THE CREATIVE REPORT CARD: WHAT'S THE POINT?
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.