In this guest post, Paul Fishlock argues why adland’s most important awards show is like a malignant tumour.

This week, creative directors’ offices around the world are empty. Their occupants, who spend the rest of the year arguing that committees should never judge ads, have gone to the South of France to form committees to judge ads.

At this very moment, they may be deciding whether three Brazilian double page spreads for very sharp kitchen knives are more creative than a Singapore flash mob for global warming. They know little or nothing of what the campaigns aim to achieve, who they’re aimed at, where (or if) they ran and whether they were a triumph or a disaster. These are creative awards: beauty pageants of visible cleverness where snap subjectivity dictates hero or zero.

cannes lions 2012Amongst the many categories, there is now one called effectiveness (presumably to grow legitimacy as well as revenue). Trouble is you can only enter if you’ve already won a subjective prize – a wizard wheeze to show perfect alignment between gongs and ads that work.

None of this would be a problem if people in our industry – who really should know better – didn’t take creative prizes so damned seriously. They genuinely believe creative bling is a reliable currency of good and bad advertising and care deeply how this week on La Croisette will look on next week’s league tables of the (alleged) most creative people, agencies and networks on the planet.

In some ways the addiction is understandable. Creative awards have created a monster; at $1000+ an entry, a very profitable monster.

Salaries balloon on the number and colour of prizes won; insecure creative directors hire on the whims of distant juries above their own judgment; writers and art directors are promoted to management positions they are unsuited for and will soon hate; and, as collateral damage, another wave of wide-eyed juniors becomes convinced the only good ad is one that’s won a prize.

Don’t get me wrong, some truly inspiring creativity will be recognised this week – ideas we should all applaud and be humbled by. But self-indulgent nonsense will win exactly the same prizes and – despite the best intentions of the organisers, – shameless cheats will garner identical honours. All will stand shoulder to shoulder on the podium – the show ponies and charlatans devaluing the deserving winners as they do every year.

Call me old fashioned (you won’t be the first) but the people advertising really needs to impress are not in Cannes they’re in Campbelltown. Heresy though it sounds, sometimes the brilliant idea that will actually change people’s behaviour (the one we’re being paid to come up with) requires a large spoonful of ‘familiarity’ and ‘personal relevance’ over the myopic pursuit of novelty.

Three decades back, legendary adman, Dave Trott (advertising’s best blog if you haven’t seen it) was telling me and every other wannabe copywriter that “Our job is not to make people think what a great ad, it’s to make them think what a great product”. If you want to win cleverness prizes, focus on the former. If you want to earn your salary and build a sustainable career, I recommend the latter.

Next week, client inboxes around the world will ping with announcements of their agency’s latest triumphs and how they’re now ‘The fastest growing winner of digital yoghurt awards (non fruit) in western Asia Pacific’. For agencies that didn’t win a prize, there’s another circus somewhere in the world next month … and another the month after. If it’s true the value of an industry is inversely proportional to the number of awards it gives itself, advertising is the Zimbabwe dollar of business. Is there a creative person out there who’s not ‘multi-award-winning’? (I was.) Two finalists in the NSW Regional POS Awards qualifies.

I can rant all I like about how creative awards are advertising’s non-malignant tumour – they probably won’t kill you but you’d be better off without them – but they’re not going away. In tough financial times, heads are cut ahead of the awards budget. Networks who bleat about margins still find millions for entry fees, overseas junkets and to make and run pretend ads in the hope of bringing home a shiny doorstop.

So enjoy looking all the new and interesting ideas from around the world – the brilliant, the pretenders and the cheats. We can all learn from them. Just remember the gongs themselves are like judging footballers based on their photographs.

Winning no more bestows genius than not winning makes your career a failure. Also look for telltale signs of agencies putting the ideas that are best for their own business ahead of the ones that are best for their clients’ business. A glittering reception can be a dead giveaway.

Paul Fishlock was a (multi-award-winning!) founding partner of BMF and a former ECD/chairman of The Campaign Palace. He is now principal of new Sydney agency, Behaviour Change Partners.


  1. Me
    17 Jun 12
    7:53 am

  2. Paul in 2012 you built a website that requires flash? If you’re not part of the old guard then you have to act like the new guard or you are…?

    Agree with some points. But the fact is they mean a lot to clients Awards are a signifyer you are doing culturally relevant work (in an industry that’s hard to assess).


  3. Maria
    17 Jun 12
    3:49 pm

  4. Have you by any chance seen Peter Field’s research that proves inconclusively that award winning ads are also, in the main, significantly more effective. Is it wrong to pursue creativity? No-one would disagree that an ad needs to do a good job for the product it is advertising, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a great ad also.

  5. I wonder
    17 Jun 12
    4:07 pm

  6. Paul,

    As usual you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    As a client I could care less if my campaign is clever, witty or award winning. The same can be said for my agency.

    I want campaigns that work, if they work because they’re clever, witty or award winning all the better but correlation doesn’t imply causation.

    Perhaps in some years time Cannes will start with effectiveness as a key metric before a campaign can even be considered for creative excellence.

    I get the feeling locally it often starts with creativeness and then ‘how can we shoe horn this into something we can put on black cardboard for the client….”

    I often think back to the Old Spice campaign which in terms of creative was outstanding. My question is how much more Old Spice did it sell and was effective. I wonder.

  7. Michael Blumberg
    17 Jun 12
    4:59 pm

  8. Nothing beats an award winning Fishlock rant!

  9. Old Spice Guy
    17 Jun 12
    5:05 pm

  10. It sold heaps of Old Spice and did it’s job of making Old Spice relevant to a younger audience who thought Old Spice was just for old men.

  11. Monty Arnhold
    17 Jun 12
    5:34 pm

  12. Paul, eventually everyone who was an award-winning creative in their heyday comes to this conclusion. It’s called growing up.

  13. Wez
    17 Jun 12
    6:07 pm

  14. The client had to stop running the Old Spice ads because they were running out of product! That’s how effective they were. I’ve heard this from numerous sources. I like this article. Paul makes some valid points.

  15. fleshpeddler
    17 Jun 12
    8:00 pm

  16. absolutely agree Paul. the awards industry is self serving and anachronistic.

    Maria….did you mean to write ‘inconclusively’?

    If so, you’re right – I sat through Michael Conrad’s ‘creative advertising that works’ presentation a couple of times and it was almost embarrassing. Of course there are award winning ad campaigns that are highly effective….an Old Spice is clearly one of them, but let’s face it…there are hundreds of other award winners which don’t move a single box…..and I was responsible for a few of them in an earlier life

    good on you Paul

  17. ssm
    17 Jun 12
    8:18 pm

  18. As a client, can I just add this. I dont give a crap about the colour or number of awards you possess.

    The best advertising is the one that moves my product off the shelves.

    The rest is all pants.

  19. jam jar
    18 Jun 12
    8:34 am

  20. Quite a well written piece…. From working in a number of agencies, I do think creatives get a bit obsessive about winning awards with concern about what works for the client being secondary. At the end of there day awards are great but mean nothing to people outside a small select number in the advertising industry.

  21. Rees
    18 Jun 12
    10:55 am

  22. Paul,
    A very honest a brave piece. I commend you. You are not alone in your views, however it is a very difficult battle to fight due to some of the reasons you have listed – salaries and promotions linked directly to metal.

  23. Em
    18 Jun 12
    11:28 am

  24. Hear Hear! Very well said. Thank you!

  25. bob is a rabbit
    18 Jun 12
    12:00 pm

  26. Agree whole-heartedly Paul. Nothing truer ever said about the awards machine.

  27. Rushdie
    18 Jun 12
    12:55 pm

  28. Most industries have awards. It’s a bit of glamour – so what? It’s hugely hypercritical of Fishlock to trash the system because he has no need for it in his current business plan.The real problem arises when recruiters start asking for your award list as part of the shortlisting process. On Hartas and Craig’s site today virtually every copywriter role mentions awards.

  29. Seahorses
    18 Jun 12
    1:57 pm

  30. Uhr, the article actually compared the awards to “a non-malignant tumour” (third-from-last paragraph) – but the opening paragraph says malignant tumour, which obviously changes the context and severity in a horrible way (and comparing an ad awards thing to cancer in the headline, because of misreading the actual guest post, is dreadful).

  31. Mez
    18 Jun 12
    3:58 pm

  32. Love it, love it, love it!!

    I nearly fell off my chair to hear that (gulp) a creative, values the bloke in Parra over the glams in Cannes.

    So refreshing to hear: get back to thinking about the primary objective: changing consumer behaviour, not making a pretty ad. If we’re able to do both: abso-bloody-lutely fantastic, and that means we’ve obviously hit a home run. But let’s not forget that a pretty ad that doesn’t change consumer behaviour means we haven’t done our job.

  33. Archie
    18 Jun 12
    6:43 pm

  34. as a client i couldn’t give a rat’s about creativity and i think Canne awards are often a joke and those who brag about them, muppets

  35. Sigh....
    18 Jun 12
    11:31 pm

  36. Clients want breakthrough work. Agencies worth their salt, want to do things that are breakthrough.

    Breakthrough work requires doing something that hasn’t been done before. A lot gets done. We get accused of plagiarism if we copy something from yesteryear.

    So if that breakthrough work happens to go on and win awards, so freaking what?

    Agree about scam, which Paul’s mentioned ever so subtly. But genuine ground breaking work should be awarded, and for the most part, it is. Work that nobody saw – whether breakthrough or not – shouldn’t be.

    But I think even Paul would agree, that’s down to clients, media budgets and how they want to play things.

    Most creatives couldn’t give a shit about getting awarded, they just want to do good work. Problem is, good work gets awards.

    So the argument is… we shouldn’t be doing good work?

  37. Breakthrough?
    19 Jun 12
    8:45 am

  38. Dear Sigh, many clients don’t want or need ‘breakthrough’ work – they simply want work that works. Often, what works best is just doing the obvious well. For many clients, the breakthrough would be getting their agency to understand that.

  39. Archie
    19 Jun 12
    10:23 am

  40. @Sigh clients don’t care about breakthrough work

    cut-through yes.

  41. Andrew
    20 Jun 12
    10:24 am

  42. To the people citing Old Spice – Wieden is one of the exceptions.

    They don’t play the awards game. They set out to do what they think is best for the client – they happen to believe in cut through creativity. The award is a by product not the sole intent.

    You don’t keep clients in America, especially for huge companies like P&G in this case, by doing ads that don’t work.

    There’s no global alignment keeping them there like there is in Australia.

    It’s the agencies that churn out ads without care for clients then spend all their energy on proactive/fake ads that are the problem.

    A bigger problem still – a creative has no $ or career incentive to do work that sells.

  43. Careful...
    21 Jun 12
    11:00 am

  44. Effectiveness? Of course ‘yes please’. But let’s not trash the system completely. Awards inspire some incredibly important milestones in craft, innovation as well as identifying both client and audience behaviour.

    In a sense, award shows to advertising are what military budgets are to the defense industry. They develop technology, they identify target audiences and, by their inspiration, they keep some clients ahead of their competition in the theatre of retail.

    Otherwise, we’d all still be salivating ‘Lamb vs Spinach’ ads from the 90s.

    Peace, out.