Giles Keeble: why do so few big awards winners pass the ultimate test as Modern Classics?

It’s the end of the silly season and this year’s awards have been decided months ago. The big winner was Dumb Ways to Die. Given the number of internet hits this spot has had, it is a popular choice and well deserved, though I wonder if it was really a multi-channel winner as it is not essentially a campaign – that is different executions of the same idea.

I’ve written before how press and posters seem to be interchangeable these days, with the same ads appearing in both categories, though it was refreshing to see posters as intelligent and well executed as the Parkinson’s campaign (by The Assembly) in D&AD.

The number of categories in awards has grown, giving agencies an opportunity to increase their awards profile. I don’t know if the mega bucks allegedly spent by record-breaking Cannes Lions winner O&M has been substantiated, but the price of entering can be very high; and while that cost can be calculated, the return on investment may be less clear.

When David Abbott was at AMV, I think he took the view that entering the department’s work was a way of thanking them. With a top creative agency that may work, but there is clearly a lot of wishful thinking when you see how many submissions there are and how few get through. Nobody ever went broke overestimating the desire of creative people to win awards- unless you are Woody Allen. My approach at Leo Burnett was that if anything not entered by me was privately entered and won, the entry fee would be re-imbursed. It did concentrate the mind as well as the budget.

There is a larger point. The proliferation of awards reflects the changing nature of communication channels. While the standard of some of the newer categories is still uncertain, they should encourage agencies to think before and beyond advertising. This might not only increase the revenue opportunities but allow a wider application of creativity: in fact, the sorts of ideas that were often part of a pitch even years ago to show interest and enthusiasm, but rarely taken up.

I wrote an ad for Leo Burnett in the early 90s which included the view that agencies should have the integrity to offer ideas even if advertising was not the solution, and that clients should have the integrity to pay them for that advice. With awards such as the Cannes Titanium and Innovation categories, let’s hope this increases and we see more examples like Droga’s bone-marrow donor kits, the ALB ‘Golden Chains’ work for financing a record, and Dove’s ‘Ad makeover’ (left) campaign targeting negative internet banner ads.

A recurring problem with awards is comparable standards, both within awards and over time. Chris Wilkins once gave a speech at a Grosvenor House ceremony in which he read out names like Tomas Transtromer, Herta Muller and Jean-Marie Gustave le Clezio, unknown to probably most of the audience but all Nobel prize winners for literature. Sometimes what is voted by a jury as good is ahead of its time and not mainstream enough to be recognised by others, or is actually not that good and does not stand the test of time. And conversely, the jury may not vote for something that is great but ahead of its time.

Most award winning work is very good if not always great. The great majority of work is average or worse. Of the few examples that are good, perhaps only half of them get awards, maybe the result of a particular jury at a particular time. There are some years when one piece of work has stood out from the beginning: Honda’s ‘Hate something, change something’ and Cadbury’s ‘Gorilla’ are two examples.

But outside the occasional clear and maybe unanimous choices, awards exclude some very good work, work which may have been different and challenging, and for which there is no record. This is a great shame. I remember two top creative directors arguing passionately about the same campaign: it turned out that one thought it should win a gong, the other that it should be excluded.

When Graham Fink and I were the UK representatives at Cannes, the film Grand Prix went to ‘Hungry?’ for Nissin noodles (below). John Hegarty criticised us, even though we explained that it was the jury’s decision and, after all the horse trading, felt to be the spot that stood out. (As a postscript, the following year I was on a flight to Stuttgart with John – he on his way to Boss, I to Mercedes. John had been Chairman of the Jury that year and a new Nissin ad had won a Gold, though not the Grand Prix.

When I reminded him what a hard time he had given us the previous year, he maintained the circumstances were different.) So there are good years and not so good years, but also perhaps good and bad categories, or at least categories that traditionally have been harder to do great work for (this usually involves conventions and client attitudes and may still apply to oral and hair care, for instance).

Should the best in each category win a Gold even if, when all the Golds are compared, there might be a difference in quality? A solution I suggested at Cannes was that for category winners to get Gold they needed a significant majority (say 2/3rds, as with the US Senate)- I was led to believe this would be adopted. It wasn’t. (When I tried to instigate this approach once as Chair of the London Radio Awards, the problem was that the categories were sponsored and the sponsors wanted ‘their’ winner to get Gold.)

MAA has initiated nominations for ‘modern classics’. Looking back at 30 years of Cannes films, there are some that may have failed that test, Nissin included. But many pass: Budweiser’s ‘Wassup’, Lego’s ‘Kipper’, some of the Nike and Fox Sports spots, Guinness, Old Spice. Is Dumb Ways to Die a modern classic? Maybe. It is a refreshingly lateral solution to what must be a real problem, well written and produced, very watchable, catchy and, as the figures show, catchable, in the viral sense.

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About Giles Keeble

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Giles Keeble started as a rep (account man) at JWT before moving to BMP. There Stanley Pollitt told him that JWT’s Stephen King had wanted him to become a planner. John Webster encouraged him to become a writer but after a number of years Giles moved to French Gold Abbott and, for a while, did become a planner of sorts. Returning to writing he went to David Abbott’s new agency AMV followed by WCRS and was then ECD of Leo Burnett for six years. He then returned to AMV before moving to Publicis and then Lowe in Hong Kong at the inception of the ‘World’s Local Bank’ campaign for HSBC. He now works as a writer and strategist as well as running advertising courses for senior clients.