Who Are We to Judge?

Let the real brand experts judge advertising awards shows.

By Published on .

Everyone knows that our business is changing fast, but the key issue is: how? In my view, creative communications, including advertising, are undergoing the same radical revolution we're seeing in technology, gaming, music and the news business. What makes it so radical is that it's driven by a new democracy. Businesses used to be able to stand apart from the rest of society because they were the ones who owned the kit. Or the means of production, distribution and exchange, the cornerstones of good old capitalism. While it's still true that if you want to make cars or power generators, it's difficult to do that from home, but you can certainly make most other things. What this means is that businesses, professionals, however you like to define them, no longer have a monopoly on creation and production.

Creativity is being massively decentralized. The seismic shift in the music business demonstrates this clearly. The "Crazy Frog" ringtone which is outselling Oasis and Coldplay three to one, with 11 million downloads so far -- and has now made the first giant leap from the ringtone space into the mainstream charts as a dance mix -- started in one 17-year-old Swede's bedroom. More commonly, with iPod and iTunes, everyone can be a music compiler, producer and creator, whether they can read music or not. In gaming, users play an ever larger role in game development and production. Bespoke versions of games like The Sims and Grand Theft Auto are appearing daily and are more highly valued than the official versions. Last year will go down as the year the world woke up to the power of the blog. It's already a potent factor in politics and it's forcing the global powers in the news business to rethink what they have always done. Not only can anyone post news and comment but millions of news consumers trust the bloggers far more than they do the big news organizations. In the States, senior news executives have lost their jobs because of the power of the bloggers, and in the U.K., even the dear old BBC is encouraging its correspondents and news executives to create their own blogs (and worrying about how to control what they say, which is a lot like herding cats and rather defeats the object). This is democracy with a vengeance.

The same thing is happening in our industry. On the one hand, we "professionals" are hastily picking up on the techniques of the nerds and bloggers to rethink the way we approach communications; on the other hand, our customers are more and more resistant to what we try to tell them because they're too busy creating themselves to listen. Some of the time they're creating their own anti-commercial messages. In so doing, they're delivering a reality check every bit as dramatic as the one happening in the news business. This really is a huge challenge for agencies and clients. The ultimate expert on any brand is not me or the person at the branding agency or even the brand owner -- it's the customer. Customers use the democratic power of numbers to make or break brands, and now they're using it to shape brand communications.

So how can we rebuild our relationship with people and what does this have to do with awards shows? The thing people value most in the 21st century is time, and what they hate most is people or brands wasting it. People don't much like commercial messages, which try to interrupt them and prevent them from spending their time as they wish. TiVo and DVRs now mean that about 60 percent of all TV programs in the U.S. are recorded and viewed outside of their broadcast time. And in 92 percent of cases the ads in these programs are skipped. Yet interrupting is what a hell of a lot of advertising is still designed to do. But we need a bigger ambition. We need to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in.

The commercial messages that will work are the ones people are happy to spend time with; those they find as credible and enjoyable as the blogs and games they and their peers have created themselves. We have to give them what they want, honestly. So are awards shows ready for democracy? Just as awards shows have moved on from being simply a celebration of concepts and craft skills in TV and print with juries comprised exclusively of people from adland, we should broaden things even further. Why not include the audience, real people, and indeed the best bloggers and gamers, on our industry juries? Like all jurors, they'll get to see things for the first time and their response will be honest, intuitive and informative. We could even have all-customer juries, go fully democratic. We could also take much more account of the real-time measurement of success such as measuring search hits on a web campaign, for example, or measuring chat room and text traffic around specific campaign ideas. Awards will always exist to celebrate the best, but are we currently sure what the best is? With creativity moving so fast, 12 months is a long time to wait for a retrospective. But most of all, the point of awards is to learn something. Let's bring in the real brand experts while we're still in a position to invite them, and then maybe we will.

Craig Davis is worldwide chief creative officer at JWT.

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