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  • Writer's pictureStephie Coplan

Canada does this weird thing where the country's biggest industry publication, Strategy Magazine, annually ranks every agency, brand, creative, and strategist in the country on what they call a "Creative Report Card." It's a misleading name for what it really is: a cold, emotionless, algorithmic calculation of award wins. Bigger shows like Cannes and D&AD are worth more points; domestic shows like the ADCCs (Advertising & Design Club of Canada) are worth fewer. Behind the scenes, the magazine tallies everything up, but only the final ranked list is published, with the winners of each category enjoying a photo feature and write-up.

In my opinion, this system is, at best, flawed; at worst, dangerous for our industry.

First, it provides an incentive for agencies to continue doing the kind of work that makes me roll my eyes; what Wieden + Kennedy calls "creative confetti"; stuff that no one asked for, that may not even solve a real business problem, but is specifically engineered to win an award and score precious report card points.

Creative directors are also incentivized to omit the names of ex-employees who may have contributed to a project, but left the agency before it was submitted to award shows. After all, it's not just the agencies that are awarded points for their awards—creatives are also recognized on individual copywriter, art director, and creative director charts. It's an innocuous, yet sinister, way for petty CCOs to prevent their former employees, now competitors, from rising to the top of the charts, giving their own employees an optical leg-up.

Once you get past the first 25ish agencies on the list, the rest kind of blend together. Agency #50 may look like it's lightyears ahead of agency #113, but the gap might only translate to a handful of awards in real life. But the perception cannot be undone for at least a year.

The list does not take into account any kind of PR success. If you are written about on the front page of the Toronto Star; if "SNL" parodies your commercial; if your campaign is the top story on the nightly news, you get, as my mother would say, bupkis. But if you win third place in an unglamorous award show—say, Strategy's own Marketing Awards, which cost $265-295 per entry—congratulations, you're now on the scoreboard.

This is how we end up with agencies like The Garden, which has had its work featured everywhere from "Jimmy Kimmel" and "The View" to NPR and the New York Times, but has never appeared on the list due to its "no awards" policy. Similarly, Juliet has a reputation among creatives for making some of the best work in the country, but sat at #59 (in a 5-way tie) on the 2020 agency list. We can deduce that they also came in 59th for award show entry fees.

Strategy Magazine stood with Black Lives Matter in 2020, but surely they must recognize that award show juries around the world are still disproportionately white. Are they tacitly accepting this reality by giving these homogeneous juries so much power in ranking our agencies—including the ones that are BIPOC-owned or cater to BIPOC communities?

The report card does not take into account that not every agency can enter every show. For instance, a Webby might be worth a handful of points as an important international show, but it is only for campaigns that are seen on the web. Shows like these exclude agencies that specialize in specific kinds of marketing, like experiential or direct mail; meanwhile, 360-degree agencies qualify for more opportunities, and therefore can earn more points for their ranking. This creates a lopsided effect that favors these "jack-of-all trade" agencies. Is Strategy saying that you're not a top agency unless you're fully integrated? Does that mean the best doctors are general practitioners, and not cardiologists or brain surgeons? Do the best teachers teach kindergarten and not calculus or music theory?

While the list probably promotes a healthy degree of competition, I wonder if it's worth the mental health struggles that come with it. Some people don't care about their rank; others can't get it out of their mind.

I admit that the list can be helpful. In its defense, it can be a powerful asset for the same group of agencies that is usually in the Top 15 year after year; an unofficial consortium, much like the T14 in the world of American law school rankings. Their placement serves as a meta-ad, securing their credibility among clients and creatives alike. It can also help smaller or newer agencies get visibility, acquire talent, and win business, even if they're further down on the list.

It's also a good way to tell if an agency is serious when they promise you in the job interview that they've "really sold their clients on the power of creativity" over the past year.

If you're a copywriter looking for a partner, the art director list is a helpful resource—and vice versa. (Then again, the list has been known to fracture and strain relationships just as often as it creates them.)

For these reasons, I don't think the answer is doing away with these rankings. But I do think they need to be contextualized. Whether Strategy realizes it or not, the list makes it a little too easy for the naive to conflate "most awards" with "best agency." Someone needs to come up with a new name that accurately represents what this list actually is: a data-based list of agencies that prioritize awards. And if awards are the sole metric you use to evaluate agencies, maybe you'll continue to use the list the same way the industry does now: as a measurement of the greatness of the agency.

But not everyone thinks that way—increasingly so.

Our high school report card didn't tell us that we placed 17th in our algebra class; it just told us that we got a B+. Similarly, I'd like to see Strategy grade our country's agencies not against each other, but against themselves. Long gone are the days when award prowess was enough to woo young people—an important segment of the report card's audience—as somewhere among them, tomorrow's brightest and most exciting superstars are about to bloom. Today's Gen Z students, interns and juniors, part of the most conscientious generation in history, are our future CCOs and even CMOs. For a publication that reports on trends and culture, I'm surprised Strategy hasn't rejigged their ranking system to factor in diversity, pay equality and parity, upward mobility, and work/life balance—just some of the things the next class of advertising cares about just as much as, if not more than, awards.

Until Strategy makes these changes and creates a more holistic evaluation system that isn't stuck in a bygone era, my advice—not that anyone asked for it—is to stop giving a shit.

Because whether you're an agency, a brand, or a human, you are so much more than a tally of points.

And willingly letting yourself be defined by and reduced to one is, well, pointless.

  • Writer's pictureStephie Coplan

It’s two days later and I’m still trying to make sense of that Uber Eats Super Bowl commercial from the other night.

Specifically, why did fictional characters Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar—considered by no one since they were last seen decades ago putting on Waynestock, the biggest music festival in the world—emerge from the shadowlands of pop culture for a food delivery service? “As a local access show, we want everyone to support local,” says Wayne expositorily at the beginning of the spot, seemingly aware of the unanimous huh? heard around the world at the sight of him, yet seemingly unaware that Uber Eats' predatory 30% cut is literally putting local restaurants out of business. Never mind that if Wayne and Garth were real people (which they almost certainly are, somewhere, maybe even in Illinois), their tax bracket would have put them squarely in their own kitchens for the past year, eating three-day-old sandwiches like the rest of us, not ordering $12 pasta that balloons to $27.99 after tax, tip, and those damn delivery fees. It’s certainly a luxury that rap superstar Cardi B could afford, who happens to be hanging out with them—but only so Wayne and Garth can reassure us, winking, that she’s definitely not just a celebrity cameo. (Not!)

The spot has racked up more than 12 million views online as I write this, not including the millions from other content that accompanied it (like the three stars thanking the 29,151 restaurants on the platform in a two-and-a-half hour video, which I actually quite liked). I’m curious if these numbers have translated to more sales. Perhaps the spot did what the brand wanted it to. Perhaps it was a success.

But as a creative, when I evaluate ads, the number of impressions or growth-over-whatever never impresses me as much as the idea itself. And there is no amount of money, fame, or starpower that can replicate the magic of a great idea, like the one Reddit had in one of the best spots of the night. It required no celebrities, no CGI characters, and no hit songs. It didn’t even require an attention span. It was just a five-second slate of well-written copy, just long enough to make you want to pause. If you did, you were rewarded with an invitation to join like-minded, intellectually curious people on Reddit, which has a forum for every interest ranging from “Wayne’s World” to, well, Cardi B.

Ayyyyy, as Cardi would say, there’s the rub. We have too many interests—not on Reddit, but in reality. Few and far between are the things society collectively watches together; reads together; enjoys together. You must decide if you want to consume liberal or conservative media; which of the thousands of comedians on Twitter you’re going to follow; whether you’re going to subscribe to yet another content platform so you can watch that show your daughter recommended; whether you’re going to invest time and energy into learning TikTok dances or YouTube makeup techniques; whether you might throw your phone into the lake and go off the grid entirely. There are no wrong answers because no matter what you choose, you’ll have a tribe behind you making the same decisions and therefore experiencing the same version of reality you are. And you’ll go on like that for years and years, riding the undulating waves of comfort and isolation, the hallmarks of a polarized society; always feeling half at home and half lost.

Kids today might not understand, but there used to be a time when, despite our differences (which I have massively oversimplified here), television would pull a “Parent Trap” on us, forcing us all to sit quietly and play nice, if only for a half-hour season premiere. It was the salve that soothed a world beginning to rip apart at the seams. But in 2021, we do not gather on Thursday nights for the Must-See TV lineup. We do not rush home from dinner to make sure we catch the Grammys. Telethons are no longer even a thing. The Super Bowl is the one remaining night of the year when we’re captive, wide-eyed, and slightly drunk, just the way brands like us.

It makes sense that faced with this massive opportunity for exposure, a brand’s first thought is, “what’s something everyone likes?” That answer, of course, is celebrities. But that’s a cheap win; an easy out. If great advertising were as easy as hiring a celebrity, everyone would do it. Tellingly, when everyone did do it on Sunday night, the cameos blended together until they started to feel like a cavalcade of sameness—a brand’s worst nightmare. Consider it proof that advertising is an art, not a science. There’s no mathematical formula to virality; no powdery “just add water” chemical packet for success. When I think about the best ads, the ones that make me laugh, think, and most importantly, spend money, none of them were created in a petri dish to please everyone, like some sort of advertising Maroon 5. They come by their mass appeal honestly by answering a harder question, one that creatives are forced to ask themselves every day; not what's something everyone likes, but what’s something everyone knows is true?

This shift in thinking is the difference between a celebrity making a nothingburger cameo and a brilliant advertisement.

Many brands wielded their celebrities responsibly during this year’s Super Bowl, and I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge them. I loved seeing Tracy Morgan explain the difference between being “pretty sure” and “certain” in Rocket Mortgage’s ad. I also loved seeing Jason Alexander’s contorted face on that orange Tide sweatshirt. These spots were rooted in insightful human truths that exist even outside the advertising universe: “pretty sure” sounds casual, but its consequences are untold. Just because a sweatshirt looks clean, doesn’t mean it’s not full of stains (and quietly suffering).

This logical rigor, incidentally, is also why Ryan Reynolds has been so successful at his transition from acting to advertising. His ads for Aviation Gin, Mint Mobile, and Match demonstrate that he knows when a celebrity is, and is not, an idea. Mr. Reynolds talking to the camera about Mint Mobile? Not an idea. Monica Ruiz drowning her sorrows in an Aviation Gin ad three days after the world lambasted her performance in a Peloton commercial? Great idea.

So I hope Cardi B, Mike Meyers, and Dana Carvey were happy with their performances the other night.

But if Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar were real people, I think Wayne would have taken a long, sad, Monica Ruiz-style swig of PBR.

And Garth would have turned to Wayne and said the same thing he said in “Wayne’s World” 30 years ago: “It’s like people only do things because they get paid. And that’s just really sad.”

  • Writer's pictureStephie Coplan

This is for anyone having a tough day.

If the person paying your salary is telling you that you're not ready to be promoted yet, remember that they have a bottom line to worry about. It is not always in their best interest to be honest with you, and themselves, about the title you should have, or what you deserve to be making. And look, maybe they're right. Maybe you're not ready yet. But don't take their opinion as gospel when they're not an unbiased source. Show your portfolio to other people in the industry who don't work at your company. Get a second, third, and fourth opinion. And don't be afraid to jump ship. There's always another, better job out there and you owe it to yourself to take it.

Awards are fine, but they are not everything. If you didn't win, remind yourself that awards are just as much about the case study video as the idea itself. Personally, I think awards are becoming less of a "thing" anyway. As clients move more of their business in-house, I think we're going to see a major paradigm shift over the next 10 years or so as fewer pieces of work are entered. I'd be surprised if award shows still exist at all in 15-20 years, except for maybe Cannes. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep thinking of stuff that will resonate with people. The public can't resist a great idea.

Some creative directors get promoted because of the awards they've won and not because of their leadership or managerial skills. It's one of the largest systemic issues in the industry. If your creative director can't empathize with you, blatantly favours other teams over yours, doesn't make themselves available to you, says things that are inappropriate or unprofessional to you, backstabs you, competes with you, or struggles to keep you motivated in a positive way, this is a sign that they don't understand their job and are perhaps unequipped do to it. And that is not your fault.

Keep going.

You've got this.

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