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When creative people think of Magazine Publishers of America's Kelly Awards, certain images stick.

One is the almighty dollar: While the trophies handed out at other awards shows look nice on the shelf, only a Kelly award (top prize $100,000) can help pay for that summer home.

On a less mercenary level, however, creatives tend to associate the Kelly Award with elegant, classic design.

According to Martin Agency Vice-Chairman and Creative Director Mike Hughes, whose agency is a finalist this year: "There's a certain kind of timelessness to the work that does well in the Kelly Awards."

How, then, to explain this year's batch of finalists? While classic-style work, from Martin, Fallon McElligott and others, is still well-represented in the current Kelly crop, it's complemented by a number of ads distinctly '90s (or, if you prefer, "Generation X"-ish) in their style and tone.

"It seems that this year, there's more of an edge to the work that made it to the finals," says Jack Supple, managing partner and executive creative director of Carmichael Lynch, Minneapolis, who was a Kelly judge both last year and this year. "It's half-classic, half-edgier, as opposed to last year, when it was mostly classic."

The "classic" Kelly style, according to Messrs. Hughes and Supple, usually involves a clean, simple layout with elegant type-"nothing faddish," says Mr. Hughes-accompanied by a high-quality, striking photograph and a bold, clever headline.

Think of Absolut's long-running print campaign, which has won the Kelly twice, as a prime example.

But this year, agencies such as Bomb Factory of Venice, Calif., New York's Kirshenbaum & Bond and Seattle's Cole & Weber have suddenly introduced quirky type treatments and a bit of youthful attitude to the Kelly mix.

There's also more regional diversity; areas such as San Diego, Salt Lake City and Seattle joined the "strongholds" of Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and Richmond.

"In the past, Fallon McElligott and Wieden & Kennedy had a big presence, but now you're seeing more of a variety of agencies," says John Doyle, president of Doyle Advertising & Design, Boston, whose campaign for Akva Spring Water is a finalist.

"Also, you're seeing new, breaking campaigns as opposed to campaigns that we've all been living with for a while," he notes.

It's hard to pinpoint the reason for the shift, though there are some theories circulating.

"It's all tied to the judges," says Richard Kirshenbaum, chairman-executive creative director of Kirshenbaum & Bond. "I think the Kelly Awards is trying to bring more diversity-in particular, younger people-into the judging, and that's bound to help."

Mr. Kirshenbaum himself was one of the younger judges on this year's panel, which also featured slightly better representation from small agencies.

(Last year, five of the eight judges came from big agencies, such as J. Walter Thompson USA and McCann-Erickson Worldwide; this year, the balance tipped in favor of judges from smaller agencies.)

Mr. Supple offers another theory as to why Generation X-style work is suddenly becoming more palatable to Kelly judges.

"I think that particular style is being executed better now than it was a year or two ago," he says. "In the early stages, that kind of work may have had an edge in terms of design, but now it also features strong, classic selling propositions."

He cites as an example the Cole & Weber campaign for Aspen Skiing Co., in which contemporary design is used to deliver powerful copy.

Perhaps lending credence to Mr. Supple's maturation theory is the fact some of the cutting-edge agencies, such as Bomb Factory and Stein Robaire Helm on the West Coast, hadn't bothered to enter the Kelly Awards before this year.

It wasn't the costs (the Kelly entry fee is $125 per campaign) that kept agencies like Stein Robaire Helm away. It was the belief that, prior to this year, they hadn't yet produced a magazine campaign with a decent chance of winning.

"To enter a One Show or CA, you just need strong individual pieces," says the agency's executive creative director, John Stein. "But until recently, we haven't had the great magazine campaigns that would've been in contention at Kelly."

Even with the greater diversity in this year's batch of finalist campaigns, there's still a sense this competition remains distinct from other top awards contests in terms of the kind of work that does well.

Part of the distinction stems from the specificity of the Kelly Awards: Since it's limited to consumer magazine campaigns, agencies whose strength is in TV, such as BBDO Worldwide or Deutsch Inc., New York, haven't fared particularly well at Kelly.

"Traditionally, we've been a broadcast agency, but one of our goals is to do more of the kind of elegant, brand-building print work that you see in the Kellys," says Deutsch Exec VP-Creative Director Greg DiNoto.

Even within the print media, an agency such as Richards Group, Dallas, can win awards for its Tabu lingerie poster campaign-but that work isn't eligible for a Kelly.

Similarly, the New York hot-shop Mad Dogs & Englishmen has done well in both the One Show and the Communication Arts Annual in the trade magazine category, but has had fewer opportunities in consumer magazines.

To compare Kelly work to that of other awards shows, you must single out the narrow category of "consumer magazine campaign"-at which point you tend to find some overlap and some distinctions between Kelly and other awards.

For instance, last year's women's fitness campaign from Nike won both a Kelly and a One Show gold award. However, while the previous year's Kelly also went to Nike, that year's One Show magazine campaign winners were Fallon McElligott for Porsche and a quirky low-budget campaign for Pepe's Inc. from Golden Opinions Ltd., Carmichel, Calif.

Some creatives feel there are stylistic differences between the kind of ads that win at the One Show and those that do well at the Kellys.

"To me, the Kelly work is smart work that is also well-designed," says Marty Weiss, co-creative director of Weiss, Whitten, Stagliano, New York, whose agency is a finalist for its Apriori campaign. "That isn't always true of other awards shows, where you sometimes find a tendency to favor puns or clever, irreverent copy. I think the Kelly work is more balanced."

On the other hand, what's seen as "balance" to Mr. Weiss is perceived as conservatism to Mr. Kirshenbaum, who believes the Kelly competition has traditionally favored polished, "big-budget" print campaigns.

"Whereas the One Show seems to judge work only on its integrity, the Kelly Award seems to salute a certain kind of great work, usually from mid-sized or large agencies," he says.

Reasons for differences in the competitions may be linked to the judging process. The Kelly entrants are judged on three equal-in-points criteria: Best Design and Graphics, Best Headline and Copy and Best at Meeting Campaign Objectives.

(This year, in addition to naming a General Excellence prize winner, Kelly will recognize the campaigns that scored best in each individual category.)

Mr. Supple and others maintain the three-part balanced judging system results in finalist ads that are, themselves, well-balanced.

With regard to winning the grand prize, however, some believe balance is less important than weight.

"A small-budget campaign can make it to the finals, but to win you have to have a big budget," says Gary Goldsmith, chairman-creative director of Goldsmith/Jeffrey, New York, voicing a sentiment echoed by several others.

"The award promotes magazine advertising," Mr. Goldsmith adds, "and so the campaigns that run a lot of pages-like Nike or Absolut-are more likely to win."

However, only agency creative people-not magazine publishers-vote on the Kelly campaigns.

A look at past winners indeed shows that in the last eight years, Nike has won the Kelly top prize three times, while Absolut and another big spender, American Express Co., have each won twice (though as MPA's Exec VP Jim Guthrie rightly notes, these were outstanding campaigns that tended to win other awards, too).

And if the "big spender" theory holds true, the favorites to win this year might be one of two ubiquitous campaigns among the finalists: The Apple Powerbook campaign from BBDO's Los Angeles office or the Dewar's "Truths" campaign from Leo Burnett Co., Chicago.

But one thing is certain: There'll be no repeat winning performances this year by Nike or Absolut. That's by design.

As of this year, the MPA has created a Hall of Fame for past winners, and those campaigns are retired and ineligible to win again.

The winning brands, meanwhile, are excluded from competition for one year, which explains why there are no Nike ads of any kind among the '93 finalists.

MPA implemented the no-repeat rule to "share the wealth" and give recognition to more campaigns and agencies, according to Mr. Guthrie.

It may be that the diversity in the current group of finalists is a byproduct of that; keeping Nike out may have opened a slot-if not several slots-for new agencies.

That's just fine with newcomers like Mr. Weiss, who says there's something special about making it to the Kelly finals.

"You can't get to the Kelly finals with a one-shot, one-dimensional ad," he says. "You need a campaign with depth, substance and richness. It feels good to get recognized for that."

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