The 10 Essential Advertising People of the Year: No. 8 Amir Kassaei

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By slashing his agency's awards budget by 50 percent, DDB's creative chief breathed new life into a tired debate.

For better or worse, 2016 was a landmark year in advertising. To mark its conclusion, Campaign US is highlighting 10 people we believe are essential to understanding how it all went down. We will be counting down our choices starting on Dec. 9, with our No. 1 most essential person revealed on Dec. 22. Click here to see the list as it is revealed.

The only thing the ad industry loves more than its awards is complaining about its awards. So when DDB Worldwide Chief Creative Officer Amir Kassaei declared in January that his agency would be submitting far fewer entries in 2016, citing the corrosive effects of sham ads and distractions from the actual work, it breathed welcome fire into a tired debate.

"Too many of us in the industry have bought into the idea that winning awards is proof of creative effectiveness, so much so that we're willing to sacrifice our integrity to get them," he wrote. "And in turn that has lessened the integrity of the awards themselves."

Kassaei's declaration was met with a mix of admiration, surprise and cynicism. Sensing a threat to their business, award show executives were quick to defend themselves, both in public and in private meetings with Kassaei ("I'm enemy No. 1 of all the award shows," he said proudly in an interview last week, "but it's great, cause it forces them to rethink what they are doing.")

Creative chiefs mostly applauded Kassaei's sentiments—but stopped short of following his example. "Amir is right," said BBDO Worldwide CCO David Lubars at the time, "but I don't think it would be productive" to blow off awards shows entirely.

And critics questioned Kassaei's sincerity, noting that, even when pressed, he refused to quantify precisely what "pulling back" from awards shows meant.

"As admirable as this sentiment may be, we do wonder whether [Kassaei] would have written the piece if DDB had been the big winner at Cannes last year," wrote AgencySpy.

For his part, Kassaei is happy to have stirred up the debate. "For us it was exactly the right decision, to put the focus back on what we should do and not play the silly games that everyone else is playing," he said. 

And he is finally ready to put a number on DDB's pullback. "In terms of entry fees and time spent, we cut back more than 50 percent," he said. "That is a lot of money. Millions. And we're not just saving that money. We are reshifting it to educate our people, to invest money in our relationship with clients, to do better work and to be a better company."

Though Kassaei wouldn't say precisely where those cuts came from, they don't appear to have hurt DDB's performance in the major awards shows. In 2016, the network took home 101 Cannes Lions, up from 78 in 2015; it won 32 pencils at the D&AD awards, down from 40 in 2015; and it claimed the same number of pencils at this year's One Show—23—as it did in 2015.

Kassaei may not be making as much noise about awards in 2017, but DDB will continue to refine its approach, he says. "We're still on a journey, and will continue to focus on what work we want to do and the recognition we want to get," he said. "It should be mainly the marketplace, the real people, and not the advertising world."

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