Are advertising awards worth it?

Published on April 11, 2014 under Business, Marketing

Cannes Lions

Recently, I received a in-office memo stating how the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is approaching, and thus agencies (including my employer) are gathering items and ideas for submissions. Loads of money will be spent on production, as well as on entry fees.

Lately, the notion of these awards have come under debate from many areas of the advertising industry. I see execs and middle managers clamoring for trophies, while others question if the late nights and money/resources spent are really worth it.

Looking at the viewpoints

Now if you were to ask me, I honestly feel these awards are meaningless. I’ve won some industry awards, but won’t even mention them on my resume. I see the big ruckus made for these shows and never understood the lengths agencies go to win. Worst are the agencies who submit fake or scam ads as a veiled attempt to win by cheating.

Despite my personal feelings, my “official” answer to the question would be that it depends on the person being asked, and his/her career path. If you look at my career path and job prospects, then I’d tell you learning git, .less, and rails will take me further than a gold lion at Cannes. I’m more judged on what I know and how well I can implement it. Perhaps an award from FWA or Awwwards would be ideal for my line of work.

I’ve seen similar attitudes out of lower-level creatives, mainly due to how advertising awards are mainly geared to praise the top brass of a big agency. Small shops do not have the resources to enter, and even a low-level art director or copywriter will often not be mentioned if a big agency wins. This is mainly to protect said agency from outside recruiters who would try to lure away talent who worked on award-winning campaigns.

So who would stand to benefit from ad industry awards? Who would want them more than anything? It’s already clear advertising executives would, as well as creative directors and anyone looking to grow into those levels in the agency world. You can also add in most account people.

We can roll our eyes at them, but it honestly makes sense. If you’re looking to build your career in an ad agency, then awards only serve to help lift you to bigger and better positions. If you’re already an executive, then award wins will protect your position and gain you more bonuses. Even with account people, award wins will look great on a resume.

It’s tough to get employees not dedicated to the big agency life to get excited about about these awards, especially with smaller shops and tech companies stealing talent and work from the bigger agencies. Times are changing, and thus the old Mad Men ideology is dying.

How we could improve

I’m not going to sit here making the case to kill all the awards, or for agencies to boycott them. I know this won’t happen, so I offer instead some ideas on how to improve the experience and/or fix the problems currently in this system:

Expand the panel of judges: Currently, many of these awards are judged solely by people in the advertising industry. It’s not even impartial judges, but simply execs and middle management from different large agencies all made into a panel that judges one another.

Why not mix in some people who aren’t in the industry, but perhaps have something to offer? Members of the tech industry, or journalists who focus on advertising, or business people, or consumer studies experts? The end result is there will be new opinions and more depth to the judging.

Remove the publish requirement: The biggest debacle is on the amount of campaigns entered that one does question if they are fake/scam ads or not. However, I understand how an agency could moan how clients will restrain them from doing “cutting edge” creative with their own conservative logic. So why force entrants to be published?

Instead of asking for work that was somehow published, make it all into a competition. Have the panel write up a brief and set a budget limit with strict rules on costs (so an agency doesn’t put all labor costs at $1 each). Suddenly you turned the awards into a competition where they all have to try to outdo one another without worry of pleasing a conservative-thinking client. Let the agencies fly out and create freely for that award.

Strengthen the publish requirements: A counter to the potential of fake/scam ads would be to put bigger requirements. Maybe you make the required media spend bigger, and toss in “must appear on prime time on a major network” for TV ads as a rule. Suddenly now the agency who might make fake/scam ads would be cautious if their work is out there to be seen by the larger audiences, including their clients.

Another idea on this would be to force entrants to include a signed affidavit from the client approving the work. Since a lot of these entries are put in behind the client’s back, this forces the agency to put their standing on the line. Granted though I’m sure some agencies will work into their deals with clients to approve anything they want to enter every year in exchange for a price discount or something like that.

Make the awards about more than just creative: In researching about this topic, the one common complaint beyond the fake/scam ads is how many of these awards are only about judging creativity and nothing more. Creativity is subjective, as what you think is a good idea might be deemed “boring” by someone with different tastes. Who really has a final say on what is “good creative” and what is “bad creative?

Advertising now is about way more than just creative. What about effectiveness? Or analytical results? Or even just plain innovation? I’d give an award to an agency who managed to greatly increase a client’s ROI way more than one who just made a nice image with a catchy tagline. In the long run, most clients are going to care about ROI as well, because that’s what they focus on when you’re pitching to them for their business.

Are advertising awards important to you? What would you do to change or improve the awards system?

Tags: advertising, awards, business, marketing

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