Are awards becoming nothing but fool’s gold?

Item: The 1992 Cannes Gold Lion winner, a Spanish entry for a rubber cement depicting nuns repairing a statue, is revealed to never have run on television. Cannes officials defend the spot by claiming that spots have only to be 'designed...

Item: The 1992 Cannes Gold Lion winner, a Spanish entry for a rubber cement depicting nuns repairing a statue, is revealed to never have run on television. Cannes officials defend the spot by claiming that spots have only to be ‘designed to run’ to qualify for entry. London agencies threaten to boycott the festival in protest.

Item: The Toronto Art Directors’ Club receives an award from itself for its 1992 call to entries poster.

Item: A Canadian commercial, based on the suggestion of a woman having an orgasm and tagged with the line ‘Do it for your country’ is produced by a Toronto agency and submitted, unsolicited, to the ‘Yes’ side for the Oct. 26 referendum, which rejects it. The agency then pays $350 to run the spot once on a late-night Buffalo, n.y. station to qualify it for awards shows.

Obsession with winning

What has happened to advertising awards? The obsession with winning has so consumed us that we will let nothing, even the lack of a product or client, stand between us and the podium.

Agencies are submitting, and judges awarding, work for clients whose entire ‘advertising’ budget consists of the single exposure needed to qualify the work for entry. In some cases, the agency actually subsidizes the production and media cost.

I do not dispute the fact that many of these pieces are original ideas. I do question, however, whether some of these entries can be considered as legitimate pieces of advertising.

Defenders of this type of work inevitably drag out the same tired argument that an idea, no matter how small the client may be, should be all that counts when it comes to judging creative; that the work should stand on its own merits, and that the circumstances that led to the production of the work are largely irrelevant.

This line of thinking opens the door to a number of alarming scenarios.

If agencies, having paid to have the creative run the requisite single occasion, are permitted to submit work that was not actually approved by their clients, why not allow them to enter work for clients they do not even have?

Why not include speculative work? New business pitches? Why not allow work for non-existent products?

The line between what is ‘true’ advertising and work masquerading as such becomes hopelessly blurred.

One reason for this problem is the fact that there are simply too many advertising shows; I stopped counting at 15 in Canada alone.

The sheer number of awards being handed out devalues gold medals from all shows.

Second, as the number of shows has increased, they have segmented themselves by media type into vertical exhibitions focussing on craft and execution within their particular media or discipline, and not on an entry’s efficacy as advertising.

Once again, this has drawn attention and debate away from what we as an industry consider to be great advertising, in favor of what we consider great executions and one-offs.

Promotional channel

The end result is that awards shows are becoming reduced to nothing more than another promotional channel, no different from direct mail or any other promotional vehicle. And, if one considers them as a medium, they are remarkably efficient (see additional story on p. 19.)

It should be said there are, doubtless, many people in the industry who see nothing wrong or unethical in this approach.

In fact, certain agencies and creative people have based their entire careers on it. Agency performance vis a vis international offices and employee bonuses are often based on achievement at shows.

Not pay expenses

But clever pro bono work will not pay for a new senior writer or account director. The revenue from a small space classified ad will not cover the cost of a new stat camera.

The commission from a one-time tv spot will not go far when it comes time to pay the rent. Serious clients are paying the freight, while small-time operators are getting a free ride.

And in the case of the ‘Yes’ side advertising, the client is not even a client at all. The work was neither commissioned, approved, or paid for by the ‘Yes’ committee, which alone should preclude its ever being included in a show in Canada.

Wherever the fault lies, what can be done about it?

One suggestion would be to make the entry requirements more stringent in terms of verification of media placement, or by raising the minimum media exposure level.

Neither of these seem valid options: apart from further complicating an already unwieldy process, raising the media level would hurt many legitimate clients with small or non-traditional media buys.

For example, such a system would disqualify the Apple ’1984′ spot which aired only once in the Super Bowl to launch the Macintosh computer.

What about creating a separate category in shows for miscellaneous work?

This category would be open to virtually all forms of work, in all media, unpublished, self-promotion, speculative work, finished work; you name it.

But unlike the other categories, I would make this a non-medal category, in much the same way demonstration sports are treated at the Olympics.

Entries to this category would be free, to encourage submissions. This would allow interesting, original work that would not normally be seen to share the spotlight on awards night (surely the main objective), without diminishing the value of the medals handed out in other categories.

Ultimately however, I believe it is incumbent upon agencies, in good conscience, to only enter work which is the result of work fairly and honestly produced for their clients.

Judges take it on faith that all the entries they are viewing have come to them with clean pedigrees. It is up to us to make sure they do.

Advertising shows were created to be the public forum in which we recognize truly significant pieces of advertising.

I believe the idea of standard-setting extends further than in recognizing excellence in creative problem solving and originality in execution.

The type of work we choose to award also says a great deal about our standards. It is considerably more difficult to achieve breakthrough advertising for a bar of soap than for a sex shop, no matter how original the latter execution may be.

We have all worked on these kind of accounts. They are fun. They allow you to do interesting work. But they are easy fixes.

When it comes time to recognizing our best work, it would be best to set the bar higher. Maybe then, gold will once again have some real value.

David Martin is vice-president, associate creative director at Scali McCabe Sloves in Toronto.