Did we forget it's advertising, not art?

During my career, I’ve been lucky enough to judge some award shows. It’s an amazing experience to sit in a room of your peers and watch as work rises to the top in an industry with an output that is judged subjectively, like music or film. The problem is, advertising is not music or film. Sure, ads might be films with beautifully scored music, but what we make is meant to serve a purpose beyond itself. Art is the product in the entertainment industry, but in advertising, we’re not selling art. We’re selling our clients’ products and services.

For a while, I thought I was naïve. No one else seemed to mind that nearly every category of nearly every advertising award show is devoid of results. In fact, results are so rarely necessary that special separate categories – or even separate award shows - are created just for effectiveness. But even those seem to be half-heartedly prioritizing results.

I get it. It can be incredibly difficult or, dare I say, occasionally impossible to unpack the impact a piece of advertising had on brand perception, purchase intent, sales, etc. Sometimes these results can take more time to emerge than the traditional awards show eligibility cycle. Sometimes it’s impossible to tell which piece of work had what impact when it was all in market at once. But judging advertising on creativity for creativity’s sake is ridiculous, ego-driven behavior that does a disservice to clients and the industry we work in. It’s might not ever go away. But its place in the industry needs to be minimized.

Let me give you an example. I’m sitting in a room watching a twenty-minute short film for a brand. It’s not for a craft-specific category (which is a whole different topic for another day.) What questions go through my mind? Do I love this film? How much did this cost? Was this an effective use of the client’s money? What business problem did this film set out to solve? Was a long-form film the best solution for that business problem? How well did the film sell the thing it was meant to be advertising? You get the idea.

Without any of that information, how can I or anyone else say it’s worthy of a gold anything? In fact, that beautiful and touching 20-minute film might be a particularly egregious example of our industry gone wrong. A $6 million-dollar bet backed by $20 million in media that was so unlinked to what the company does that it didn’t do a damn thing for the company that paid the agency to make it. Or maybe it was an incredibly effective way to drive sales and change brand perception. I don’t know. But the fact that it doesn’t matter whether it did or not in the context of an advertising awards show— or let’s be honest, the entire industry most of the time—is a problem.

Don’t take this to mean that I don’t believe in the power of creativity. I do. I was lucky enough to be part of a team that created and launched Emoji Ordering for Domino’s, an idea that won the Titanium Grand Prix at Cannes. But that’s not the reason I’m proud of the idea. I’m proud of the idea because of the impact it had on Domino’s business. A Titanium Grand Prix is just the icing on the cake.

I’ve been a bit hard on advertising awards shows here, but the truth is they are not the problem. They are a symptom of the problem. Award shows reflect what a huge portion of the advertising industry cares about, and how it judges the work it creates. I also know there are a ton of smart people at awards shows and agency offices that try to judge advertising by its results or the business impact it will have. I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of them. But the system will never correct itself if it’s not called out for what it is.

All awards show categories should require some form of results or at the very least an explanation of the business situation or problem that the work hopes to solve. Maybe it should be required for a client to say a piece of work helped their business to even be entered. Of course, awards shows are a business, and they aren’t going to make it harder to enter. But if more people start judging work based on its creativity and business impact, then more work that accomplishes both will win. And if that kind of work starts to win, that’s the kind of work more agencies and creatives, especially the next generation jumping into the industry, will set out to make. And that would be a good thing for everyone.

Matt Talbot is partner and creative at WorkInProgress

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