Clients often accuse advertising agencies of being obsessed with awards. But perhaps it’s a simple matter of perspective. And it starts with throwing out all your gold. And silver. Even the bronze.
It’s no secret that the advertising and marketing industry has a long list of award shows throughout the year – enough for us to refer to “the awards calendar”. But the multiple award shows haven’t been a catalyst to cause an obsession. They are more a symptom of the decades-long fragmentation of the industry with ever-broadening definitions of the roles of agencies and divergent philosophies at every turn.
It only stands to reason that, as much as advertising and it’s practitioners have developed into specialist fields, there be equally specialist award shows, be they focused on a certain media channel (like press or TV), a group of channels (social or digital), a marketing strategy (promotional or experiential), or a marketing philosophy (like direct response or engagement).
It is also logical that individual markets develop their own advertising award programs, not only for national or regional flag-waving, but also because cultures are as fragmented as media. While the business of identifying an audience and targeting them with communication remains the same, the language, ethnology, habits, folklore, society and human nuances (new and old) vary from one region to the next, one country to the next. That’s one of the primary reasons global advertising is rarely ever as effective as local advertising, and why those incredibly colourful and effective Pikachu-esque campaigns from Japan rarely get a prize from the mostly western juries of the international award shows.
Speaking of those international award shows, they are the all-encompassing crème-de-la-crème. The big guns: Cannes Lions, D&AD, OneShow, Clio, et al. They have grown and expanded to reflect the ever-broadening boundaries of advertising, introducing categories for direct, digital, content, data and most recently ‘technology’. These shows have become so large, they have developed their own mega-brands that attract the lion’s share of competitive desire. They are ‘harder to win’; partly because their global scale means you’re up against so many others, partly because they have very strong and unwavering views on what is worthy (rightly so). Having judged Cannes Lions and been a foreman on the D&AD jury, I can attest to the pressure the judges feel to only award the work that ‘meets the standard’.
While none of that has been directly caused by an agency obsession with winning trophies (for the most part), it has unfortunately created the impression of an obsession.
So let’s take it back to the root of it all: winning.
Five year olds want the smiley stamp or the gold star sticker. Twelve year olds want the little league trophy. Sixteen year olds want the YouTube video with a million views. Why? Because it’s the mark that they’ve done something none (or few) of their peers could do. It makes them stand out from the crowd, even just for a moment. It provides the satisfaction of knowing they’ve been great and, even better, the satisfaction that others know who’s been great. And who hasn’t.
It’s the same reason sport is a trillion dollar business around the world, with every team in every league in every pursuit vying for an over-sized cup with a little person atop, frozen in the gold-plated position of the athlete. They won.
And why do we want our achievements acknowledged? Aside from any psychological hang-ups dating back to each of us being five-year olds clinging to the desperate need for validation in the shape of a smiley face on the corner of a page covered in Crayola, awards are the badges with which we show our peers, competitors and audience that we are the best there is at that thing we did.
Brands, products and services aren’t immune to this desire for acknowledgement. Clients revel in the validation just as much as agencies, and use it to their advantage.
National supermarket chain LIDL won the 2015 ‘Grocer of the Year’ Award and promptly smacked a gold logo at the end of their commercials. Their website boasts “Lidl has triumphed at this year’s Grocer Gold Awards after beating Waitrose, Asda and Aldi to be crowned the much sought after title of The Grocer of the Year,” and goes on to further validate the “top gong” by explaining the awards are a “prestigious ceremony held at Guildhall, London”. There’s even a lovely comment from their CEO, congratulating his teams across the UK.
FMCG giant Mars certainly wants consumers to know when they’ve won. For their ready-meal rice brand Uncle Ben’s, they spent the effort and money amending their product packaging and the endframe of their TVCs to tell us they were the ‘Lunch Pot Product of the Year’. In the advertising for another household brand in the Mars group, Dolmio was excited to tell us their lasagne kits were voted ‘Product of the Year’ 2014 in the “convenience meal category”. And for their Maltesers range of products, Mars needed us to know that Teasers also won ‘Product of the Year’ 2014 in the chocolate category.
It’s not just FMCG brands patting themselves on the back. As flaunted on their TV advertising and POS, the UK’s Nationwide Bank won ‘High Street Savings & Mortgage Provider of the Year’ at the Consumer Moneyfacts awards 2015.
I’ve worked on ‘creative’ briefs for automotive brand Ford in which the proposition was simply to advertise that their car was better than any other car in a particular class because they had won at the Car of the Year Awards.
Global giant P&G so desperately wanted consumers to know their Febreze car deodoriser was awarded ‘UK Product of the Year’ 2015 that they actually made a TV commercial entirely dedicated to this statement. Featuring people dressed up as a burger, a dog and a shoe, that ad probably wouldn’t even exist if they hadn’t been given a trophy. Just think of the marketing budget that was diverted to the creation, production and media placement of a commercial on the back of that award.
Advertising agencies don’t do that.
I don’t diminish any of these achievements, nor any of the thousands of other products or services that won an award. They set new benchmarks in their field, and should be proud of it. They invested and evolved to ensure their product was a standard higher than their competitors.
So why do brands leverage their accolades? Because it adds a point of difference, something that might just nudge the consumer from consideration to purchase. It is a stamp of quality, proof of the value of the product in the aisles saturated with competitive brands.
This is exactly the same reason why agencies participate in award shows, why they want to win, and why they want others to know they’ve won.
It is not about the shiny chunk of metal (or glass or wood) that your team are handed after one too many glasses of Merlot, only to be placed on a reception desk to gather dust. That’s why I suggested you throw away your trophies. Trophies aren’t the award. The real award is the recognition for doing something great. Recognition from peers, clients, competitors, and clients’ competitors.
In the case of advertising agencies, clients and potential clients are the ‘consumers and customers’ to whom our awards add a point of difference that might just nudge them from consideration to purchase. They are a stamp of quality, proof of the value of our product in an industry saturated with competitive brands.
When an agency creates a marketing campaign that has raised the creative bar and been more effective than previous campaigns for a client brand, this should be recognised and championed. It helps the overall industry improve. An awarded campaign for one brand helps other brands learn and improve their own marketing efforts, especially when fear of failure often prevents brands from innovating and pushing forward into uncharted territory.
When my team worked on the original Share a Coke campaign (names on bottles and cans) in 2011/2012 in Australia, the mammoth effort of personalising one of the world’s most mass-produced FMCG products – in the hope that it would increase sales – was a huge challenge and risk undertaken by the client. But it paid off immensely with a 7% increase in consumption during the Summer period. So effective that the program was replicated in more than 50 other markets around the world over the following two years. ‘Share a Coke’ won dozens of awards around the world including Cannes Lions Creative Effectiveness – proof of it’s creativity AND positive business impact.
Now this year we have seen Marmite and Nutella replicate the idea of ‘your name on our product’. Would they have undertaken this strategy to increase sales if it hadn’t already been proven so effective by Coca-Cola? Or recognised by the industry as an immensely effective campaign?
As Monica Geller once said “Come on! Tests make us better learners.” For agencies and brands, awarded acknowledgement makes us better practitioners. We can improve our efforts, which improves our products. And it helps our businesses if we leverage our proven capabilities for producing a high quality product to attract more business.
Some might say that their agency is more focused on winning the trophies than they are on helping their clients’ businesses. If that is the case, then perhaps they have the wrong agency. And while it might be true of individuals within the agency – especially creative, as should be expected because they only get hired if they have a portfolio of highly awarded work (still the same as a product label bearing their ‘product of the year’ laurels) – the agency itself probably isn’t sacrificing their duty to their clients in order to pick up some shiny doorstops.
Quite the opposite. The agency is most likely trying to create the best product they can – TVC, poster, experience, event, content, campaign, digital platform, whatever – because they know it will work. And if it’s effective AND creative, then it has a higher chance of being awarded, thereby proving that the agency has produced a product of a better standard than their competitors.
A client’s product may be a pot lunch or a bank account. An agency’s product is the advertising they create for that pot lunch or bank account. Both companies need to produce a good product – and have it known – to increase their profile and attract a greater ‘share of wallet’.
Clients, like agencies, want to win. Their brands, products and services need to win, so they gain a competitive advantage and show their audience they deserve to be purchased. Because they did something better than their competitors.
The only real difference is that agencies don’t have packaging on which to slap a blue ribbon, or TV commercials to feature a roundel on the endframe, or marketing budgets to create a campaign for the express purpose of telling their prospective customers that they’ve got a higher quality product than their competitors. And while agencies do have case studies to show off their work and websites to prove their calibre, a third-party mark of approval goes a long way to establishing credibility to a customer. Just like one brand’s lunch pot of rice sitting on a supermarket shelf next to another brand’s lunch pot of rice.
When agencies and clients focus on achieving recognised creative successes, the physical lumps of metal, wood or glass aren’t as significant. They can throw away their gold… but keep their achievements.
Agencies aren’t obsessed with winning awards any more than clients.