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 impactful ads like that when you look at “award winning work”. And by that 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 pretty dull, predictable and 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 value of agency driven award shows is maintaining 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 Win More Awards?” Perhaps. But nowadays edgy IS the status quo. And 99% of edgy ads are statement art – shocking to create positive reaction among advertising peers without creating economic gain for clients.

And why would we ever think that “pushing the envelope” creatively is also pushing the envelope with smart marketing? For anyone who thinks carefully, that logical leap is quite baffling.

I Was Reminded of How Awards Work at a Recent Local Show. My agency, as well as two other nationally recognized direct response television agencies, submitted work in the ‘Direct Marketing’ category. That means that three of the top six or seven national DRTV agencies submitted work. That’s an exciting field for a local advertising award show.

And then the “traditional” advertising judges chose not to recognize any winners in the direct marketing category. Why? I haven’t been able to get an explanation yet. 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 I know the marketing impact of the work we submitted. It drove extraordinary results that approached levels of Apple product releases. But time after time the highly effective advertising (that works because it informs people and directly asks them to take action) doesn’t get awards in these shows.

From what I have been able to uncover, these judges lacked the experience and savvy with direct response advertising to understand what they saw. Unfortunately, instead of admitting they lacked the experience, they fell back on very narrowly defined creative criteria – criteria that leave their own beliefs about “great creative” unthreatened by advertising with huge market impact.

What’s Up, Judges? It’s useful to know that in shows like this, the award sponsoring organization recruits judges who are senior agency creative professionals from the general advertising business. (Only about 1/2 of advertising fits this description.) These creatives have been senior for long enough that they’ve created a reputation (i.e. joined the status quo).

Merely belonging to the status quo wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the judges would look at “marketing” in addition to “creative”. But the way advertising works these days, these creative professionals honed their skills far from places where they’d learn marketing – perhaps in portfolio schools. So it’s a rare judge who is able to envision how a 45-year-old, Walmart employed, middle class father of five, 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 be 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 complicated application, their Echo Awards consistently 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 and overt skew.

Whether or Not They Believe It, Agency Award Shows are Basically Art Shows Like Those at a Museum. Except agency award shows claim to identify effective advertising. That simply isn’t true. There is no connection between work winning awards and marketing effectiveness.

And this isn’t new. Thirty years ago (in 1983) David Ogilvy wrote:

“Harry McMahan drew attention to the kind of commercials which were winning the famous Clio awards for creativity:

Agencies that won four of the Clios had lost the accounts.
Another Clio winner was out of business.
Another Clio winner had taken its budget out of TV.
Another Clio Winner had given half his account to another agency.
Another refused to put his winning entry on the air.

Of 81 television classics picked by the Clio festival in previous years, 36 of the agencies involved had either lost the account or gone out of business.”

Ogilvy on Advertising, From the chapter “How to Produce Advertising that Sells”

The truth is that what’s required to win these awards is to fit the status quo’s ideals. Yet there are probably more effective ad approaches OUTSIDE the status quo’s ideals than there are inside them. But that’s the thing about a status quo – it really doesn’t care to be challenged by reality.

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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