The Rant: Award Shows Need To Evolve Or Die

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Volume 33 In a Series By Felix

The recent Gareth Kay talk has had me pondering his response to the question about award shows; should they be scrapped to help us all focus on the job at hand, and not the gold at the end of the rainbow? Gareth said yes. I say…evolve or die.

The problem with award shows right now is that although they celebrate creativity, most of the time anyway, they rarely consider context or effectiveness. And often, it’s not possible to really know the effectiveness of a big-budget branding campaign. So at the end of the day, the judging criteria is wide-open.

Unfortunately, it’s so wide-open that complete crap like Wrangler’s Animals campaign can win the top gong. I’m still scratching my head on that one. And most of the other work that gets an award is derivative and formulaic.

When you look at some of the award-winning work of the seventies, eighties and early nineties, it was smart and it did the job of selling. Writers like Tony Brignull, David Abbott, Alfredo Marcantonio, James Lowther, Neil French, Bob Levenson and Indra Sinha really knew how to create interest and sell a product or service. It was compelling work. It made you kick yourself in the backside and say “shit, I wish I’d done that.” And the art direction back then was as varied and exciting as the copy. Take a look at The D&AD Copy Book (A.K.A. The Copywriter’s Bible) for prime examples of great advertising.

Now, with a few exceptions, what is the variety we are presented with today? It’s not exactly varied is it? You know the drill, but just in case you don’t, here’s how to win an award in five simple steps.

1: Copy is out. If you must use some, make it less than ten words total.
2: 99% of the ad should be taken up by an image.
3: Make the image some kind of visual gag, usually a juxtaposition between two different objects. Other visuals that work include products out of context, visual surprises and weird collages (to see all of those examples at work, look at any of the latest submissions on
4: Your headline is your logo and tagline.
5: Don’t explain anything. No product or service benefits. No reason to buy. No facts. Nothing. The logo and the image is good enough to get people flocking to your brand by the millions.

This is what constitutes good advertising these days, and many of the world’s most respected agencies keep on churning this stuff out. Why is this work saturating the market? Simple; it’s being rewarded.

Now some may say that clients are insisting on this kind of work. I’m not buying that, because clients have been convinced to do new and different work for decades. Others say that it’s effective work, and that consumers don’t have time to read ads any more. I call bullshit on that, too. Sure, the long copy ads of old are a tough read to the majority of today’s ADD society, but the Lemon ad for Volkswagen is still fresh and would still be read today. In fact, any of the VW ads from DDB would still work. They’re not copy heavy, they are intriguing and they sell the shit out of the car. Hard facts combined with concise copy make for interesting reading. And that leads to successful advertising.

As Howard Gossage once said, “The real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interest them, and sometimes it’s an ad.” To say no one reads anything any more is horse manure. Tell that to J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. People still read, libraries are not empty, there is a desire for education and entertainment. The problem is, people can’t read ads because there’s nothing to read any more. Ads do half a job these days. They pique interest but do nothing with it. They start a conversation and leave people hanging. Usually, the takeaway is “oh, I get it.” But what about “oh, I want one” or “I have to go test drive that.” The art of the sale is gone. And yet awards shows continue to hand out shiny trophies for these incomplete efforts. Well, enough is enough.

It’s time to evolve.

We need judges from new walks of life that have new criteria. It’s pointless to bring in judges that will continue to reward the same kind of work, year after year. We need fresh thinking. Now, in The Untouchables, Sean Connery’s Malone said “If you’re afraid of getting a rotten apple, don’t go to the barrel. Get it off the tree.” The barrel in this case is the majority of ad agencies out there, filled with creatives who are pumping out the same derivative work month after month. But most colleges (the “tree” in Malone’s euphemism) are also training students to pump out the same kind of formulaic work.

Therefore, we need to look at agencies doing something new and different, like Poke London, Cunning, and yes, CP&B. We also need to look outside of our industry, and encourage innovators from film, music, industrial design, fashion, technology, science, mathematics, education and, well, anywhere else that fosters fresh, bold thinking. If we keep looking to our own industry professionals, nothing’s going to change any time soon.

I also think that, where possible, effectiveness MUST be a criteria of any advertising award. This is not art or graphic design, it’s advertising. It has a job to do. It has to sell or promote, and there needs to be a reaction. Whether it’s measured through word of mouth or surveys or focus groups, the work must pass an effectiveness test before it can advance to the next round. The John Caples awards have always demanded response rates for any work entered. Why not every awards show? Make the work accountable. If it sold a shitload of product and did it in a new and exciting way that lived up to “excellence in advertising,” then I would be the first one applauding the recipients of the award.

The image in this rant is something I’d love you to send to everyone you know who is associated with an awards show. From a former judge to a current board member, we need to get traction behind this idea and get some validity back to the awards.

And if nothing changes, and awards continue to be given to the same formulaic, slap-on-the-back bullshit I see day in, day out, then I have one word for the board of directors of any awards show.



  1. g August 6, 2009

    Perfect! Couldn’t have said

    Perfect! Couldn’t have said it better…

  2. Matt August 6, 2009

    I know Gareth said he’d like

    I know Gareth said he’d like to scrap award shows, but actions speak louder than words. He has gotten famous working for agencies that rely on and invest heavily in the shows. But I agree that award shows need to evolve. My own rant on the subject was published in AdWeek. See what you think.

  3. Paul Suggett

    Paul Suggett August 6, 2009

    My biggest gripe with the

    My biggest gripe with the Denver 50 is picking 50 pieces of work. As was evident from the last book, there was a lot of repetition. The Denver Water campaign got a bunch of nods, but really it was one campaign. Like Felix says, evolve it. Make it something like Denver Gold instead of Denver 50, and only give out awards to those that deserve it. If that’s 51, cool. If that’s 12, that’s also cool. I suspect some of the Denver 50 were much better than others because the judges were scrambling to get 50 pieces in there.

  4. Emerson Biggens August 6, 2009

    I truly don’t think more than

    I truly don’t think more than a handful of clients are in the least interested in how many awards their agency wins. They care about effectiveness, efficiency, creating value, illuminating possibilities. Some award-winning agencies do this, but it’s not a true barometer.

    The award show industrial complex lines their pockets with the deep-seeded inferiority complex of creatives and the egos of the agency heads. And the majority of things that win never ran, or ran once in Biluxi at 2 a.m.

    This cheapens our business, saps resources, and can only accelerate our demise.

  5. The Denver Egotist August 6, 2009

    We did a postmortem piece on

    We did a postmortem piece on that very issue after last year’s Denver 50 show, Paul. It’s here.

  6. Chris Maley August 6, 2009

    This rant triggered a

    This rant triggered a flashback to my old $250K+/yr-earning boss throwing a temper tantrum during a review of work for a “pro-bono” client. It was for Joe’s Sex Toy Emporium or a microbrew made with rat-turds or whatever the “project” was. “I don’t give a fuck if this sells a thing! I WANT MY AWARDS!” Exactly what he said.

    Recognition is nice, but that moment showed me exactly what was wrong with award shows. Mastercard’s “Priceless” should have won everything when it broke, but McCann-Erickson was the agency. Not one of the cool kids.

  7. Ed Benson August 6, 2009

    “Let’s make the awards

    “Let’s make the awards meaning something.”

    How about let’s proofread our ads?

  8. Felix August 6, 2009

    Yep, my bad, I changed

    Yep, my bad, I changed it.
    I’m not perfect Ed. Thank fuck you are.

  9. David Burn August 6, 2009

    @Maley – those were the days

    @Maley – those were the days ;D

  10. Paul Suggett

    Paul Suggett August 6, 2009

    I do wonder if this devalues

    I do wonder if this devalues the awards to such a point that they become pointless accolades. I mean, why brag about Cannes Best Of Show if that Wrangler bollocks has won it?

  11. Chris Thomas August 6, 2009

    I agree to a point, but

    I agree to a point, but aren’t industry mags/resources doing the same thing? Take a look @ CA and especially Luerzers – they promote and glorify this as much as any award show, and their audience is huge.

  12. Paul Suggett

    Paul Suggett August 6, 2009

    I agree Chris. Archive and CA

    I agree Chris. Archive and CA have become as boring as “ads of the world.” I prefer reading Wired these days.

  13. PalmerPolanski August 6, 2009

    I like the new wired with

    I like the new wired with Brad Pitt .

  14. Chris Maley August 7, 2009

    David Burn, remember going to

    David Burn, remember going to lunch and ranting and raving about all that? Memory lane. Those were the days, you’re right.

  15. Christopher Cox August 7, 2009

    It was easier for me to win

    It was easier for me to win awards as a graphic designer and as a web designer than an AD. I felt like really great design just wins awards outright because of the aesthetic value. With the web it was the marriage of aesthetics with functionality.

    Advertising has been different. I always think it should be traced back to how big of a success the ad was for the client.

    People disagree with me on that sometimes but I am always trying to figure out what does and doesn’t work for the client and what they need the advertising to achieve.

    That’s why advertising exists in the first place. I always want to see numbers or data that proves that something worked or that an impact was made. So many times that seems like it can be traced back to strategy and sometimes even the core philosophy of the agency.

    It’s great to win awards and be recognized by your peers but a lot of the time the client just doesn’t care. They are spending a fortune on a promise and they need results for the sake of their business. That’s the exchange. Awards should really come second to that.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong but that’s what I have always thought.

  16. Miles McIlhargie August 7, 2009

    Nice write-up;
    Is anyone

    Nice write-up;

    Is anyone familiar with the BMA and it’s Gold Key Awards? From what I have heard, awards in advertising and marketing are presented to those works which have actually had a positive impact on their clients bottom line.

  17. Lazlo August 7, 2009

    As a young writer I agree

    As a young writer I agree with your points about print and such, but at the same time I’m not looking to the print lions to dictate what’s good anymore, I’m looking to the titaniums. More than anything we need a breakthrough in deciding what’s good/effective in certain mediums however I think there’s other places we can still look where great work is being rewarded. On top of that, if i’m not mistaken most of those titaniums include pretty in depth case studies. As awful as it sounds without award shows I might not have the same access to find out about how campaigns like the zimbabwean, whopper sacrifice, greatest job in the world and the tap water project really came together. All amazing campaigns that had real results.

    Im not defending all award shows, still the majority of them don’t say much.

  18. Nobody August 7, 2009

    Egotist, if you think awards

    Egotist, if you think awards shows suck so much, why do you promote the hell out of local ones on this blog?

  19. Alan Wolk August 9, 2009

    Another thought, stolen from

    Another thought, stolen from Dave Trott, who’s won his fair share of awards over the years:

    Stop pretending that awards are about anything other than execution. Give out awards to the funniest TV commercial, the best-designed print ad, etc. Stop pretending that the work had any effect on sales or perception or anything else.

    No idea what effect that would have on the industry’s award show fixation, but at least it would be honest.

  20. Felix August 10, 2009

    Dear Nobody. As a contributor

    Dear Nobody. As a contributor to The Denver Egotist, my views are not always in line with the other Egotists. The Denver Egotist gives me a platform to speak my piece, and I take it. But if the blog at large wants to promote local awards, that’s not my call.

  21. Mark Trueblood August 10, 2009

    I used to subscribe to

    I used to subscribe to Archive, and pour over all the award show books. Over the past couple of years, I page through the “integrated” “interactive” and “design” categories and ignore everything else. 90% of my inspiration comes from outside of advertising.

    Scam ads, boob jokes, and visual origami puns just aren’t inspiring to me anymore.

    I’m not going to poo-poo award shows entirely because i think if they policed themselves better, and hired judges with different perspectives, they would be more valuable in rewarding real work that actually communicates to the target.

  22. Sean Smith August 10, 2009

    you forgot #6. Pay a ton of

    you forgot #6. Pay a ton of money for :30 of a real famous pop/rock song that has nothing to do with your product…hey at least all that money might get you backstage without resorting to the old school way to “Meet the band”

  23. Vic from Sell! Sell! August 11, 2009

    Well said! Our take on the

    Well said! Our take on the same subject…

  24. Brian W. August 12, 2009

    great timing and a spirited

    great timing and a spirited debate.

    i for one have always thought awards shows were important. people have tracked effectiveness in award winning work. and found that most work that wins awards is, indeed, successful. check out donald gunn.

    as far as the denver 50 is concerned, i think the main problem is that more agencies need to enter it. the third year is coming up. we’re about to launch the show. do you guys really not see 50 cool ideas coming out of this market? there’re here. but we can’t show them if they’re not entered.

    so buck up and enter your work.. just as soon as we finish the call for entires…

  25. Woody Hinkle August 16, 2009

    Sorry to come to this so

    Sorry to come to this so late, but this is perfect, perfect, perfect. Too many creatives think their primary target audience is awards show judges.

  26. Doug August 28, 2009

    Leave “effectiveness” out of

    Leave “effectiveness” out of it. Effective campaigns already come with their own financial rewards. I am much more interested in awarding those who, despite the pressure of the bottom line, manage to momentarily lessen the continuous assault of crass profiteering we’re subjected to on a minute-by-minute basis, and make the world a little more pleasant. You don’t deserve an award for a campaign just because it’s effective – that’s just called doing your job. You deserve an award if you go beyond the scope of your job and do something that has benefit to people who aren’t signing your checks. There’s already a strong enough financial incentive to do well at your job. Let’s keep the awards as an incentive to do good.

  27. Al September 3, 2009

    While I’ve won a fair number

    While I’ve won a fair number of awards, the work I’m proudest of never won a damn thing – I suspect because it was just too unusual. I think it’s partly about the judges: you don’t get to be one until you’ve won loads of awards, so any new judge can’t help thinking that what deserves to win awards should be similar in taste to what he/she has already won awards for. Also, it must be fairly intimidating being the new judge on the panel: are you really going to buck the prevailing trend – with all the pressure of these hugely respected creative legends sitting next to you?

  28. tm September 4, 2009
    the only award
    the only award out there that awards ideas that actually worked

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