How I feel when I win an award.
There's been a lot of talk lately in the Canadian advertising community about award shows, how juries decide upon their winners, and what kind of campaigns tend to win.
This topic is not new. It has been grumbled about in bathroom stalls, slurred about at after-work watering holes, ranted about in bedrooms after the kids have gone to sleep, bloviated about into microphones at Q&As and panel discussions, whispered about behind closed doors, even shouted about behind wide-open ones. But what is new is having this conversation in 2020, when the prognosis of the advertising industry as a whole is somewhere between "changing" and "dying."
Agencies may continue to refurbish, renovate, and reinvent, but behind the sleek Icelandic minimalist boardrooms, Ikea standing desks, and neon signs helpfully reminding employees to "work hard and be nice," there are some scary numbers that even masters of spin like us find unspinnable. Across the board, clients are taking more of their creative work in-house. They're less willing to commit to longterm, profitable AOR (Agency of Record) relationships, opting instead for project-based work. And advertising budgets are shrinking, shrinking, shrinking. Awards have historically acted as a sort of currency, supplying agencies with leverage when recruiting new talent—come work for us, you'll win awards!—and proof when wooing new clients—we're the best, just look at our awards! But now, the subtext has gotten more desperate, more pleading: we know what we're doing, we swear. Please don't go in-house. Please don't leave us. Pleasepleaseplease. The smell of desperation that has always faintly wafted off of agency trophy cases now belies more than the deep-seated insecurities of the creative directors who like to pretend they're rock stars. It's about keeping our entire industry intact and alive.
And so, as agencies and clients renegotiate their retainers and explore new financial models and growth opportunities, awards are more important than ever. The irony is that the very awards that are used to attract clients often conflict with those clients' business goals, ultimately alienating them. As Conflict co-founder/creative director, Niall Kelly, says: "Awards are an indication of an agency's priorities, not its capabilities." I'm not sure if clients are aware that those priorities sometimes involve stooping to some pretty questionable tactics. Ten years ago, it was tasteless to inflate the results of a case study video. Now, agencies fake entire campaigns if it means there might be an award sitting at the end of the rainbow. And the easiest to fake are the ones that were never designed to solve an actual business problem or be experienced by real consumers in the first place: pro bono campaigns.
I want to be clear that I am not talking about legitimate campaigns for hospitals, homeless shelters, welfare groups, or any of the other indispensable organizations that make our world a better place. I am talking about campaigns that take advantage of these heartstring-tugging, do-gooding mission statements just long enough to win an award, but not long enough to make an actual difference. It's the campaign that distributes a new kind of tech-based outerwear to exactly four homeless people on camera, which is all you need for your case study video to imply that the campaign was surely more extensive in real life. (Spoiler alert: it wasn't.) It's the campaign that makes it look like free cell phones were distributed to refugees when in reality, the terms, conditions, and payments kicked in two weeks later. It's the campaign that convinces you that an oil company saved an endangered species, that a soft drink cured a disease, that a beauty product saved a life. But don't be fooled by the somber voiceover or the swelling violins. If you're tearing up, you have fallen for a PR stunt camouflaged as warm and fuzzy community service, except the only community the creators are giving back to is their own. It's no wonder so many of us are fed up with or embarrassed by the "work" agencies are putting out and the validation it gets at award shows.
These self-aggrandizing practices come with a couple of gross side effects. First, many of the communities exploited by fake campaigns have no idea that they're being exploited, like those comprised of homeless people, sick children, and abused animals. Even if they do, they don't have the resources to fight back or advocate for themselves. Second, the ubiquity and consequent celebration of these misguided (or, at worst, morally bankrupt) efforts confuse the industry and make it harder for us to tell the difference between a real pro bono campaign and a fake one. And that means that when an actual pro bono client with an actual campaign—one that runs in perpetuity, even when the case study video camera isn't running—wins an award, creative directors regard it with suspicion, wondering if they really deserve it. They dismiss genuinely Menschlichkeit initiatives as shortcuts; loopholes; not "real" work for "real" clients, because according to advertising ontology, "real" work is getting people to buy pizza or groceries or lipstick. After all, that is the glamorously unglamorous job we signed up for. "It's just advertising," creative directors like to reassure stressed-out juniors who are contemplating sleeping under their desks to finish a deck on time. "We're not curing cancer."
But what if we are? What if a campaign makes a brand look good and also just so happens to cure cancer? Not for a nothingburger campaign engineered for a compelling case study video, but for real? How do we evaluate it against, say, a campaign that doesn't exactly save the world, but manages to sell a ton of beer?
This is a question that I am grappling with as a senior creative, as I begin to enter the phase of my career where I'll be the one judging the work as opposed to simply making it.
Let's say I am faced with two (hypothetical) campaigns, but only one can win a prize. The first is an ingenious campaign for a pizza company, which has been a longstanding client of the agency won through a rigorous RFP process. Despite the client being incredibly demanding, the campaign resonated with people so much that the agency exceeded their client's goal of increasing pizza sales by 3%. And the agency actually made money doing this, as this was done for one of its paying clients.
The other campaign is for an animal welfare charity. No one came to the agency and asked for help. Two ambitious creatives saw something wrong with the world and came up with an idea to fix it. The charity would never be able to afford the agency's help under normal circumstances, but the agency knows that they stand to win an award if they take this client on pro bono. Because the client isn't paying for the work, they are flexible, amiable collaborators with reasonable expectations and open minds—the complete opposite of the pizza company. The work is fantastic and saves thousands of real animals' lives, and there is a sustainable plan in place to keep the program going for years to come.
All else being equal, who do I give the award to?
The answer is not straightforward because it's unclear, in many cases, what the award show is rewarding. Are we supposed to be recognizing the agency that somehow won the pizza client's business in the first place? And then somehow sold a brave idea to that client, even though the client might have had a million reasons to say no? And then somehow assuaged that client's fear, presentation after presentation, for months on end? And then somehow made the general public care about something that was previously uninteresting and unsympathetic? And somehow solved a business problem and funnelled more money both into their client's industry as well as their own? Is the compounding effect of all these "somehows," each so unlikely on their own, each laden with infinite ways they could have gone wrong, no less miraculous than the birth of the universe?
Or do we give the award to the agency who did the animal charity campaign, which endured no gruelling pitch week, no client friction, and no drama, but actually left the world a little better than it found it? That made a difference people might feel 100 years from now by keeping an endangered species from disappearing? Even if only one animal's life is saved, is that not more important in the grand scheme of things than selling pizza, even if it's a lot of pizza, against all odds? If I, as an award show judge, give the prize to the pizza campaign, what does it say about me and my values and what I think the point of all of this is, anyway? And what will it mean for the future of pro bono work? Will agencies feel less incentivized to be altruistic if they don't win an award for it? And if that happens, what happens to all the communities and causes that will no longer benefit from pro bono initiatives?
I don't know the answer, and I won't until award show juries standardize their criteria and stick to it. Which begs the question: if even the juries can't agree on how and what they're awarding half the time, why give out awards at all? Why pit for-profits and non-profits against each other when industries like law and medicine show us that CSR initiatives like the Innocence Project or Operation Smile can harmoniously co-exist alongside the ones that keep the lights on?
If we need awards to convince our clients and ourselves that we're good at what we do, to the point where we're willing to fake an entire campaign just to impress an award show jury that isn't even sure if it's supposed to be judging or virtue signalling, perhaps it's time to just do the best work we can—for-profit, non-profit, whatever-profit, as long as it's real—and start letting it speak for itself.