I attended my first RACIE AWARDS, as part of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association (RAMA) conference in San Francisco.

For those unawares, here’s the dope on RAMA:

The Retail Advertising Marketing Association (RAMA), a division of the National Retail Federation, provides unique networking opportunities, industry research and educational programming for retail advertising and marketing professionals.

The RACIES take place amidst two days of presentations and round-tables, featuring key players in the marketing world. I attended several sessions and, not surprisingly, the buzz was all about social media. But this post is about the awards show.

In many ways, the RACIES are like every other advertising awards show. It celebrates creative excellence and effectiveness in all marketing channels: TV, print, outdoor, digital, etc. But here’s the kicker, and it’s what I want to focus on: The vast majority of my peers in the creative community could care less. The RACIES are considered a tier 3 awards show, if they are considered at all. Even the EFFIES get more play. In fact, I was one of the few agency creative directors in attendance.

Why? For one thing, there are plenty of award shows. Perhaps the RACIES are viewed as an interloper. The name sure sucks. But I’m suggesting there’s more to it than that. Like a lot of biases, ours is probably based on certain preconceived notions developed over time. The creative community has their pets. We worship at the altar of Cannes Gold Lions, Andy Heads and One Show Pencils, to name a few. Specialty shows like the Obies (outdoor) and Kelly Awards (print) also hold serve. And rightly so. All controversies aside, these shows generally feature the best work being done in our industry. They are counted in the infamous Gunn Report.

The RACIES aren’t there yet. From what I saw, the winning work was a mixed bag of genius and not so much, and it appeared to come from only a handful of agencies. For example, all the radio finalists were from DeVito Verdi in New York. A fine shop, to be sure, but I got the impression the only one of consequence entering work in this difficult category.

If the RACIES are dubiously viewed and attended by the creative community the opposite is true regarding attendance from heavy breathers on the client side. By their own admission, “RAMA’s Board of Directors is comprised of more than 50 industry CMOs, partners and supporters.” And guess what? They were all there, along with brand managers and account directors, too many to name.

Forgive the cliché, but finding CMO’s at the RACIES was like shooting fish in a barrel. I was giddy at the prospect of meeting and greeting so many potential “patrons.” And with nary a creative director in the room, it was like I had them to myself. In fact, I managed several terrific conversations with men and woman who, if the Gods of Advertising be willing, might some day be my clients. Contrast that with the other more “popular” award shows; where everyone I meet is just like me: a copywriter, art director and/or creative director. Nothing wrong with those, but I can’t deny the thrill of talking with potential clients versus my competition.

Creative people bitch about being insulated from client contact and kept away from decision makers. Yet, here’s a venue where all that existed, replete with an awards show, and only a smattering of advertising creative people anywhere to be found.

We’re missing out, folks. And part of the reason is our own hubris. We –the advertising creative community- think we’re too good for shows like the RACIES. (Yes, I am speaking for all of us.) Perhaps we need to let go of some old, snobby ideas. The One Show is great for finding inspiration and talent. But clients don’t go, nor do they read the annual. Given a choice, wouldn’t you like to compete and win in front of over 50 CMO’s as opposed to just your peers?

I know I would.

Yes, Cannes is finally attracting key players from the client side. But not the other award shows. Not really. Besides, for most agencies, North America is our prime hunting grounds. Don’t take this wrong, but maybe we should be in front of the fish and not crawling up our own asses.

For the record, my agency, Euro RSCG Chicago won three awards at the RACIES: a bronze for Valspar paint, a silver for Pivot Boutique, and a Gold for Potbelly. For all the winners and more information, click on the following links:


RAMA Website

Follow me on Twitter

Still haven\'t read my novel?

I was honored to judge the Philadelphia ADDY Awards this weekend. While I did not get to see much of the city I did view a mess of advertising and assorted marketing communications. As is usually the case, this show had a few remarkable pieces, some that were god-awful and lots in between. As far as the winners are concerned, I took a vow of secrecy. I will say the judges were fair and fairly unanimous. The hot category was multi-media, with several fine examples of guerilla and experiential work. Numerous high marks given there.

Refreshingly, I saw no dubious work i.e. potential scam ads. That’s saying something. Indeed, I heard the ‘radio’ we’d just judged in a cab and saw various billboards that were in the show on the highway. In other words: IT WAS REAL! Kudos to the Philadelphia advertising community for their integrity and to Alan Tempest of the Philly Ad Club for putting on such a solid, straight show. The PAC should also be commended for assembling a diverse panel of judges. Of five, three were black. I wish I didn’t have to write how unusual that is.

I’m always amazed by the amount of mundane work that gets submitted to advertising award shows. Here was no exception. For example, we saw many TV commercials featuring little more than a voiceover reading strategy over pictures of the product. No concept. Zip. I realize the world is full of such advertisements. But in an awards show? This I don’t get. Why would an agency or client submit work (paying entry fees and filling out forms) that has absolutely no chance of winning a prize? Every creative director knows the criteria for award-winning material, even if they don’t produce much of it themselves. Don’t get me wrong. Doing so-so work isn’t a crime and neither is entering it into an awards show. It’s just dumb. Yet, I’ve never judged a show (local, regional, national and even global) where the vast majority of entered material wasn’t mediocre.

My agency does plenty of work that isn’t outrageous or remarkable. (I’m not apologizing for it; I’m just being honest.) But because of knowable, rigorous standards in judging criteria, we don’t enter it into awards shows. There is a vetting process. We do not want to waste money or embarrass ourselves. When determining entries, we look at our work with hypercritical eyes. We make many kills.

Therefore, when I see an ad entered into competition that features stock images of people shaking hands or staring into their computers accompanied by copy about “state-of-the-art business solutions,” I say loudly and profoundly: What were they thinking?

Follow me on Twitter

Order my novel on Amazon

Three scam ads, conspicuously void of copy.

In the still-breaking wake of the Brazilian scam-ad fiasco I detect a story that is bound to amuse half the population of the creative department and enrage the other.

When it comes to making scam ads I think art directors are guiltier than copywriters. Easy for a copywriter to say, I know. But let’s look at the evidence, which while circumstantial, is still pretty damning. We need only go as far as the nefarious 9/11 ad.

Evil scam in more ways than one

The art direction is stunning while the concept and copy are not. These truths are self-evident: the photograph, the retouching. Even the work’s many, many detractors agree: the ad looks great.

But it’s the ad’s contempt for copy, branding and readability that make it so incriminating to the art department. You can’t read the copy and when you do it’s bad. The tiny WWF logo is about the only thing linking the work to its benefactor. In this case a mercy but the general point remains: the copy has been marginalized to the point of being virtually irrelevant.

As a copywriter, creative director, awards show judge… I see this over and over and over again. And while everyone associated with the ad is culpable, in the end the art director owns the crime.

Is this a gross generalization? Of course. But when you look at the vast majority of award-winning scam ads (and I’ve seen hundreds) they are almost all strong visually. Unless the concept is copy driven, a so-called “headline campaign,” the text (usually one sentence) is down or up and away in the ad, often set in unreadable 8 or 10-point type.

Why? You’ve heard the reasons: 1) nobody reads copy 2) copy makes work “adsy” 3) award-show judges deduct points for work that’s “adsy.” You can refute or debate these reasons but you cannot deny they aren’t real. Even if it’s subconscious, art directors feel their creation is violated by copy.

A majority of art directors study fine art, be it painting, design, photography or filmmaking. Then maybe they go to ad school. By the time an AD gets real work, he possesses an artistic sensibility. Deep down the commercialization of his ideas will always frustrate him.

While many copywriters study literature, they are less inclined to carry its ideals with them into our profession. Copywriting is more clearly a vocation than art direction. We are more comfortable calling ourselves salesmen than art directors. That’s my opinion.

What might be less obvious is the hidden power art directors have in the creation of work. Copywriters are often given credit for an ad’s conception but the art directors deliver the baby. They are the last person to touch the work. Like no one else, they control how an ad enters the world. And how it enters awards shows.

Art directors shrink the type. Art directors make the logo smaller. Art directors accept copy like the mandatory it is. They are bred to make ads beautiful. The temptation to “clean and polish” an ad before submitting it to any given award show gets the better of them. Scam ads happen.

Readers- Take above with a grain of salt. This isn’t the Mitchell Report. I was merely looking for a provocative and fresh angle in which to talk about our industry. Besides, I’ve got nothing against art directors. Some of my best friends are art directors.

Steff on Twitter

How could they?

For obvious reasons, this mind-bogglingly crass “ad” for the World Wildlife Federation is getting a ton of play. The trades gave it Crispin Porter like attention, as are we in the blogosphere.

That this piece is so clearly a scam ad is beside the point. In five minutes I could pull up a hundred more just as fake. We all could. Scam ads have become the dandelions of our industry. We almost put up with them. Indeed, some of us even adore them. How else do you explain the awards they invariably get, year after year, show after show?

But not this one. This particular artifact, allegedly from DDB Brazil, has too terrible a subject matter for most of us to bear. Using blatant imagery from 9/11 is wildly inappropriate and probably (hopefully) won’t be for decades, if ever. Only the Holocaust compares.

However, I suspect it is not merely the content that riles and disturbs us but rather the way in which it was used. Nature, for all her power is not, and never will be, a murderer. Comparing the arbitrary horror of a tsunami with the man made malevolence of September 11, 2001 is…

Horrendous? Ridiculous? Absurd?

All I can say is what were they thinking? I came up with a startling conclusion: this “ad” was not created to win awards any more than it was made to build awareness for the WWF. I believe the creators made this thing to get attention. For who and why I’m not sure. But they knew it would blow up. And they knew it would blow up in September. They knew.

And for that the perpetrators are guilty of far more than scamming.

Hold on… terrorists? No, not quite. More like hate criminals.

Having proposed this theory, I don’t believe DDB (or any real agency) was responsible for condoning something like this. I’m guessing a handful of morons did it –maybe even just one or two, “acting alone,” as they say.

Of course the perpetrators will be fired…that is if they even have jobs in the first place. I suspect they don’t. Perhaps they were trying to get back at the agency for harms done to them.

So, was this scam ad a hoax? The only other explanation would be to attribute complete ignorance on the part of the creators, which, all cynicism aside, I’m having trouble accepting.

Either way, the “ad” made Keith Olbermann’s “Worst persons in the World” list, in which he actually names numerous creative staff from the agency.

\"Worst persons in the World\"

Update: Adfreak has a post featuring a series of vague explanations and partial apologies, which seem to render both agency and client culpable. I still think it was mad men acting alone!

Adfreak post: Mea culpa or mystery?

Steff on Twitter


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,476 other followers