As we build up to another round of Cannes, our industry is clambering about in a frenzy, preparing the best of the best, hoping to strike gold and have our name forever remembered and gain untold riches and adoration among peers. And that’s the point right? Vanity is our favorite sin.
Notice the way you feel when the words “advertising awards” roll off your tongue. It’s almost become a term of blasphemy. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. A phrase associated with the most extreme forms of self-love and likely to raise eyebrows and stares of bemusement. Images come to mind of fickle ‘creative types’ with ‘hair styles’—pecking each others eyes out—as it were, in hopes of striking gold. What’s wrong with a little healthy competition after all?
While our industry plods along in its attempts to cut its umbilical cord tying itself to the past of 30 second television commercials and printed media - employees remain in the awards rat-race, scurrying to fill empty mantles with shiny trinkets.
For those who are ignorant to how award shows operate, here’s how things usually go:
1. Advertising agencies of all stripes will spend several weeks before the event in a state of frenzy, creating elaborate case studies of the years work, or, in some cases, manufacture fake work.
2. Entry fees are paid, which are needless to say - exorbitant.
$45 million will be spent on award entries this year alone on just the main award shows. The cost of flights, hotels, ball gowns, trophies, booze and cheap entertainment aren't factored in either. With that kind of money we could have given 1,345,943 families access to emergency water kits in a war stricken country.
3. If you’re lucky then it’s celebrations all round, and by “all round” I mean “upper management”. The creative minds who ideate and execute the work may get their name printed on the website, but usually little else. Award shows mandate the collection of the shiny trophies (did someone say business class?) which are accompanied by immeasurable amounts of alcohol, speeches (nostalgic of the Grammies or Emmys) and, well, have you ever wondered why Adfest is hosted in Pattaya, Thailand?
Now, for the purpose of this analysis, I scorn to distinguish between ‘necessity’ and concern myself more with the ‘perception’ of awards and the shows that issue them. That, surely, is what will ultimately dictate their future.
1. Nobody cares anymore
If you've ever wondered why people hate advertising awards - it’s because people hate advertising. Let’s not delude ourselves.
Early this year I took a poll entitled “Ad-awards. Important or redundant?” to evaluate the perception of award shows among those in the industry. Several hundred professionals took part and the results were almost predictable. 51.4% of those surveyed said awards weren't important. 50% thought they had lost all credibility. You can see the rest for yourself.
A pretty clear indication of how the body of creative talent feels, and will surely have staggering consequences for agencies. What does it mean? Well very simply, award hungry agencies who engage in scams are losing the respect of their most valued asset - good people. Implicated with the award-hungry mentality is long hours, late nights, missed anniversaries, unpaid work and possibly even fake work. A vulgar and profuse form of chest thumping that you’d think an industry like ours would have grown out of. Well, some have, and look rather askant on those who still haven’t evolved past this rather backward form of insecurity.
It’s often suggested—because the defense mechanisms kick in—that the only people who complain about awards are those unable to win them. Could well be true, but quite obviously false. These objections come mostly from award winners themselves.
Something has shifted in the industry. It’s clear to all that less and less clever people care about awards. This is made obvious by the plethora of agencies (especially digital) with statements on their website disavowing their endorsement of awards. “We don’t care about awards” they say in bold lettering. Why the need? A rejection of vanity? False modesty? In an industry where almost everyone subscribes to the notion of “the work comes first”, nobody wants to be thought of as a hypocritical, attention seeking primadonna - out to win as many shiny trophies as possible in an attempt to pander to industry perception. Do they?
So, How did this happen? How did we get here? What’s caused the industries current perception?
2. Awards are scams
The advertising industry has been through a decade of soul searching after being wracked with an endless litany of frauds and scam-ads (unpaid projects printed at a tiny size in an obscure publishing, or TV ads that run on private networks once at 2.30AM - created for the sole purpose of gaining advantage in award shows), which has eroded the credibility of awards to such a low that industry leaders of all kinds simply no longer give-a-damn. After all, as we age we’re meant to grow out of make-believe, right?
It’s easy to bag award shows and one doesn't want to sound too nihilistic and not give praise where due. Award shows can and certainly did once inspire great work. But introduce the element of uncontrolled and promiscuous fraud and you can forget the whole enterprise. The delusion becomes all too palpable when scam-ads are excused away as “initiative work”.
Like any form of herd mentality, if it’s accepted by enough people it simply becomes the norm. Like a filthy incurable disease, once contracted, one just learns to live with it. It’s estimated that almost all (yes, 100%) of print ads submitted into shows in the Asia region aren't real work. Hard to believe, right? The organisers are mostly aware of it, but because their profits are dictated by the number of submissions, they usually turn a blind eye.
We’re all prone to greed and corruption, but one of our more desirable psychological traits is a disgust and repulsion for false knowledge & unfairness, of which mockery and ridicule play a vital part. The shift we’re seeing has much to do with this.
3. Remuneration is held at ransom
The advertising industry only remains profitable because of its operational model - which is holding creative people at ransom to their own self image, vanity, insecurity and need for validation.
The industry is fraught with a total negation of any real recognition of its staff and award schemes are set up cleverly to ameliorate this - by offering glamorous, but worthless prizes to keep employees inspired and galvanized. Locking creative minds into an endless state of tail-chasing as a means of distracting him/her from the real rewards that are deserved. Like mindless sheep we flock around these shiny ornaments and step over each other just to have more than our peers.
Unlike most other industries, pay raises and performance reviews are near miraculous events and usually only take place when management is coerced or threatened with resignation. Because of course, the cost of entering awards is significantly less than any kind of real remuneration like stocks, bonds or salary increase.
“Sorry bud, we don’t think you quite deserving of your 20% just yet. Maybe next year when you win a few more Clio’s”.
What better way to devalue a human being—especially one that’s creative in nature—to a form of cheap currency? Where his/her only value comes from the number of trophies on their mantle - which is in most cases, something that’s entirely out of their control.
We've all heard stories, or even know a few people in the advertising industry when they were passionate, bright eyed and bushy tailed when they started. But over the months and years succumb to a resentful bitterness, beaten into submission by an industry that promises so much, and delivers so depressingly little.
One is tempted to say that this period of time is one where most of the contestants despise and look down on these events, but are none-the-less forced to take part in what’s become known as “a necessary evil”.
4. They’re inward facing
Let’s face it. Award shows are quite the gag outside the industry. Like their own inward, personal joke that only advertising folk get. Clients don’t take them seriously and the general public stares on mystified and bemused. And with good reason; we’re awarding ourselves.
Perhaps the most laughable element of the judging process is the fact that the judges are people within the industry. Ogilvy’s ECD judges BBDO’s work. BBDO’s CCO in turn judges Ogilvy’s work, yet they were probably drinking together at the bar the night before. The industry is small so there’s no use in pretending the results are objective. The potential bias is laudable and precisely the reason why fashion designers aren't judged by other fashion designers, or why Ford doesn't determine Honda’s safety ratings. Only our special little industry is guilty of this kind of solipsism.
5. They give a false impression
Because entry fees are so expensive and because the big networks blanket the award shows with entry applications, the advantage always goes to those with the deepest pockets.
The industry is even filled with individuals (like myself) with “awards” credited to their name whose contribution was little more than a tick on a printed mock which was slaved over by a team of creative staff -who in most cases never get any amount of credit. I would know. I've won about 15 awards in this way; Lions, Pencils, Bullets, Lotus’s, you name it. Most of which completely undeserved as I've ridden on the success of others to achieve them. That’s how award schemes work; they’re not so much won as they are issued. Would you hire me? Of course not, you now know better. Would an agency? Of course, they fawn over awards as if it was cat-nip. The delusion works both ways I suppose. The inscription on the front of these mini statues really isn't worth the fake gold it’s printed on, and taking credit for someone else’s work is of course a shameless and loathsome feat, but is accepted as norm in our brilliant little industry.
6. Effectiveness doesn't matter, apparently.
With the exception of one award show in particular, most awards are issued not taking effectiveness into account. Creativity in the broad sense is of course subjective and hard to measure and is instead measured on opinion. How is it that we've deluded ourselves into thinking the only thing that matters is creativity? Perhaps award shows aren't about the boring business end of the industry, sure, but it’s important to remember that the process is only complete with its audience. And its audience shouldn't be other advertising folk. If the inside joke continues to the point where the only people that understand the work are the people judging it, it can’t be considered effective advertising, can it?
7. They’re outdated
Digital has moved on. Awards haven’t. They are seeming to have difficulty getting over the mad-men days of print, radio and TV. In fact these categories are the most sought after, still! Why’s that? Well, because the demand among clients for 30 second TVCs, radio ads and print is rapidly declining, leaving a gaping hole to be filled with scam-ads, and therefore the possibility of taking home gold in a category nobody else wants to play in. And who said advertising people weren't clever?
Who watches TV these days anyway? And why on earth are we still awarding banner ads? They’re distrusted and hated among users, yet we still celebrate them instead of doing what we should be doing and abandon the category. Instead we rename the category “rich media”, as if “banner” is too disagreeable. Progress of a kind.
So what are we left with? A generation of creative people looking for consolation after a career chasing an illusion. Some of them resentful and bitter, hoping to find greener pastures and a future without award-bollocks. That, and a new generation of students more compelled to join tech start-ups - as that’s where all the real innovation happens now.
Ironically, the industry even keeps up the incessant complaining about the apparent “lack of talent” that the business is attracting, as if it’s not obvious as to why all the best students of communications and the arts are opting not to join an industry they regard as cheaters and scammers with no priority for real business. After all, we all know what it’s like to be gazed at with a condescending stare upon answering the question; “So, what industry are you in?”
So, what are agencies to do? What you've been saying you do so well - adapt, collaborate and perhaps reinvent? Perhaps award shows should take aim at celebrating advertising as an abstract form - like what haute couture has become to fashion. Let’s just give up on the idea that awards are to be taken seriously.
Company culture is dictated from the top down. An individual worker, no matter how brave, will find it difficult to bring about a cultural shift. Management, creative leads ‘etc’ should be the ones to lead the revolutionary and completely foreign idea of … wait for it… “truth in advertising”. So, if you’re a senior of any kind reading this, I urge you to put away your filthy, scammy brief. Or if you insist, please don’t mind looking a little foolish. Because, truth be told, it’s you who is keeping this industry from progressing.
Awards are only as good as the judges, the agencies that enter them, the ads that promote them, the clients that know and care about them, and the work that’s entered to sustain them. And if the work is fraudulent, the awards themselves are likewise.
It’s ironic how an industry that holds the ideals of “truth uncovering” and “insightful discovery” as its core values, the way in which this process is celebrated—that of giving awards—ends up being the biggest lie of all.