Cannes 2010

Why Judging for International Awards Shows Is Broken

When Apple's IPod TV Ads Are Knocked for Being 'Too American' Something's Wrong

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Mike Hughes
Mike Hughes
Each time I'm asked to judge an international creative competition, I'm honored. I love seeing the work. I love meeting the judges. I learn so much and I come away inspired.

There's only one problem with judging international awards: It doesn't work.

Don't get me wrong. It's fine when we're judging global campaigns aimed at a big, broad, multilingual audience. There's nothing wrong with a panel from around the world passing judgment on ads for universally known products such as Coke or Nike that can resonate universally. And usually a multilingual group of jurors has no problem judging purely visual campaigns for well-known products or services. The best of those campaigns are magnificent -- and they deserve the gold Pencils and Lions they attract.

But the vast majority of ad campaigns -- even the ones created by the hulking global agency networks -- aren't aimed at those big, broad, multilingual audiences. Rather, they're aimed at very specific demographics.

Those groups often share one language and one set of cultural references. They're often less critical about aspects of the work, like editing, than is a group of globetrotting creative directors, but on the other hand, they're tuned into parts of the local zeitgeist that hotshot creatives only know about if their planners and clients tell them.

Think of it this way: How well can a creative director from New York or London or Richmond, Va., evaluate a commercial targeting Japanese housewives? What if we've never heard of the brand, or even if we have, we have never sampled it or interacted with it? What if we don't know the brand's reputation in its home country? Maybe we simply don't know what's topical or fashionable in Tokyo. You'd have to put a gun to my head to get me to sit through an evening of Kabuki -- and yet Kabuki references might be perfect for Kabuki groupies.

In my view, the best American work of the last decade has been done for Apple by TBWA/Media Arts Lab. But I once heard a European award show judge dissing an Apple iPod TV spot as "too American." Now, maybe if the spot in question was meant for a European or African or Asian market, for example, it could have been "too American" to speak to those audiences. But none of the judges from around the world had seen the spot run in their home countries. When I asked the judge what he meant, he replied, "Americans like that upbeat stuff." That was enough for him to blackball it. I got the feeling he thought it was the job of Apple's advertising in America to make Americans more cynical -- more, you know, European.

Of course, I could very well have been applying the same xenophobic standards in the other direction. How do I know if that sexy TV spot from Brazil or the over-the-top humor in one from Sweden is appropriate for its audience or if it crosses the line? Foreign judges know Americans like me can be prudish whether we intend to be or not.

I confess that I often can't even tell how good the craftsmanship is on many foreign pieces of work. How do I know if the writing's sharp or if the use of local idioms is relevant when all I've got is a translation?

To my earlier point, international judging just doesn't work.

What's hardest about this realization for me is knowing how important winning awards is for the growth and success of our agency, and all agencies, as many of us have been built partly by clients being impressed by what they see in award books. Not to mention, I want the creative, account and planning teams here to be hungry for industry honors. I want to impress tough judges.

When my agency creates international campaigns, I will gladly and nervously submit them to the scrutiny of international judges. But I'm not going to shy away from using as many words as appropriate in campaigns aimed entirely at native English speakers just to improve my chances with a judge from Slovakia. And I'd hate to think judges from those places would make any compromises in their work just to impress this ugly American.

By the way, I also don't have much faith in the shows that purport to judge "effectiveness."

Don't get me started on that.

Mike Hughes is president and co-chief creative officer at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Martin Agency.
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