Patrick Collister: are creative awards really important?

So are awards important? Well, they are to me because I run an awards show*. But they’ve been important to me from the start of my career.

I remember going to my first awards show. In those days, when there was money in advertising, we’d go the ballroom of The Grosvenor House, which had room for 120 tables of 10. D&AD’s 24th anniversary was at The Royal Albert Hall, which was weird. I worked for an agency called BMP and saw my more senior colleagues trot up and down, picking up their gongs. And I thought, one day, one day…Mind you, the day I did get to do the walk, I wasn’t expecting it and was deep in conversation with someone until I got a bread roll thrown at me. “Oi, Collister, they want you.”

So, awards are motivation. They are also the benchmark. You can see what your peers consider to be good work and you are inspired to do the same. My mum once asked me if as a copywriter my job was to copy stuff. When I stopped to think about it, I thought yeah, my job is to copy great work. Not to replicate it but to learn from it and leap from it.

The big, global shows make you aware of new directions. For instance, twenty years ago Fallon made a bunch of videos which only ran online. BMW Films changed advertising forever. Ohhhh, we all said, ads don’t have to be 30-seconds or 60-seconds, they can be 10 minutes long. Branded content was born and agencies started making long-form commercials designed for YouTube, to be talked about and shared. Similarly, when Dove became purposeful around Real Beauty, they inspired a thousand imitators.

Lions, Pencils, Capleses, they are how creatives market themselves. Every show is a forum in which talent can announce itself, negotiate a pay rise or find a new job. Just as artists sign their canvases, writers and art directors have their names attached to winning work. They are drawn to the agencies that win most garlands because they feel they will get more support there. When Graham Collis hired me at BMP, I went from being an indifferent writer to an award-winner through osmosis. The agency culture was welded to its creative reputation. When you walked in through the revolving doors, the 25-foot stairwell was embellished with over a hundred framed awards certificates.

What did clients make of this? Well, they probably said that awards were unimportant to them and some of them might even have meant it. But Simon Thompson, then the Marketing Director of Honda UK, actively went looking for an agency with many awards. He chose Wieden+Kennedy London, reasoning that because he had half the budget of Toyota he needed ideas that would be noticed. “Cog” is the most-awarded TV commercial of all time and “Grr” isn’t far behind.

So, if you’re a marketer with a big problem, awards will show you where to find the talents to help you solve it.
On the other side of the coin, when agencies obsess so much about awards that they cheat, creating scam ads purely for shows, then they hurt us all. David Ogilvy rang me the day I started work for his agency in London. He asked me, “What is creativity?” If I’d answered, “It’s doing award-winning work”, he’d have fired me. He thought awards were a distraction from the real business, which was helping clients solve their problems.

Are awards important? It’s a question I have been putting to Caples jurors and, unsurprisingly, not a one has said no. Some of the reasons yes I’d never thought of. (And I run a show, tcha!)

Andy McLane, ECD of Brighton-based Anything is Possible, makes an interesting point. Because The Caples asks for results, every winner is, de facto, an effectiveness award. In this context, awards “underline the business advantage great creativity achieves.” Cannes Lions bang this particular drum and they do attract a large crowd of clients every year though there is little evidence they all go home braver.

Something else I’d never thought of is cultural diversity. Megan Farquhar, founder and Creative Partner of Schaaf, USA, writes that awards have made adland a global community. They demonstrate the capability of creatives in distant countries and help them get “the coveted visas that allow them to share their unique perspectives with the biggest global brands.” That’s definitely true. Two of the UK’s most famous commercials, Cadbury’s ‘Gorilla’ and Sony ‘Balls’ were written in London by an Argentinian.

Juan Cenoz, Creative Director at VCCP Spain, says, “Awards are like going to the gym. They allow agencies and creative teams to stay in shape.” I like that.

But before I blow too much smoke, there are some buts.

Mark Denton, founder of Coy! Communications, wonders if there aren’t too many awards. They can be devalued if handed out indiscriminately. Winning a Gold should be hard. At The Caples, about 0.5% of submissions get a top prize. Other shows are more generous, which is great if you’re a winner but..

The trophy itself, of course, has little value. One Dutch team tried to sell their Gold Lion in Amsterdam’s Bullion Market but were offered just five Euros by a dealer out of pity. Nick Bell, when he was the Executive Creative Director of JWT, had a very successful night at an awards show and piled into a taxi clutching his many arrows. The cabbie was astounded. “They give awards for adverts? That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all week.”

BMW Films, a series of eight films made by top Hollywood directors. They astounded awards juries to such an extent Gold wasn’t good enough. Thus the Titanium Award was born.

Honda “Cog” cost a million but is believed to have generated £400 million in revenue. Award-winning work works better, say Peter Field and Les Binet in their book “The Long and the Short Of It”.

Guaranteed to bring some sparkle to any agency’s reception.

*The Caples Awards are run by former creative directors Patrick Collister (left) and Duncan Gray to recognise and reward creativity in advertising communications. Once a show entirely dedicated to creativity in direct marketing, as DM has become mainstream so has Caples.. If there is a bias, then it is towards work that elicits some sort of response, be it a click or like.

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