Agencies Are Questioning Just Who The Real Winners Are In The Business Of Advertising Awards
The 2021 Cannes Advertising Festival takes place this week and the hype machine is in overdrive. I was thinking of the significance of award shows when I saw last week that trade publication Ad Age published its 2020 A-List (In June!) The list was created a few years ago to highlight the best agencies on Madison Avenue. It now seems that practically every agency in the U.S. gets a mention. I’m exaggerating, but not by much.
Coming up with the list seemed to be a matter of no-matter-whatism, as 2020 was a bad year in particular for creativity and not one single agency shined. There’re two fundamental problems with publishing this list. First, the criterion for inclusion is arbitrary and the “jury”, ironically, lacks true inside knowledge of the agencies. An agency PR campaign can be the deciding factor for a place on the list, not the quality of the work itself.
The second issue has to do with the way the “winning” agencies tend to publicize the recognition. They add this to their email template with great fanfare. However, so does everyone else. The result is commoditization. Instead of picking a single “Agency of the Year”, a title that is meaningful and denotes singular achievement, the way it used to be, agencies today chase whatever awards they can get, as meaningless as it may be.
Cannes Lions hands out hundreds of awards, in almost 40 categories, which keeps growing annually. The company that manages the event has other international award shows as well. Yes, these award shows celebrate creativity up to a point. But award shows play to agencies’ endless vanity. They literally sell approval.
Actually, award shows are in the business of entry fees. Cannes Lions generates $20 million from 30,000 entries. This kind of yield (some would say greed) led to the proliferation of shows and awards. There are almost 900 award shows around the world at last count. Each new award show, and the awards that are handed out, are making the other award shows less meaningful. After all, if everyone is winning an award, is anyone really a winner?
MORE FOR YOU
Awards budgets have not become much leaner in challenging economic times is noteworthy, particularly when you consider that many of the top entrants are agencies that have undertaken one or more rounds of layoffs in recent months.
A couple of years ago I had a conversation with the CEO of a major agency, who defended his decision to spend $250,000 on entry fees, by saying that winning awards is how he benchmarks his agency. I think it’s a problem when agencies look at awards, and not the marketplace, to determine how well they are doing.
The problem arises when advertising creatives start creating ads solely for awards juries. It’s a dangerous path to be on when almost every ad is motivated by winning an award, and not actually doing their jobs.
Since the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed in 2002, it has become commonplace in the advertising industry to use awards instead of gross income figures as proxy of their own performance. Therefore, achieving a top creativity ranking and winning awards have become high priority for agencies. But it’s not an equal playing field. The system is so expensive that unfortunately, many of the smaller players are priced out and can’t compete.
As pitch consultants, we have seen frequent exaggerations from agencies, not only on awards won, but also in agency credentials. Agencies still submit scam ads to the shows, with or without client approval or include ones that only ran once in little-seen paid media outlets so they can win awards. While awards shows have cracked down on fake work solely created for awards juries, the problem hasn’t gone away.
Sure, there are plenty of reasons as to why the industry needs awards. And some advertisers openly support it. Creative awards provide recognition, and they attract creative talent to an agency. But their usefulness as any type of industry benchmarking regarding who is doing outstanding work is predicated on the quality and robustness of the judging process.
The award shows are doing their best to keep the gravy train going. Anyone who has attended the big international shows over the years will tell you that there are many more advertisers who attend than used to in the “old days.” But as Madison Avenue continues to evolve from the salad days of AOR to the lean margins of project-based work, I wonder if the award-show party will last much longer. As the money gets tighter for advertisers as well, I can’t help but feel that award shows is one of those line items that the procurement department is going to redline.