They’ve given it a bronze

It’s debatable who gets damaged more by the ridiculous number of awards systems in advertising – clients or creatives.

And I realise I may sound very churlish saying this – when I’ve spent a lot of my time and other people’s money sitting on ad award juries all round the world ….

To be honest, I’ve always enjoyed judging ad awards – you get to see interesting parts of the world, you invariably meet some great people on the juries, and you sometimes see fresh work. What’s not to enjoy ?

But although they’re good for the juries, and they make good money for the organisers, I’m not sure they’re always in the best interests of the industry.

And I’m not alone in having these doubts.

Years ago, as a youngster sitting at a D&AD dinner, I was lucky enough to hear a speech given by a man called Chris Wilkins, who’s probably one of the cleverest people ever to work in advertising.

His speech that evening consisted in reading out a list of writers whom nobody had heard of – all of whom had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And then reading out a list of writers we’d all heard of, admired and worshipped – none of whom had won it.

So – how many books have you read by Eyvind Johnson, Harry Martinson Henryk Sienkiewicz, Elfriede Jelinek, Rudolf Eucken, Verner von Heidenstam, Henrik Pontoppidan, Carl Spitteler, Wladyslaw Reymont, Erik Karlveldt, Roger du Gard, Frans Eemil Sillanpaa, Gabriele Mistral, Par Lagerkvist, Salvatore Quasimodo, Saint John Perse, Ivo Andric, or Oe Kenzaburo ?

As opposed to books by … Leo Tolstoy, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Marcel Proust, Ezra Pound, Fernando Pessoa, James Joyce, Vladimir Nobokov, Jorge Luis Borges, August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, Mark Twain, Emile Zola, Anton Chekhov, Karel Capek, W H Auden, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, and Henry James – none of whom got to walk up to the podium ?

His point was simple – don’t take these things too seriously.

Apart from anything else, this speech defused the normally toxic levels of bitterness and envy on the evening, which often mean that you feel sick long before you’ve left for the night.

But the problem isn’t people wandering around spewing out bile on the evening – it’s the damage the whole thing can do to clients and creatives.

Clients are rarely well served by creative awards. My advice to any client looking to find an agency would be to avoid one which takes awards so seriously that it puts them up in Reception.

Creative awards do not get given for effectiveness. And the creative directors who know how to play “the awards game” get hooked on it for all the wrong reasons.

As the American writer David Foster Wallace has pointed out – if you’re obsessed by something, it will end up hurting you. Greedy people never have enough money, vain people are always worried about some aspect of their bodies.
I’ve seen creative directors so wound up by awards that they were spitting blood because they “only” got a silver, not the gold they craved.

But I think more pernicious than this is the anxiety Awards create in the heads of young creative people – because they think they will affect their chances of getting a job.

But, if a creative director is hiring on the basis of how many awards you’ve got, beware.

Either they don’t trust their own judgement (which is worrying, considering that that’s kind of all the job entails), or they’re hooked on them, or they’re under pressure from management to win awards.

And I’ve got bad news for anybody labouring under that particular yoke. The management team who put pressure on you to win awards aren’t gonna change their day-to-day behaviour to help you hit that target. They’re not suddenly going to love outrageous ideas or die on a sword for them.

I’m sure creative awards were introduced to help creative standards. And I’m sure we still need something to perform that function. But right now they feel like a weapon for management to use against increasingly beleaguered creative directors.

I was having this conversation last week with Joe de Souza from Karmarama in a cab in Glasgow – because we were both up there judging the Roses awards. It was a fun two days, with lots of good banter and a great jury.

But as Joe said, Karmarama don’t enter any creative awards.

That doesn’t affect how I feel about their creative work at all, one way or the other. But it tells me they’ve got balls, and they’re not afraid to stand on their own feet, outside any system.

Two very rare qualities – which, ironically, I always want to reward whenever I’m asked to judge.

  • Adam Sweeney

    I’ve been reviewing agencies with an eye to joining the ad industry – Karmarama’s policy of not entering awards gave them an immediate, counter-intuitive authority to me.

    Surely anyone with half an innovative brain surely can’t be limited by cares of how their work is judged by their peers?

    What did Bob Dylan say – don’t follow leaders?

    I thought awards were for clients and served the purpose of the colour of a car – a bit of information that adds a shine, a feeling to the agency’s profile: but, to any half-decent business mind, not any assurance that work will be better (and by better, I mean more effective).

    Great piece Steve :)

  • Jacqueline steel

    Great observation and I totally agree. Mainly because I’ve never won any awards …!
    But as a creative director I have been involved with work that’s given great results for clients. I stopped entering awards on behalf of my ex-agency about 3 years ago, for the very reasons you state above.

  • Inky Blackstuff

    I remember as a junior when a ticket to D&AD was highly desired. That’s when people were awarded shiny stuff by people like David Abbott and John Webster. Now who wants to get given an award from creative directors these days? Does anyone go to the do’s these days?

  • James Vigar

    Didn’t the IPA publish a report recently that demonstrated in the UK where creative awards led, effectiveness commonly followed? And isn’t there a broadly accepted view that the country’s demise in global awards schemes is due to our new creative ‘pragmatism’ (an attitude not necessarily mirrored in some of the less mature markets)? I’m not sure, therefore, that in the UK there is a problem. At last week’s BTAA’s there were a number of awarded ads that would, I’m certain, have had positive impact on the client’s business and yet were lovely creative executions – Nike, Magners, Phillips, T-Mobile…It seems to me that, more than ever, aspiring to winning UK-based creative awards is a decent ambition. And lest we forget, clients LOVE winning awards too. I agree there are too many schemes in existence but I think there is a broad acceptance of those that really matter.


    Why is everything you write so bloody spot-on?

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