There are a lot of advertising award shows, but do they have value?

After every awards season, the same arguments for and against resurface. Jamshid Alamuti of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership suggests that the fashion industry’s example might help us better understand their role

Antique illustration of a peacock. Published in American

For anyone working in technology, consulting or any other business sector interested in interaction with ad agencies and their clients, an awards festival like Cannes is a must. Cannes in particular is like an injection of pure inspiration into your brain, and within six days you crack the creative code! Well not really, but you can get close.

Yes, there are a lot of awards shows, but they do have value. Young creatives love to win awards for the sense of achievement, success and fame that goes along with them.

Their employers want them too. I asked Matt Eastwood, Global CCO for JWT, for his view on awards. I think he summarises the agency position pretty well: “Whilst awards can often seem like an unnecessary affectation, I firmly believe that they are vital in recognising, promoting and encouraging breakthrough creative solutions,” he thinks. “Awards also play a key role in talent recruitment. The best talent wants to work for a creatively ‘hot’ agency, and awards are one of the most visible ways to prove that. Finally, although many clients will never directly say that awards are important, they are attracted to agencies with buzz around them. Success at Cannes, and some of the other big award shows, is one way to create buzz.”

So far so good, but this year in particular the tension between ‘let’s celebrate great creative work’ and ‘let’s maximise the business we can make out of awards’ seems to have reached a peak. In previous columns I’ve been discussing culture and diversity with my faculty director, David Slocum. As calm and introverted as he might be, talking about awards makes his temperature rise! But, I have to do it! I drop him an email.

Hi, Jam.

Funny you should ask! I was just watching an interview with our friend Rory Sutherland, from Ogilvy UK, who said an awards festival is a ‘Fisherian runaway’ – like a male peacock’s tail, an exaggerated display that evolution has produced to help the bird attract a mate and, ultimately, propagate the species. Awards – like some behaviours of those who attend festivals – highlight similarly extreme or exaggerated examples of creative work that perpetuate the careers and further the reputations of individuals or agencies. The awards are incredibly b attractive to agencies and marketers alike because there are so few other standards in the industry.

That standard-setting is crucial. The great business anthropologist Brian Moeran talks about awards festivals as ’tournaments of value’ at which creative industries contest and determine what’s important to them. Topics of discussion in formal sessions and parties on the beach are part of that process of prioritising and validation. But the real winners are the work and people who receive awards. They represent what and who the world of advertising, agencies and clients alike, come to see as valuable and even defining. 

Awards shows shouldn’t produce blinkered and backward-looking values, though. A few years ago, as the number of awards categories continued to grow, I wrote a piece asking for more awards rather than fewer. It was basically a call for advertising festivals to move beyond rewarding ‘artistic’ creativity and to celebrate innovation and leaps forward in technology, strategy, and even management. It’s a creative business, after all. Where’s the award for most imaginative acquisition? Or most creative cross-agency collaboration in service of a client? Or, these days, programmatic agency of the year? For all the talk of courage and fearlessness defining the industry, categories remain pretty conservative.

David

One of our Berlin School alumna, Fran Luckin, who’s now the CCO of Grey South Africa, is more pragmatic. She takes a very particular view of award festivals – that they’re advertising’s version of haute couture fashion shows. You don’t have haute couture without the social scene and often bizarre atmospherics. You also don’t expect to find the high-end designs in your local mall the following week. Same with the scene and the work that wins awards at festivals. For her, they’re meant to inspire and show what’s possible and then, maybe later, the breakthrough insights or craft or just creative aspiration recognised by juries are re-worked more widely for local marketers.

ad industry r&d

It’s a great observation that, put more prosaically, casts award shows or festivals as advertising industry R&D. I like that. But research and development only works as part of a larger ecosystem. Lots of meetings and deals obviously happen at these events. But the fruits of the R&D are mostly left either unspecified or unharvested. Scam ads are the most conspicuous abuse and everyone rightly questions the proliferation and blurring of award show categories. Probably most insidious, for me, is the short-term thinking of agencies wanting to win awards rather than develop more trusted relationships with clients. Fashion houses also have prêt-à-porter and other luxury product lines that benefit from couture. Film festivals have marketplaces as well as award showcases. Advertising award shows and agencies need support structures to take award-winning work and enable their originality and effectiveness to be implemented more widely and systematically.

ready-to-wear

Maybe that’s where I come out on awards. I’m all for recognising great achievements that can inspire and serve as examples of what’s possible and which values are shaping the future of the industry. But two things: First, awards shows need to recognise that advertising is a creative business. That not only means effectiveness should be more central to awards themselves, rather than an afterthought, but that strategic and business decisions that serve clients should be rewarded as well as narrowly creative ones. Second, award shows need to be more upfront about how they fit into the marketing and brand service ecosystem. Imagine advertising’s version of ready-to-wear that draws on the examples of, but doesn’t compete with, the couture award-winners. What does that look like?


Jamshid Alamuti is MD of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership. Founded in 2006 by a group of executives from the creative industries, the core mission of the school is to have a ‘Creative CEO in every creative enterprise’. Prof. David Slocum is Faculty Director Global Executive MBA in Creative Leadership at the Berlin School.  See berlin-school.com

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