this campaign, he also gets CD/writer credits. He even did the voiceover. Well, his extra effort paid off; the work gobbled up an ADC Gold, two Silver Clios and a Gold and Silver Lion. The scary part of "Spicy Crispy Chicks" (which features a bunch of Spice Girlie models singing sexual innuendoes about a new chicken sandwich) is that the spoof looks so damn real. The fun part is seeing Jack (the man with the big foam clown head) firing the account exec who's responsible for the monstrosity. The question is, what else does Sittig know besides Jack?
10. Arnold Communications, Boston
Short of radical cosmetic surgery, this sort of metamorphosis-in-the-making is not easy to come by. For years, Arnold did mostly solid, mainstream, forgettable work. Then, last year, the fantastically likable Volkswagen "Da-da-da" spot put everyone on notice that Arnold's creative reputation deserved a closer look. Sure enough, the new Beetle campaign wowed us -- and, it seems, the juries for the Andys, the Clios and the Cannes Lions -- with its visual simplicity, and with a charm that is dead-on for the little car with the big past. Bernbach would have been proud. Recently, Arnold produced impressive work for the Nynex Yellow Pages, another account on which the agency has serious shoes to fill. Can