Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

How to win international awards?

Published in Sep-Oct 2014

A guide for the agencies who want to make it big on the international front.

(The article was first published in Sep-Oct 2014 edition of Aurora.)

1. Don’t celebrate mediocrity

I have to begin with this, because I feel that this is the biggest problem that plagues Pakistani advertising. The issue is not the production of mediocrity: average work happens everywhere in the world; in fact the majority of work that most ad people do in the course of their lifetime will be mediocre. What is troubling is the ‘celebration’ of mediocrity.

We need to stop glorifying average work. If it has sold 80 billion units, well done, but have the courage to call it for what it is: “It sold a lot, but it was a mediocre idea that has been done hundreds of times before.” And yes, it might have topped the sales chart, and that’s great because that’s what advertising is also supposed to be... but, BUT, that does NOT mean that it is an ad you will tell your grandchildren about (if you want to come across as a cool grandparent at any rate).

What you WILL tell your grandchildren about is how you walked up on a stage with a Pakistani flag in front of hundreds of industry experts from around the world because they respected the ‘creativity’ behind the ad. And that will not happen until we stop celebrating mediocrity and start demanding excellence. It might sound simple, but it’s the most effective thing: accepting that something is not good enough is the first step to bettering it.

2. Look at what the world is doing if you want the world to look at what you are doing

Advertising has transcended from being reviewed and critiqued only by industry insiders to being an everyday part of pop culture:

A good piece of creative will be shared millions of times online (if yours isn’t being similarly shared, and you have to resort to forcing it down people’s throats by popping your ad up suddenly in place of an action replay during a cricket match, there’s something wrong).

Now we know every year what wins at Cannes, we know what bags a Clio, we know what will be talked about in creative circles, and we know which campaigns are going viral globally. And they are very, very good pieces of work. To produce work like that, we have to learn what everybody else is doing, how they are doing it, and we will have to implement it – not just talk about it. I have been in countless meetings in Pakistan where I have been asked to make ads of the same high quality that “the Indians do”. But when the time comes to make that ad, the brand is more concerned with what colour dupatta the model is wearing – simply because by that point the concept has been watered down to the attraction level of a tax form.

People are not winning awards by choosing dupatta colours. They are winning by creating billboards that make water out of air, by making TV commercials that get shared 50 million times, by making a boy on a billboard follow a real airplane in the sky; by generally doing ground-breakingly new work that makes everybody go “wow”.

3. To produce good work, it takes sweat and tears. And sometimes a tetanus shot

It’s a cliché that hard work will get you the results you want, but it’s a true one. To win, not only will you need lots of effort in coming up with the good stuff, but you will need tremendous amounts of it to actually produce it.

To make ‘Not A Bug Splat’ happen, we literally had to dive into the muck: the creative and the planning team actually stepped into a muddy field in a hostile area to unroll the poster along with local villagers. One of the team members managed to slice their foot on something sticking out of the ground and ended up in hospital having injections for tetanus. The road to winning will be paved with many such hurdles. Expect them so you’re ready.

4. Know the word ‘NO’

And then ignore it. You will hear the word ‘no’ countless times and in many different variations, some of which are:

“We can’t risk this.”

“This will be too expensive to do.”

“Maybe next year.”

“The current market evaluation and careful research indicates that an item number and not your work will get us the best results.”

“We don’t believe in winning awards.”

The last one is the trickiest.

If you hear that, run.

We knew we would run into a barrage of ‘no’ when we wanted to set up the cricket match on the border. And we were ready for them. We begged the border guards, and while we were begging, the kids started playing by themselves. Everything sort of fell into place and the guards allowed the match. We learnt something valuable that day: if you can get a border guard to allow a kid to execute the perfect reverse sweep all the way from India into Pakistan, you can do anything.

5. Work with people who are like-minded

To win awards, it would make your life much easier to work with people who are into winning awards. And who understand what it entails. It’s not easy to convince somebody why they should spend thousands of dollars in the usually futile hopes of being given a statue of a golden cat, a move that might not even result in immediate business gains. You either get this or you don’t. If you want to win awards, you will need to work with the people who get it. And this goes for both agency and client.

6. And if you can’t find like-minded clients, then do it on your own

There is nothing stopping you from asking the local mechanic or paanwala if you can design some free posters for them. Why would they say no? Or go pitch a bigger client who is looking for work and get a brief from them.

The JBL ‘Ear Swab’ was a project which a few like-minded of us did on our known and then sold to a client. The client loved it, and produced it. And it won. As was the case with the Depilex ‘Faces’ print, which was a proactive initiative and resulted in the first Clio nomination for Pakistan. This was also thanks to a great client, who trusted us completely and never asked for a single change in what we presented. There are thousands of clients out there looking for good work. Go get ‘em.

7. It’s okay to fail

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard this, but it’s probably about the same number of times I have failed. There is truth in this too. Each failure is an opportunity to learn from it and try not to repeat it. Be wary of people who tell you that they have never failed: everybody has. The key is to embrace it, and to remove the fear of failing. It’s the only way to do terrifyingly good work. Because good work usually terrifies.

8 “You don’t win silver. You lose gold”

Nike wrote this line once, and I always start a new notepad with it. It’s a good reminder that one keeps on learning, no matter at what point in time we are. It’s also a good reminder to never settle for less than the best; to keep yearning, to keep reaching, to keep fighting the good fight: the fight that ends in walking up a stage with a Pakistani flag in front of hundreds of industry experts from around the world because they respected the ‘creativity’ behind your ad.

Ali Rez is Regional Creative Director for Middle East and Pakistan, BBDO Worldwide.

He has won at Cannes, Clios, One Show, the New York Festivals, the San Francisco Show, and Communication Arts.