Advertising Awards: Protecting the Creative Status Quo

As a strategist, creative director and student of advertising’s impact, I love to see advertising that’s challenging and interesting – when it comes to it’s impact on marketing. But we’re not seeing many ads like that when you look at “award winning work”. And here I mean agency style awards like Clio’s, New York Festival or Cannes (industry specific awards are usually far more interesting).

Yes, agency award show winners exhibit tremendous creative values – like clever film making, design, or writing. But despite all this art, from the point of view of a marketer, award winning work has become entirely dull, predictable & uninteresting.

How did it come about that all this extraordinary creativity could end up delivering bland marketing impact? How could this happen in a business that never ceases to tell itself how clever it is with myths like “thinking outside the box”?

We can blame, at least in part, the award shows themselves. After all:

The primary reason for agency driven award shows is to maintain the creative status quo.

And when advertising is driven to satisfy the status quo it loses its ability to deliver brilliant results.

But You Might Ask “Don’t the Really Edgy Ads Get More Awards?” Perhaps. But lets be honest, nowadays edgy IS the status quo. And 99% of edgy ads are statement art – Designed to elicit reaction among advertising peers not economic gain for clients.

I Was Most Recently Reminded of How Award Shows Work Here in Portland – at the Roseys. My agency, as well as two other nationally recognized direct response television agencies in town, submitted work in the ‘Direct Marketing’ category. That means that three of the top 6 or 7 national DRTV agencies submitted work. That’s an exciting field for a local advertising award show.

Except the “traditional” advertising judges failed to recognize any direct marketing work – instead choosing not to select any winners for the category. Why? The sponsors have yet to explain (even after 4 months, conversations, and a formal letter). But based on past experience, I’m sure the judges didn’t feel any of the work “rose to the level of great creative”.

This is shocking since the level of work entered in that category was exceptional. I know the marketing impact of the work we submitted. It drove extraordinary results – with retail that approached Apple product release levels. But effective work that informs people and directly asks them to take an action doesn’t get awards in these shows.

The truth is that the judges lacked the experience and savvy about direct response advertising to understand what they saw – and likely fell back on their limited creative criteria for advertising. (Note that I use this merely as one example – one I know closely. But this process is repeated in nearly every agency award show.)

What’s Up, Judges? In shows like this, the award sponsoring organization recruits judges. This means finding agency creative professionals who have been around the general advertising business long enough to create a reputation (i.e. the status quo).

Of course, these creative professionals are the creative elite – not “consumers”. And, it’s a rare judge who is able to envision how a 45 year old, middle class father of 5, sitting in the living room of his suburban Des Moines home might perceive the advertising.

In reality, these judging teams use “creative correctness” as their judge of the advertising’s quality (link here for more on Creative Correctness). As a result, most can’t see truly ground breaking marketing work – just whether it passes their aesthetic values. (Note that one of the easiest aesthetic values to meet is “edginess”.)

So Let’s Call These Award Shows What They Are: Curated Art Shows. Even shows that claim to different are essentially curated art. For example, the American Marketing Association claims their awards, called the Effies, are about marketing effectiveness. But check out my post on how badly the Effies respect “effectiveness” (link here). And the DMA has measurable results to work with. Despite a miserably long 10-page application, their Echo Awards reward big-agency style over marketing impact – at least in the TV category.

By contrast, let’s consider curation. Art museums are honest about how they judge work. They hire people (“curators”) who specialize in specific aesthetics and are hired for their individual opinion within that aesthetic. Both the aesthetic limits and the personal skew are well accepted to be important in that selection and are admitted to be a known, accepted & overt skew.

Agency award shows are basically art shows like those at a museum. Except agency award shows claim that their judges choose the most effective advertising. That simply isn’t true. There is no connection between work winning awards and marketing effectiveness. Because all that’s required to win these awards is to fit the status quo’s ideals. Any version of effectiveness that doesn’t fit those ideals is ignored.

But There Is Good News – Great News in Fact. Those agencies who learn to focus on interesting business results for their clients produce the most interesting and unusual work. And they produce work of unusually high impact for their client’s business.

And impact is what’s most important: If you deliver strong economic results for your clients, you’ll build a strong business for yourself. But you’ll have to learn to put up with getting shut out at the agency award shows.

Copyright 2014 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved

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