Eyes on the Wrong Prize
Published in Jan-Feb 2023
Who doesn’t like winning awards? We’re all human. We all like to have our egos stroked and have LinkedIn profiles to update. After all, we operate in an industry where recognition is slim to none, so awards are a hugely validating pat on the back for all the creative efforts that usually go unnoticed. For creative folk, they are a moment in the limelight in an otherwise overly-critical and thankless industry. For agencies, they become an objective measure to benchmark success and are useful in inspiring confidence among new clients. So it’s no surprise why, year after year, agencies of all sizes are more than happy to fork out hefty entry fees and fill in lengthy entry forms in the hopes of bagging as many accolades as they can. Surely, there is nothing ‘wrong’ with winning awards (or wanting to win awards). The problem begins, however, when agencies start giving more importance to winning awards than they do to producing meaningful creative work.
Admit it, we have all had award fever at some point in our careers. After working day in and day out on commercial drivel and watered-down pitch decks (many of which never see the light of day), it’s only natural that creatives jump on any opportunity to produce work that is celebrated as a larger forum. However, regular, mundane day-to-day briefs are not exactly conducive to producing award-winning work, which is why agencies have to manufacture what I like to call ‘showpiece’ creatives. These are flashy campaigns manufactured for the sole purpose of winning awards. They are crafted to wow award show judges and juries with glamorous executions and are fuelled by seeded insights and strategy. Worst of all, there is no measure of their effectiveness in the real world.
Although showpiece creatives are designed for award judges and juries rather than for real audiences, they still have to be aired in order to qualify for award show submissions. So they usually pop up briefly on social media, in cheap magazines, or on a few billboards on the outskirts of “Nowhereabad” (just enough to be considered ‘aired’). They are then meticulously packaged into a persuasive case study supported by post-rationalised strategic directions and unprovable data to show their so-called effectiveness. To increase the chances of winning even further, multiple submissions are made and often force-fit into different categories that have fewer or no other nominees. Sounds absurd? It is. But that is not the worst part. The worst part is that this is how plenty of agencies actually win creative awards. Sadly, in their frenzied pursuit for glorified recognition, these agencies work overtime to produce creative work that fails to do the one thing it is actually supposed to do: achieve real strategic business objectives. It’s a ploy. A gimmick. Pure fugazi.
Whereas award-thirsty agencies are guilty of creating showpiece work, shoddy award platforms are just as guilty of rewarding them for doing so (while profiting in the process). Think about it. Why do agencies have to pay to have their work reviewed? Firstly, shouldn’t good creative work be selected and awarded independently without money exchanging hands? Secondly, isn’t it a pure conflict of interest to have juries made up of colleagues and industry insiders judging their fellow peers’ work? Wouldn’t a panel of regular consumers make a far better jury? After all, these ads are made for them, right? Thirdly, since data is such a critical part of measuring the success of a campaign, how is any of it verified? Who can prove that sales or awareness actually grew by one percent, 10% or 100%? Who cross-checks this information?
Funnily enough, only clients can, which is why they are able to get away with creating their own standards of success. On the other side, award show judges are not obliged to disclose why certain campaigns win or lose. Essentially, there is no transparency in the process. Money goes in one end and awards are handed out from the other. It is a horribly flawed system that sets an unfair and inaccurate creative standard for the rest of the industry. So no wonder why over 51% of professionals surveyed by Creative Chump said that awards were not important versus 50% who thought such award platforms have lost all credibility.
With all that said, don’t misunderstand me. I am not against awarding good creative work, nor am I implying that all award-winning work is undeserving. Far from it. Every year, renowned global platforms such as Cannes Lion, Rebrand and D&AD recognise and celebrate meaningful campaigns that not only lead to real measurable results but do so while taking a stance on bigger social issues, such as gender equality, racism and the environment. There is nothing wrong with agencies aspiring to produce this level of creative work. In fact, it is commendable.
My problem is when agencies do this just for the sake of winning awards. Awards are by no means the absolute indicator of an agency’s creative ability, nor are they an end goal for success. Agencies should aim to produce meaningful work that leads to real measurable results. If they happen to win awards along the way, great. If not, it doesn’t matter. Think of awards as stepping stones – small tokens of appreciation for making a genuine effort to produce good creative work. Unfortunately, because awards are generally revered as a benchmark of success in our industry, a lot of agencies are stuck in the rut of manufacturing superficial creative work just to be rewarded. It’s a toxic cycle that ultimately undermines the whole practice of acknowledging meaningful creative work.
Successful agencies should never be judged (or judge themselves) by how many awards they keep on their mantles. Rather, they should be judged on their track record of delivering innovative creative solutions that meet their clients’ strategic business objectives. Remember, without a strategy, creative advertising is nothing more than art. And contrary to what you might think, not all effective communication has to be award-winning (or even creative, for that matter). It also doesn’t matter how much you or your client have spent on campaigns or how many mediums you have covered. Some of the best award-winning campaigns that I have seen were not necessarily big-budgeted, but they were insightful, relevant and impactful. In fact, in today’s digital day and age, you don’t even need massive budgets to get exposure. Creative ideas are embraced by consumers and promoted organically for free, proving that what consumers feel about your work will always matter far more than what any award show judge, jury or guest panellist thinks.
You may not always receive the most exciting brief, the biggest budget, or the most appropriate audience but that is where the true test of creativity comes in. Focus on your client’s business objectives. Understand what they are trying to achieve and how your agency can add value. Most importantly, ensure that your creative work is insightful, inspiring and has measurable results in the real world. That is the goal. Do this consistently and the awards will come to you.
Taimur Tajik is Creative Head, Interwood.