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.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing