Is it the end for advertising awards?

Publicis recently announced that they will not participate in any awards schemes for the next 12 months, with the intention of redirecting the considerable investment entailed into the development of their robot Marcel. Regardless of Marcel’s potential, are they right to be foregoing the chance to bask in the glory of ad-land’s most prestigious prizes? Will a year of exploration of the benefits of Artificial Intelligence be commensurate with the advantages that a few Lions and Pencils can bestow?

Answering this demands a brief assessment of the value of awards in the advertising industry. By its very nature it is an industry build on competition: agencies pitch for their clients’ accounts, multiple creative teams work on the same brief but only one route is chosen, ads compete for attention in crowded media channels and their messages for share of mind. The best ads will contribute to a brand ‘winning’ a consumer’s hard-earned cash and will be talked about in other agencies, in social media and at the water cooler. Do agencies really need to top such performance indicators with a piece of metalwork and an entry in a glossy book?

Surely the only advertising success that matters is, when referring back to the box on the creative which articulates the objectives, being able to say ‘yes, done’? Being able to prove that every penny invested in a campaign, in both production and media, has delivered back more, whether in hard financial terms or softer measures of brand value?

Objectively and commercially, those are what matters but actually awards are not just superfluous indulgences providing opportunities to schmooze and back-slap on yachts, and there are many arguments in support of them. And not all award schemes are the same - the value of some is more immediately obvious than of others.

For one thing they give exposure to clever, insightful and powerful work that may not have achieved great commercial success or widespread visibility, because those weren’t the intentions behind it. The criteria for entering awards are usually easily met, so if an agency can afford to enter them small but mighty ads that could otherwise have come and gone and left not a ripple can be seen by and stimulate a bigger audience and leave a more lasting legacy.

Challenging the industry to ever higher standards of creativity and engagement is another benefit of awards. It is easy to focus on the sector or market in which one works, but award schemes give exposure to ads from anywhere and offer otherwise unseen inspiration that cuts across borders and categories.

Those reasons are about exposure for work rather than the prize itself, but this too has some value. A clutch of awards is a shorthand way of demonstrating credentials to current and potential clients. An award for a campaign endorses not only that campaign but the skill of the client in signing off the work and choosing the agency in the first place. However strained a client/agency relationship might be the sharing of an award can reaffirm the bond (as can shared disgruntlement at the unfairness of NOT winning). And a multi-award winning agency, even if it can’t out-award other similarly garlanded agencies, at least can eat the same table and compete for the same business.

But really the main reason to enter awards and to count them with pride is because of their effect within an agency. They can shore up flagging morale, boost fragile egos, force timely reappraisal of the strengths of colleagues and generally provide validation that efforts are not vain, teams are not invisible and creativity and insight are not just means to ends but recognisable skills in their own right. An agency which has won many awards is a draw for future employees because it demonstrates to those individuals what they too could achieve and the calibre of people amongst whom they will be working.

That all said, the Publicis decision is one that should make us all think about awards more generally, as many agency groups now no doubt will. Not all awards are the same so we need to think carefully about which will deliver true and unique value to us if they’re won and which are just ornamental. And we should, as Publicis are doing, challenge the whole awards culture: they’re expensive to enter so are they fair if not everyone who deserves plaudits can afford it? Are there so many schemes that each individual award is becoming devalued and are clients becoming cynical…if everyone can pay up and a win a balloon will anyone still ultimately care about them? It’s a debate that will continue but one fact remains – fundamentally we all like winning and being recognised and in a vibrant and future-focused industry sometimes it’s just nice to be given a little pat on the back.