4 Reasons Advertising Award Shows Are a Giant Scam

But we still can’t kick the habit


Self-congratulation has always been something the advertising industry does exceptionally well.

Whether it’s pinning a company’s turnaround on your Super Bowl spot or breathlessly touting your turn on the agency-of-the-year lists, our arms are often sore from patting ourselves on the back.

But advertising award shows are the height of our collective narcissism.

I’ve spent the last year on the front lines of my agency’s award-show submission effort. I’ve seen firsthand how much time, energy and money goes into it. I’ve learned a few things.

What follows is my personal opinion and not the official position of my employer in any way. So please don’t hold it against them, Mr. and Ms. Award Show Judge.

1. The Award Shows Are Big Business

They may have started out as some sort of “we want our version of the Oscars,” but now they are cash cows for whoever owns the show.

My back-of-the-envelope guess is that the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity made north of $20 million on entry fees alone last year. The CLIO Awards now sponsors five different competitions. Even trade publications like Adweek are in the game now with the Project Isaac Awards. New shows seem to spring up every week.

It’s all about the money.

Yes, these award shows celebrate creativity. But what they really celebrate is their ability to get us to buy what they are selling: entry fees. That’s led to the proliferation of shows and categories.

Need proof that the shows are getting savvier about appealing to their target audience? Witness the new trend of judging in exotic locations. It’s not enough that we lose our creative directors for a week while they judge—we’ve got to watch video of them having a great time in Kenya while they do it?

Certainly judges could evaluate work at the local Hilton. And you could cut the entry fees if you didn’t have to fund international travel. But what’s the fun in that?

It’s a scam. But it’s one that we’ve all bought into because…

2. The Yardstick Fallacy

For better or for worse, the award shows are one of the few metrics by which everybody measures their creative wieners.

It is one of the few venues where work from one agency is put up head-to-head against work from another agency. (Oh yeah, other than the marketplace itself.)

But whom are we really measuring ourselves against?

The system is SO expensive, many of the smaller players are priced out and can’t compete.

Even some of the big boys are refusing to play.

Last year at Cannes, the charming “Dumb Ways to Die” was the big winner. And it was certainly worthy of recognition.

But most people were talking about the fact that Red Bull hadn’t even bothered to enter its Stratos jump, what would have been a surefire winner at the competition. And in fact, Red Bull made hay out of its refusal to enter.

As the industry continues to morph from the flush salad days of AOR money to the lean-and-mean margins of project-based work, I wonder if the award-show boondoggle will last much longer.

If companies like Red Bull don’t see the value of playing the game, what happens when the only players with enough money to enter the shows are the Googles of the world? Are they really going to pony up the coin? What do they have to gain? MORE billions as a result of their Gold Lions? I don’t think so.

3. Do Clients Really Give a Shit?

It’s easy to say—and people often do—that clients couldn’t care less about these shows. (Heck, even “Mad Men” said as much in this week’s episode.)

But it may not be that simple.

The truth is that award-show momentum can translate into positive buzz about an agency and may lead to new-business wins.

And we in the ad industry are doing our damnedest to make our clients care by pointing to them with such pride. (The good people at Rethink took this to its logical and hilarious conclusion.)

The award shows are doing their part too. One of the smartest things Cannes did was making the competition more client friendly. Anybody who has attended the big international shows over the years will tell you that there are many more clients who attend than used to in the “old days.” Apparently rosé is the new Kool-Aid.

I love a boondoggle as much as anybody. And I’m sure some business does get done at these events. But as the money gets tighter and tighter, I can’t help but feel this is one of those line items that the procurement department is going to redline.

4. Nobody Has an Incentive to Change the Status Quo

I am a giant hypocrite, of course. Even as I rail against the current state of affairs, I’m scurrying around to prepare my agency’s entries and booking my ticket to the South of France. I can’t convince my own agency to kick the habit, so I doubt I’ll convince you.

And I’ll confess that it IS inspiring to attend one of these shows and see some of the best work in the world. There are lessons to be learned about how to develop, sell and make great stuff. But the excesses threaten to overwhelm the positive.

It’s hard to see who has an incentive to change the status quo.

After all, creative people HAVE to win awards to attract suitors. That’s how you get that big fancy job at your next agency. And agencies HAVE to win awards to attract the best creative people.

But if we really care about recognizing creativity, we should think through some alternatives to the current system before the money well runs dry.

Imagine what we might be able to do with all the time and money and energy that is currently spent trying to win awards.

Or not. Colleagues often joke with me that we should just quit and start our own award show. They’re probably right. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

MORE: 6 1/2 Ways to Fix Cannes Lions (That They’ll Never Do)


About the Author

John Kovacevich used to be the director of communication at a well-known advertising agency in San Francisco—an agency that should not be blamed for the bitter rantings of a man who has written one too many case-study videos. After years as a freelancer, he is now the executive creative director at Duncan Channon.