Re-Award me! guest columnist Liz Foster looks at awards

Recognition in any profession is something we all crave.  And there’s nothing better than getting recognition from your peers. The advertising industry is no exception. With a global advertising spend  of $US445 billion today*, advertising will always be big business. However, does the amount spent on making and showing the ads always translate to the brand’s bottom line?  Here, we take a look at advertising awards around the globe, including their relative worth and key differences.

There are all types of awards

Everyone loves to have an opinion on advertising.  Some ads might really tickle your fancy, while others completely turn you off.  There‘s a widening range of criteria and award programs globally, each of which host teams of ‘experts’ where the ads are judged and ranked. The Clio Awards, launched in 1959, celebrate creative excellence in advertising and design. Today, they incorporate several international categories including design, innovation, print, radio and strategy.

By contrast, the International Effie Awards, introduced by the New York American Marketing Association in 1968, recognise ads that work.  They review campaigns which go beyond enjoyment to actually meeting their key objectives.  The Effies may not have the pizzazz or prestige of other awards, but they get the clients’ approval as they demonstrate advertising that actually translates to sales.

Another highly lauded award is one received by the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival.  Founded in Venice in 1954, it has grown to feature thousands of delegates and workshops across 12 major categories.  2011 will herald the arrival of a new Creative Effectiveness Lion, which will award agencies based on client return on investment (ROI).  However, only shortlisted or winning entries at Cannes Lions 2010 are eligible to enter, implying that only creative ads can be effective.

Terry Savage, festival chairman, defends this implication, saying:  “Now, more than ever, ROI is paramount to the client and it is important that we acknowledge and reward this without losing the essence of Cannes Lions.”

Cynical clients may beg to differ that ROI has only recently become paramount.

It works both ways

Many awards are often extremely profitable enterprises in themselves, via entry fees, delegate fees or workshop programs.  The Clios alone exceeded $2.5m p.a. in revenue by the late 1980s.

John O’Keefe, director of O’Keefe Communications, has over 35 years of experience in creating effective campaigns for clients.  He believes that there are far too many awards, and many international awards are simply money-making businesses for the organisers, who ultimately are the only winners. That said, marketers have been known to manipulate ad awards to their own end, entering specially created ‘scam’ ads in a bid to leverage the PR.

Tim Burrowes is the founding editor of the Australian discussion advertising & media site mUmBRELLA, and former editor of Campaign Magazine (Middle East) and Media Week (UK).   His experience with awards is across all categories worldwide, as both judge and entrant.  He feels that agencies could be creating ads to win awards rather than be effective for the client. “The rationale of awards; to champion creativity and continually strive for excellence; is perfectly sound.  On the other hand, teams have been known to create work specifically with winning awards in mind, rather than addressing the client’s need.”

Burrowes has seen award entries from opposite ends of the spectrum. “Extreme examples are scams, where the creative idea is developed and then shoe-horned onto a brand. Some awards include an effectiveness measure, which lends the most credibility from a client’s perspective.  Cosy common ground of a client/agency reciprocal relationship that’s both striving for the same outcome is usually the scenario you see the most.”

The prospect of screening scam ads has been addressed by many award programs.  The New York Festivals Awards, for example, are judged online.  This system is perceived to be the first line of defence against scams, as judges can flag their suspicions via confidential comments online.

Are they worth it?

Most awards these days can boast of being international, thanks to the reach of the internet.  Nevertheless, the effort in compiling and collating entries can be time consuming and costly for any business.  Aside from the prestige attached via big names like the Clios and Cannes, is it worth all the hassle?

Daniel Leesong, CEO of Australian-based The Communications Council, believes that awards are a good thing for agencies, as they set benchmarks for the industry. “[Awards] inspire agencies to keep pushing themselves to create innovative, leading, cutting edge work.  And publicity from winning awards helps to attract clients, and win new business while they can consolidate already existing relationships with clients. “Especially for small agencies, winning awards is a demonstration that an agency is capable of being as good as or better than a large agency.”

Burrowes feels that overall, the effort is worth it, although everything becomes a compromise on some level. But different awards have different judging criteria:  he has witnessed juries who horse-trade their own favourite entries with each other, whilst others comprise non-industry members who are often liable to have the wool pulled over their eyes with glitzy presentations and slanted statistics.  Ultimately, to make the awards credible there must be depth of judging.

O’Keefe doesn’t think it’s worth the effort to pitch internationally if it doesn’t translate to local PR. “We won several Gold Awards in US based competitions. We were elated. The clients were impressed. The local ad media were totally unimpressed. The awards rated zero on their radar of importance. We learnt our lesson to forget awards competitions, other than Cannes.”

Whose award is it anyway?

As a brand manager below several management layers, you often don’t get a look in as the ‘client’.  It’s not a problem if you couldn’t care less about the relative value or otherwise of awards, but can grate a little if you’re the one whose slaved over the communications brief, strategy, production and implementation of the campaign just to see your boss’s boss and senior agency staff swan off to Cannes to collect the gong.

Burrowes recalls the worst example he’s seen of one agency that was losing money and making redundancies hand over fist whilst the top execs toured the world, entering their ads into awards and winning them too.  At the bitter end, the execs in question got to abandon the sinking ship, reputations intact and names engraved on the gongs forever, to travel with them onto their next ventures.

Matt Petersen has worked around the globe in various marketing roles for Nestlé.  He agrees that when it comes down to it, it’s always great to get the recognition. “The closest I came to glory was an ad for Minties [confectionery brand] that won a Bronze Lion at Cannes. I received a lovely, framed award certificate, which would have been even better if they didn’t put my boss’s name on the ‘client’ line.”

Do awards add value?

Awards are the one avenue that gives the designers recognition.  They often toil away producing multiple concept versions without actually getting to submit them, rarely receiving direct feedback on their work. However, Burrowes believes that any value gained from an award win gets attached to the creative individual, not the agency.   They look good on the pitch list and not much else.

Whilst awards can make and follow the careers of the creatives, they don’t have the same ring of endorsement for clients apart from the jolly jaunts overseas.  And an ad that received rave reviews in one market doesn’t always translate to another. Petersen doesn’t see any value in awards from a client perspective, going so far as to say that they can actually get in the way of business objectivity at times.

“I don’t see too many products using lines such as “From the company who has funded more award-winning ads than anyone else in its category…”  I remember one multi-award-winning French ad for an ice-cream brand I was working on. It looked great, arrived with plenty of pre-publicity, won over the boss and was put to air with minor changes.  It ended up sinking like a stone as it was totally irrelevant to the local market.’

Leesong vehemently disagrees.  He believes  that awards can add significant value to a brand. “Sales tend to go hand in hand with award-winning campaigns so they are often a reflection of the value added to a brand by a successful campaign. Having said that, advertisers do gain credibility and kudos by being associated with award winning, cutting edge work,” says Leesong. “In addition, awards tend to generate publicity beyond that which brands have paid for.”

Leesong adds that awards worldwide are a reflection of category changes depending on developing technologies and consumer demands.  He also believes that award-winning work is an important source of education, often used by marketing tutors to showcase effective campaigns and the industry’s achievements.

A final note..

If you want to find the right sort of awards program to suit your ad, then you usually can.  There’s no reason why advertising awards shouldn’t be harnessed as a positive influence, as every industry should be able to recognise and reward excellence in its own field.  The bottom line is to know what you’re up for.

As Tim Reid, founder of Small Business Big Marketing says, “Advertising awards are about ego, which is fine.  It just should be stated out front.”