Aug 15, 2007

Tricks Of The Trade

A friend of mine got an ad into CA yesterday, and while I was glad for him (it was a nice ad) I have to admit that my first thought was “CA? Are they still around?”

Award shows fall in and out of fashion as the industry changes. CA and the One Show, the West and East coast stalwarts of the 1980s and 90s (respectively) never really adapted to the digital age and thus started to become less relevant. Meanwhile Cannes, formerly a place for big agencies to show off their television work, has stepped into the limelight.

Why is that? Well, first and foremost, award shows are a business, not some sort of quasi-official ceremony. In other words, they rely on agencies paying money—lots of money—to enter their shows in hopes of winning. Look at the UK’s D&AD awards. After years of claiming exclusivity by fastidiously not granting pencils in categories where they felt none were deserved, they’ve sort of been hoisted on their own petard, as agencies started realizing “why are we paying them $10,000 in entry fees if we’re not going to get anything to show for it?” (Clients being notoriously unaware of the difference between a D&AD pencil and say, a Mobius.)

Cannes, to their credit, realized that if agencies were going to spend money on award shows, and send their top creatives to judge them, the idea of an all-expenses paid vacation in the south of France was an especially effective lure. That, and they managed to get the digital and direct things right, thus drawing in a lot of top talent and top work from all areas. And the non-American location makes the whole thing seem decidedly “global.”

And speaking of Cannes, conversations with friends around the industry reveal that pretty much every agency came away from Cannes with the idea of replicating Saatchi New York’s success formula. (For those of you who missed it, Saatchi’s CD, Tony Granger, got their P&G clients to run and (allegedly) pay for a series of ads that were created expressly for Cannes. So while an unusual print campaign for Tide won the Grand Prix, consumers (or the vast majority of them, anyway) never actually saw it.

Now this reminds me of nothing so much as “Fallon Syndrome” in the late 80s and early 90s, where every big agency and junior team went out to try and find a barber shop or hot dog stand they could do ads for, in the hope of replicating the success of such Fallon classics as “A Bad Haircut Can Make Anyone Look Dumb.” (accompanied by a stock photo of Einstein.) A similar strain, “Martin Syndrome” had everyone looking for small quirky museums in need of free advertising.

This is just as dumb an idea today as it was 15 years ago. First off, great work is never easy to pull off, regardless of how many restrictions you remove. But more importantly, as agencies learned to their chagrin back in 1991 or so, if everyone is entering their ad for a barber shop into the One Show, your chances of winning get exponentially smaller.

So what to do? Well how about changing the rules. I mean Saatchi didn’t officially cheat, but come on—what they did certainly wasn’t in the spirit of the rules. Why not change the rules to require that in order to be entered in certain categories, a campaign has to represent a certain percentage of a brands' yearly spending*. Or some other device that prevents agencies from creating campaigns for awards shows.

Letting clients pay for ads that are created for award shows is truly counterproductive. All it does is reinforce the notion that creativity is a precious little indulgence that’s okay for award shows, but that “real” advertising is something completely different.

And that’s just dangerous.

*This is just an off-the-cuff suggestion—please refrain from stating why it makes no sense. Suffice it to say I’m sure it doesn’t.

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