On Advertising Creativity and Creative Awards

This is not the award for 'nicest-looking shots'
It's for hitting the ball the least number of times.

I have a problem with the advertising creative awards.
I admit it.
I don't like 'em.
In fact, I think they're having a negative effect on the advertising business (and by that I include everything - what you might call traditional, digital, everything).
Now, I like the idea of awards, I think that rewarding excellence is a good thing.
It can only encourage people to strive to do better, right?
So why do I have a problem with the advertising creative awards?

I spent my 'formative' ad years at an agency that didn't enter them, the CD there at the time was (is) one the smartest dudes in advertising, he thought they were a crock.
He'd won a sackful himself, incidentally.
We (the juniors at the time) all thought it was a little bit unfair because our bosses had built their careers partly on being award-winning creatives, but now they were in that position were stopping us from entering them.
But now I thank that policy greatly, because although we didn't realise it at the time, all we were concerned about was doing the best we could on each brief. We weren't thinking at the back of our minds 'would this win' or 'will I get a piece of awards-friendly work out of this brief?'
It gave me a perspective on the business of advertising much wider than just having creative awards as a benchmark.
Since then, I've experienced going to the awards, and won a couple of spangly things in the process, so what's my problem? After all, if you're winning them, what's to complain about, right?

Well, no.
As I said, I like the idea of awards, I think that rewarding excellence is a good thing.
But looking at them now, how they are in our ad business today, I think they stink.
I think they've lost the plot.
I don't think they reward excellence in advertising creativity, I think they reward some kind of separate, abstract notion of creativity.

Now as an advertising creative, I'll admit I'm a disciple of the Bernbach, Lois, Gossage, school, where the creativity is there for a reason. Where "Our job is to sell our clients' merchandise... not ourselves. Our job is to kill the cleverness that makes us shine instead of the product. Our job is to simplify, to tear away the unrelated, to pluck out the weeds that are smothering the product message." Where "You are not right if in your ad you stand a man on his head just to get attention. You are right if you have him on his head to show how your product keeps things from falling out of his pockets."

I think that an ad should look brutally simple if brutally simple is the best way to get a message across, that it should be beautiful if the the sole reason for that beauty is that it will make us understand or read or remember that message better. I'll take a simple, five hundred word ad that made me think differently about something, over an ad with no words and pretty picture that made me laugh but didn't communicate. I think that the only reason for creativity in advertising is to make it work harder.

I want an ad to make you think "what a great product" rather than "what a great ad".

But these days, the kind of work that ad awards celebrate tends to be the self-indulgent stuff that wears its creativity on its sleeve. That makes you think, ooh that's clever. That's funny, or weird, or a great piece of film. Creative, but only for its own sake. Not for a reason.

It's a real negative thing for the ad business, because it places ad creatives who want to win creative awards at odds with the reason that clients came to their agencies in the first place. There's a conflict between 'creativity' and 'product' that shouldn't exist. Creatives and client are pulling in the opposite direction, and that is doing two bad things: 1. It's making clients (rightly) skeptical about the motivations of the people creating their advertising, and 2. Marginalising creatives in the business to a point where they are seen as dilettantes.

I don't know when it happened, because I look at some old advertising awards annuals and I see great advertising work that is brilliantly creative, but in a different way to most of the award winning work of today. And I'm not just talking about the difference of style and trends. It's advertising that works harder because of its creativity. Then I look at award-winning work of today and I see all style and no substance, I see creativity for its own sake. Cleverness that dwarfs or outshines the product.

The work that won awards in the 60's and 70's is creative for a reason. Somewhere, sometime, maybe over time, that's changed.
I don't know why, was it just tiny, imperceptible changes over time?
Is it just a symptom of agencies getting bigger, jobs being compartmentalised, creatives being moved into a creative bubble, detached from the process?
Is it a by-product of the slow but persistent middle-class-English-man-ising of the ad business - the universal embarrassment at selling, the need to pretend that we're doing something else?

I dunno, but it sure does stink the place out.
And I guess that brings me to something of a conclusion.
It turns out that I do like actually like creative awards.
I just really don't like the kind of work you have to do to win 'em these days.
I don't think it's great advertising.


  1. Damn your simple question Ben. I guess the easy answer is to get on with my own shit and stop fretting about everyone else. But it's not that simple eh?

  2. I know what you mean, it's tough to find stuff thats great. Do you think Droga 5 deserved the 2 black pencils?

  3. I think The Great Schlep is a top idea, really great stuff, it deserves the praise. It's a rare good example for young creatives that the best ideas aren't always about fiddly execution, but finding a smart answer to a problem and then executing it in a simple, compelling way.

  4. fantastic post. exactly why is it that jury's award ads that conform to a certain aesthetic (obscure, tiny logo, visual puns) rather than ones that do a certain job beautifully? I'm all for craft and things being fantastic...its the formulaic approach of the juries that gets my goat.

  5. It is a very lucid and insightful post. I think you're right to say that the best thing to do is just concentrate on doing great, effective work, and hey, if it turns out to be ad-worthy, then all the better.

  6. i see you neglect to comment to on the million project - is that because you (like me) suspect it is a load of bollocks? try and find a single recipient of these phones tweeting or blogging or commenting in any way on them... for such a big idea it's weirdly invisible...

  7. Sorry, anon 13:07, nothing so dramatic. I just don't really know what it is enough to comment.

  8. The ads of the 60s and 70s were so great because they'd never been done before. So what do we do now? Surely we have to keep looking for new ways to do things. The problem is some creatives thing this is to be a bit 'wacky', which I don't think it is. I agree with you though - this industry is Scam Central.

    Awards judged by the whole industry?

  9. "The ads of the 60s and 70s were so great because they'd never been done before"

    Well that's only partly true though, eh? The great ads were great because they were great. And the fact that they generally broke some new ground or had new thinking was just a part of it. Great applied craft was big part of it too. 'New' on it's own doesn't necessarily mean great.

    I think there are still bucket loads of new untapped ground/ideas/areas/insights out there, if anyone can be arsed looking.

  10. www.goldenducks.com The Alternative Design & Communication awards



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