Matt Williams: what does it take to win the big ad awards – craft skill or best marketing idea?

I was asking a friend last week how work was going. This friend is a creative at one of the biggest and most well known advertising agencies in the industry.

“I’m actually doing something really interesting at the moment,” he replied. “It’s nice to work on something that you can see is fundamentally important to the client’s business.

“The only annoying thing is that because it’s mainly about user experience and design, it’s not really lending itself to winning any of the big awards.”

I wonder if we’re going to start hearing this more and more. Of course, awards aren’t the main driver for doing great work. It’s not the main reason anyone gets into the industry (they do it for the booze and drugs, don’t they?), but as we all prepare to get over-excited by Cannes, it’s certainly something nice to be in the mix for.

Yet no doubt after Cannes we will be having the same old discussions about whether the best work won in the right categories, whether the work that won were vanity projects or truly made a difference to a client’s business, and whether some work was overlooked because the category criteria wasn’t quite right.

Of course, very few things we do nowadays are centered solely around 30 or 60 second ads. Or are just a collection of amazing print ads.

But whilst the type of work we do has changed, the awards categories and criteria haven’t seemed to keep up.

For me, some of the best examples of brand marketing in recent years include the Airbnb Annual Report, the Ice Bucket Challenge (below), GoPro’s content offering, the Game of Thrones virtual reality activity. But it’s getting more and more difficult to judge or reward them with the categories and criteria as they are.

The ironic thing is that to combat this some jurors are seeming to ‘over-compensate,’ and award those great ideas whenever they can. So we’re getting campaigns like Harvey Nichols winning the Film Grand Prix, Press Grand Prix, Promo Grand Prix and Integrated Grand Prix. And adam&eveDDB walk away with four top prizes, and about a million other Gold Lions too.

Let’s take nothing away from adam&eve. They’re one of my favourite agencies and the Harvey Nichols work is one of the best campaigns in ages. But the standalone TV ad – which the Film Grand Prix is being judged on – probably wasn’t the best piece of film created by a brand in 2014. Likewise the print ad probably wasn’t the best print execution of the previous twelve months.

So how do you solve this problem? Rewrite the criteria? Tell annoying pedants like me to shut the hell up and just be glad that some good campaigns are being awarded? Scrap all discipline-based awards and just have one big award celebrating the best marketing ideas (I’m sure the event organisers who make thousands out of awards entries would love that…)?

Cannes compensated a little by introducing the Titanium award in 2003 to “recognise emerging forms of brand work that wouldn’t neatly fit into the existing award categories.”

But that was 12 years ago. The industry has moved on massively. Yet the industry awards haven’t.

And as long as the number of award entries keeps going up, and as long as the cash keeps coming in, you can’t see there being much appetite from the organisers to change it (and who could blame them?).

But unless at some stage there is some sort of revamp, there’ll be an ever growing disconnect between the brands that win at advertising awards and the brands that we all love the rest of the year. And you can already guess the arguments we’ll be having and articles that we’ll be writing come the end of June.

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