Creative Awards in Advertising

Disclaimer: This article will feature a laboured analogy about bricklaying, liberal but ironic use of inverted commas to throw shade on industry pretentiousness and use of the name “Kelvin” more times than its peak in the long hot summer of ’76.

You could argue that advertising awards are great. That they tell us what great work looks like and let it have its moment in the sunshine. That they add a glimmer of glamour to a creative industry that seems to be being dulled by the day. That they’re what we’ve always done and why should we change? That they give clients an excuse to be daring, even if no-one in the real world sees or benefits from the work. That they help the legless orphans of Uzbekistan go trampolining, using AR on smartphones they can’t afford, but who cares because they generated 3 billion media impressions in two days while creating a cultural moment that was impossible to ignore (oh, please). That they’re the marker of the true talent in our industry and that they should be held, holy grail like as the arbiters of creative excellence. I could go on.

But I won’t. Instead, I will argue that to truly realise why awards have to exist and why creative people have to win them, you have to separate them from the actual creative ideas and see them for what they really are.

A necessary nonsense.

What am I on about?

Well, let’s put it this way.

I would wager that the best creative team in London doesn’t work at a Droga 5 or an Adam & Eve/DDB.

I bet they’re 35 and hemmed into a small, call-centre-esque desk space somewhere at a less than lauded agency in Victoria or Kings Cross. And you’ll never know their names (let’s call them Susan & Kelvin though, for the purposes of this article). Because poor old Susan and Kelvin have never won any awards (not their fault – the management of their agency doesn’t care about awards, it cares about satisfying its global paymasters and using phrases like “real-time dynamic content optimisation”). They would love to get out of this hellhole, but they can’t, because no-one has any reliable, industry-approved evidence that they’re any good.

You see, the creative person’s life’s work is entirely subjective and we poor, insecure, highly paid Creative Leaders generally need a panel of our peers to tell us what’s good and who has promise.

And that, my ad writing friends, is why, as a Creative, awards, particularly early in your career, are a necessary nonsense.

Like ‘em or loathe ‘em (I flit between the two camps – I like eating slow-cooked beef in hotel function rooms, I loathe the jury corruption and pretentiousness), awards remain the only real metric that headhunters can use to pitch your portfolio to CCOs, or that CCOs can use to justify finding the money for yet another creative salary to the CFO. Is that good? Probably not.

Is it bonkers that creative teams who’ve added 100% to their clients’ share price with a single flash of lateral problem solving (or an adequate pun) will be lost in the dumping ground of the freelance gravy train at 45, when others who got a spec idea to run for a fake client and won seven Cannes Lions get jobs far beyond their actual worth? Of course it is.

It’s a self-fulfilling circle of self-congratulatory nonsense. But it’s how things are. And things aren’t going to change. Therefore, as a creative, you still need to win them (sorry).

You just have to see them for what they are.

A necessary nonsense (I reckon this phrase is going to stick).

If you can learn to see awards not as an objective marker of your creative ability, but as a hygiene factor for advancement (I said “hygiene factor”, shoot me now) then you’ll have a far less stressful time of it.

Look at it this way. Imagine you’re a bricklayer. You can lay bricks like a motherfucker. You wield your trowel like Messi wields his left leg. Problem is, you work at an alright building firm, but the ones you really want to lay bricks for are run by a small, slightly self-congratulatory cabal of master builders who won’t let you join their construction companies (where they build the really good buildings – multiple toilets and mega basements and that) until you have documented evidence of your bricklaying ability, ratified by the rest of their gold-trowel-wielding chums.

That means you have to jump through hoops, complete your advanced diploma in cement management and plum-line coordination, despite knowing that you’ll be just as talented a brickie as you were when you started. It’s an annoyance, but it’s unavoidable. You want to get on. And that means you have to have the bit of paper that says you know, for sure, how to build a fucking amazing wall. Advertising awards are like an advanced diploma in cement management/plum-line coordination.

Because advertising awards may be a bit daft if you deconstruct them in the real world – a bunch of divs in a dark room, appraising things in the least real-world environment you’ve ever seen, potentially grumpily laden with a gut-full of meeting room sarnies that are interfering with their strict “no carbs on a Wednesday” policy, while not really paying attention to your work because they’re busy trying to fend off repeated WhatsApp interruptions from the guys back at “the ranch” (cowboys) – but it doesn’t stop them from being a necessary nonsense.

Because winning them will get you into a “great” agency. And a “great” agency has “brilliant” clients, but more importantly, a “great” agency has a culture that is set up to make your best ideas a reality. Cue more awards, “better” jobs at even “greater” agencies and so it continues, until one day you’re finally on a yacht being fanned by a troupe of adoring flunkies who are all dressed as Cannes Lions/yellow D&AD pencils (delete as appropriate according to your age). Or so the received wisdom of the industry tells you.

Now. There is an alternative way. Here it is:

The entire ad industry gets together and eschews awards in all their forms. A brave new world where creative leaders use their creative judgement, wits and courage alone to back people who might not have the ratification of that cabal of (probably quite political, possibly not very good) CCOs, but show genuine promise and have the ambition to work their bits off for your agency.

But I fear that until that happens (it won’t), awards are here to stay and nonsensically necessary to win. So we might as well see them for what they are and get on with it.

Now, when does the Cannes entry window open…