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“You’re in the great game now…”

Adweek published a story asking the big winners at Cannes 2016 what their “secrets to success” were. You could read the article here or just stay with me and I’ll tell you how to win at Cannes. Forget analysis and trendspotting. Don’t be mystified by all the never-ending categories either. Winning at Cannes has more or less relied on the same formula for years.

First and foremost, do great work. Then get it seen and talked about. This one-two punch, by the way, is the same formula for ANY awards show.

Ideally, at least some of your great work should be real. Real means it went through the gauntlet known as your client (not to mention your agency’s often debilitating process) was brilliantly produced, ran in genuine media, and received boffo results.

Enter the shit out of it.

But, dear friends, you know as well as I do, that it doesn’t end there.

Long ago intrepid creatives learned how to game the system. At first simple cheating, what this looks like now is far more, shall we say, ornate. Boiled down it means mimicking the legitimate. Something like this: Create gorgeous work, share it with select others internally, maybe have a friendly client smile at it wistfully, then run it on your own dime somewhere cost efficient or, even free, like posters at the local coffee shop or via some innocuous website. Take a bunch of pictures of it “in situation,” make a case study video and voila: you have award show bait!

Enter the shit out of it.

Professional winners have huge budgets for entering shows and a complicit team doing it. Mixing in fake campaigns with real creates a juggernaut that is hard to untangle. A few real pieces win; a few scams. Who knows which is which? Who cares – the agency clearly does good work.

Be part of a network that knows all the ins and outs. Networks have a regular, sustained presence and they will massage the process to help you win. Networks know people in high places. Networks get judges into shows. Networks have wags who do interviews, predictions and the like i.e. Global Creative Directors. Networks do PR. Networks spend money.

Gaming the system has become the system. Varying degrees of corruption are tolerated for the greater good. A few unfortunates get caught and thrown to the –ahem- lions. The rest is the rest. If it looks like a winner and comes from a winner then, by golly, it is a winner!

The agencies that won the most at Cannes do all of the above, legitimately and otherwise. Been this way for years.

DDB chief blows smoke at Cannes…

Amir Kassaei is the Chief Creative Officer of DDB Worldwide, one of the shinier jewels in Omnicom’s empire of advertising and marketing services companies. Like a lot of creative generals, he spent last week in Cannes taking part in the International Advertising Festival, which, to replay the metaphor, is by far the shiniest jewel in the ever growing necklace of advertising award shows.

Mr Kassaei, perhaps flush with Rose’, also found time to go on record with some provocative accusations and opinions regarding the integrity of the juries at Cannes. He more or less states that certain jurors have a clear mandate to “kill off” competing work, regardless of its quality, if said work emanates from a competing agency. He claims this mandate is at the holding company level. This corruption does not sit well with Kassaei and he goes on record saying that they (DDB) need to have a “serious discussion” about participating in future Cannes if the behavior continues. Paraphrasing the creative director, he claims other less creative minded agencies are willfully endeavoring to “buy” their creative reputations by rigging juries. There’s plenty of texture to his arguments and I urge you to watch the video, even if his sipping of wine and the passing by of beach traffic grates.

As I tweeted earlier, my reaction to this is a cross between “WTF?” and “Duh!” On the one hand I’m appalled by Kassaei’s allegations. Like it or not, creative reputations are made by winning Lions at Cannes. To know that these prestigious trophies can be bought is repellant. What is more sad are all the legitimate submitters who may have lost out on their one shot at gold because of wheeling and dealing behind closed doors. But let’s not be naïve. We’ve known about these shenanigans for a long time. Indeed, when I judged the Dubai Lynx (the Cannes of the Middle East), I saw it first hand. I blogged that “all the good work was fake and all the real work was awful.” Understandably, that blog caused fervor and I was asked to remove it. Reluctantly, I did.  Needless to say, I won’t be invited back to judge this festival anytime soon.

While creating and entering scam ads is an entirely different form of awards show corruption, and a pervasive one at that, knowing that judges and juries are culpable takes it to whole ‘nother level. Corroborating Kassaie’s accusations, here’s basically how it works. Through back channels and PR manipulation, agencies vie to get their creative superstars on juries. Once these individuals are confirmed, they are then sequestered to look at all the work coming from the various agencies within their network. They are then asked to vote, if at all possible, on these submissions. Since that is generally not allowed the next best move is to try and vote out the competition, which is a process that cannot really be monitored. And so it goes.

While I’d like to think my peers and I would never do such things a kind of nationalistic fervor happens in those darkened jury rooms, not unlike the ugly pride one sees during international soccer tournaments. Fouls and transgressions happen and they feed a growing fire. The urge to win Lions takes over. In the name of their agencies and even countries, good men do bad things.

The football analogy is apt. FIFA is constantly embroiled in corruption controversy, to say nothing of its countless dumbass fans degrading themselves in the name of competition. In America, the New Orleans Saints are currently dealing with charges of “head hunting” on the football field. And like the manufacture of false great ads (scams), athletes from all sports are being busted regularly for taking steroids and other illegal enhancement drugs. Corruption at all levels.

Yet, unlike professional sports, the general public (except maybe in Brazil) doesn’t give a shit about advertising awards. Relatively speaking, the media attention is minimal. Therefore, corruption buds like unchecked dandelions. And if the governing bodies of big time award shows are complicit, then you have zero integrity. Which is exactly what Amir Kassaei is suggesting.


“Of course they’re real…Real good!”

The new year is more or less the beginning of awards season in Adland, when all the advertising, digital and design shops gather their best work from 2011 and decide which pieces to enter into what shows. Internal lists are made. Arguments had. Egos tested. Each agency has a different process (and budget) but essentially the routine is similar: someone from the creative administration staff meets with the Chief Creative Officer and goes through the litter. This is not always a pleasant task. The CCO invariably wants to enter more things into more shows than the agency deems possible. In fact, some agencies have massive budgets for these things while many don’t have any money at all. Beseeching the CEO to free up cash is not uncommon.

There is also the matter of fake or “scam ads.” These belong in two camps: 1) Unreal ads for existing clients and 2) Unreal ads for unreal clients. Either way, they are fakes. The pressure to win awards (both imagined and real) is great enough that even creative people with good reputations fall victim to allowing (or downright demanding) that work be created specifically for the purpose of winning prizes. To indemnify themselves, agencies may place scam pieces on late night TV or in obscure publications that charge next to nothing. I have turned this trick myself. Many agencies, especially in emerging markets, do not even bother doing that. In parts of Asia and Latin America, creative directors are considered celebrities of sorts. These rock stars need hits to keep their status and paychecks. Fake ads abound.

I once judged an international awards show where just about every ad on the shortlist was a fake. I was incredulous. Yet, the Chief Juror as well as the show’s promoters muzzled my attempts (and others) from calling out these phonies. Doing so would have wrecked the show, which was a lucrative enterprise. Even fake ads pay admission fees. Besides, the real ads were mostly crap. Choosing from them would have been dismal. In the end, we all became complicit.

Over the last few years, award shows have taken steps (albeit reluctantly) to stymie fake ads. Angry Tweeters and bloggers have made it too risky to give big prizes to big frauds. Still, it is easy to circumvent these systems and fake ads propagate like weeds. Scapegoats are made of one or two and a hundred more slip through the cracks.

One of the greater ironies is that fake ads are easy to spot. Any seasoned creative person knows that a small toy company in Brazil does not do advertising, let alone spreads. And if they did advertise they wouldn’t have approved these ads. Not with that tiny logo at the bottom and no copy or contact information. (Let alone the edgy or poetic concept.)


Edgy concept + Spread + Tiny logo + No copy = Scam

The higher profile scams can be more difficult to spot. In some cases the client has given tacit approval for the piece’s creation but in no way uses it in any of their real marketing plans. In other cases (the most delicate forgeries and the most common), the real ads have been “cleaned up” for awards shows, meaning the logos were shrunk and concessions to retail eliminated. It’s just like touching up a model. I’ve been a party to this. Honestly, I don’t know a creative director who hasn’t. Doctoring the results form is also an issue. Whether facelifts and trumped up credentials constitute scam ads or not (arguments can me made either way) they are like gateway drugs leading the user to trying ever more duplicitous tactics.

I don’t have a solution. At times, I’m not sure one is even needed. Maybe awards shows are just fine being corrupt little fantasies: free booze, networking and a floorshow! Social media pushes good ‘real’ advertising all over the globe anyway. These days publicity for exemplary work happens regardless of awards shows.

Sigh. An App for awards shows.


Deemed most effective…


Deemed most creative…

Have a look at the “most effective” print ads of 2010, as determined by GFK MRI Starch Communications, a specialist in print-advertising research. According to a report by Michal Galin in AdAge, Starch looked at nearly 90,000 print pieces in order to find the work “that did the best job of moving consumers, as a result of seeing the ad, toward purchase.”

Now look at the award winners for the 2010 Magazine Publishers of America (MPA) Kelly Awards for best magazine campaigns in terms of “creative excellence and campaign results;” a show, by the way, that I helped judge.

There is not one ad that appears on both scorecards. Not one. If I were a reporter my inclination would be to ask: what gives? If “results” are a primary category in both situations then shouldn’t there be considerable overlap?

But I’m not a reporter; I’m a copywriter and creative director blogging about a subject near and dear to my heart. And I wouldn’t ask such a question (at least not sincerely) because I already know the answer. For better or for worse, creative excellence and marketing results have little in common, at least when it comes to CPG and other big categories. The decisive results of these two shows are indicative of a decades-old reality that creativity and results are as different as Republicans and Democrats. This reality is by no means limited to print advertising but exists for all forms in all channels. And it always has. Always.

While creative awards shows have tried to add results as part of the judging criteria, it amounts to little more than lip service. We, and I speak for the vast majority of the creative community, just don’t like making or giving prizes to time tested, research driven advertising campaigns. We ding the work almost as soon as we see it. Why? Just review the slide show from the Starch test. In terms of aesthetics, most of those ads suck, featuring uninspired headlines and huge pictures of people and products. By every creative measure, they fail at surprising and delighting us, at breaking new ground.

On the other hand, the Kelly award winners show a high level of craft, defined by concept, writing and art direction. They are beautiful. They are stunning. And, in their own way, they have probably demonstrated solid results. But according the Starch, they are not the best at driving results.

If this is news to anyone they are either rookies or living under a rock. As I already noted, the dissonance between creativity and selling has been a back and forth argument for eons. There is no easy solution. Obviously, agencies try and ‘do both’ but in the end we either tend to make work that errs on the side of creativity or we push for salesmanship at the expense of aesthetics. Nothing sums it up like the old saw: Make the logo bigger!

And there are those of us who do fake ads to try and win awards because the real ads we make appease only our hack bosses and clients. This is a dangerous attitude and demeanor and I don’t recommend it.

Ironically, I worked on campaigns appearing on both lists. Not sure what that means but at least I’m not predictable.


“Asia” for Fed Ex, DDB Brazil, Sao Paulo

Per usual, a great many short-listed adverts in the press and poster categories in Cannes are driven by their visuals. Assume similar for films. This has come to be expected; after all, it’s an international festival. Words are not the same everywhere. Not only is translating copy an imperfect means of determining its exact meaning (wordplay hardly ever comes across) but, let’s be honest, judges are impatient to do so. Jet lagged and jaded from hundreds of submissions, how can we expect each and every judge to take the necessary time to read the provided –often flawed- translations? It’s not fair –to them and the submitting agencies.

President and co-chief creative officer of the Martin Agency, Mike Hughes wrote an excellent article last week in Ad Age entitled, “Why Judging for International Awards Shows is Broken.”

Mike Hughes in AdAge

In it, he writes: “I confess that I often can’t even tell how good the craftsmanship is on many foreign pieces of work. How do I know if the writing’s sharp or if the use of local idioms is relevant when all I’ve got is a translation?”

But here we are and that’s the way it’s done. That said, pictures –be they illustration or photography- do translate across cultural divides. While aspects of the concept may yet be indigenous to a given population, and alien to others, an image fares infinitely better at being interpreted correctly than a piece of copy. Goes without saying, doesn’t it? Which is why so many of the submissions to Cannes also go without saying. (Point in fact there is little chance my hopefully clever double usage of the phrase “goes without saying” would ever come across translated in 17 different languages.)

And so we “see” more and more visually stunning ads in Cannes than we do copy-driven work. Maybe this isn’t so bad? Maybe it’s indicative of our shrinking world, whereby people from all walks of life are juxtaposed more than ever. The advent of social media has only turned up the heat. It’s like the melting pot at full boil.

In addition, for better or worse, I’d argue we are becoming an ever more visually driven world. Instead of all learning a common vocabulary we are increasingly reliant on images to communicate. This was said when TV first entered our lives, changing them forever. And it has only become more so.

As a wordsmith, I suppose I find the continuing transformation bittersweet. Watching communication be whittled down to 140 characters on Twitter or brief updates on Facebook can be disheartening.

On the other hand, it’s not like I don’t appreciate the changes either. Hell, I’m a part of them. I now use words to create images. I write stories (advertising and fiction), seeing the narratives in my head. Frankly, I started doing this a long time ago. Truth be told, agents and editors were quick to criticize my two books, The Last Generation and The Happy Soul Industry as being more like screenplays than novels. Younger people, however, appreciated them for precisely the same reason.

And so it goes at Cannes. The new breed of marketing communications is quicker: mobile technology, Apps, links, shared video, posters and design. A picture is truly worth a 1,000 words. Or millions of dollars, like this short-listed poster for the Illinois Lottery from Chicago’s own Energy BBDO.

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