A tale of two awards – what do D&AD and the Festival of Media tell us about a changing business?

To Rome for M&M Global’s Festival of Media, which meant I missed the D&AD Awards in London.

D&AD’s big winner was Y&R New Zealand for its ‘McWhopper’ campaign, an effort to get McDonald’s to join with its client Burger King to support World Peace Day. McDonald’s declined.

Clever stuff but it’s PR not advertising. Y&R collected seven pencils for this. Elsewhere design companies won most of the more desirable pencils (D&AD stands for designers and art directors) which is fair enough. But if you were a client at the event might you have thought compelling commercial advertising was a thing of the past? OK, I wasn’t there. All the winners are here.

Awards were an adjunct at the FoM (given out at lunchtime when many people were doing other things – although accompanied by traditional whoopin’ and hollerin’) rather than the main event. Media awards are strange things: you have to take the judges’ word for it as they’ve read the submission and you haven’t. At least with an ad – or a piece of design – you can take a look at it. Most of the big media agencies picked up something or other at the FoM. Campaign of the Year went to UM Romania for Vodafone’s ‘Sunday Grannies.’

One of the big themes at FoM was data, data and still more data. The first conference I was sent to cover – for Campaign – was the Market Research Society (there wasn’t a lot of competition for this gig). I dutifully sat through it all (there wasn’t anything else to do), understanding barely a word. The FoM was less technical but..

The big smelly elephant in the room was, inevitably, ‘transparency;’ the client view (there were lots of big clients at the FoM) that, somehow, they’re being short-changed. This might be because media agencies (or their owners) are not being straight about media owner rebates (the subject of the current US Association of National Advertisers investigation) or the opaque nature of programmatic media buying.

Both aspects of transparency came up at the FoM but little light was shed. This is understandable to an extent, given the imminence of the ANA report, but frustrating all the same. One panel included media heavyweights from Unilever and Mondelez, Mr Unilever saying (as his boss Keith Weed has repeatedly) that he wanted to know where every cent of his digital spend was going – or disappearing. Mr Mondelez pointing out, mildly, that such was the nature of media. Long before digital hove into view advertisers and their agencies relied on joint industry research – some people’s solution to the programmatic issue – but did we really know that all the people who were supposed to see a TV ad or a poster actually did? Er, no we didn’t.

That aside – and this is where D&AD comes in – what was eye-opening was the clear message that media agencies now see themselves as far more important to clients than creative agencies. Moving from the end of the table to the middle, as GroupM’s Dominic Procter put it. Logical enough, in some ways, as they spend the money. Indeed, in terms of the holding companies, they make most of it too.

In their world they’re the architects of marketing programmes. Creatives just paint the windows.

This might be OK except that, in a survey of pitch priorities for the conference, ‘creativity’ kept coming top of client requirements whereas media agencies thought the biggest issue for clients was cost. Not so surprising in the sense that creativity is a ‘want-to-have’ in such instances whereas lower prices are a ‘must have.’ And by creativity they meant creative media planning and buying.

You can have lots of that but it doesn’t mean a damn thing without traditional creativity, those big ideas in danger of going out of fashion. Media without those and executional excellence becomes a circular argument. Hacking away at a mountain of data (and obfuscation) to no very useful end. Apart from saving money – maybe.

Maybe next time they’ll invite a senior creative or creative agency suit to make that case. Trouble is that while the creative elite, as at D&AD, are awarding the top prizes to one-off PR or charity campaigns they’re hardly sending out the message that they deserve a bigger role to play in the way Mondelez or Unilever spend their billions.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.