The Grand Effie that nearly wasn't

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Hours before the gala, a small group of jurors argued that none of the entries deserved its highest honor

In the end, the 11 jurors tasked with choosing this year’s Grand Effie winner on Thursday agreed to bestow the award on the"Guns not Groceries" campaign from Grey Canada and its nonprofit client, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

But a brief, passionate dissent by three jurors unimpressed with the overall level of work nearly resulted in an Effie gala with a whopping anticlimax.

The three opposing jurors — a mix of agency and client executives, according to several people who were in the room — argued that no Grand Effie should be awarded this year because none of the work met the standards of the esteemed award.

"Not to take anything away from the Moms for Gun Sense, because it was lovely work," said one of the jurors. "But for any type of awards, you’re thinking, 'What’s teachable about this? What did they do different strategically? Why was the work breakthrough? What created that impact?'"

Past winners like Apple’s "Get a Mac" (2007), Burger King’s "Whopper Freakout" (2009) and Old Spice’s "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" (2011) represented transformational moments in marketing, this juror said. "Whopper Freakout changed marketing to me. To take your most popular item off the menu — who does that?"

But the small group of dissenters believed that no such work existed in this year’s crop of gold winners. "My contention would be that there was not something that was Grand Effie-worthy this year," said the juror (who, like all the Effie jurors, had signed a non-disclosure agreement and therefore requested anonymity to discuss the process).

Our industry is going through massive changes," said another juror who argued against awarding the Grand Effie, "and this is supposed to be the work we look up to, the work that we say, ‘Oh I wish I had done that.’" But the Groceries Not Guns work simply did not rise to that standard, the juror said.

Neal Davies, CEO of Effie Worldwide, was in the jury room and characterized the disagreement as minor. "This wasn’t Henry Fonda in '12 Angry Men,'" he said in a telephone interview on Friday. "It was a discussion." He also speculated that much of the passion behind the discussion may have been driven by the polarizing nature of the winning campaign’s subject matter. "You take any handful of Americans, and you’re going to get different perspectives on gun control."

Not all jurors were keen to discuss what happened inside the room, either. "I’m not going to talk about that," said one juror partway through the gala, which took place at Cipriani’s in New York on Thursday. "In the end, we all agreed with the decision."

But beyond squabbles over a single award, the debate raised questions about much of what’s wrong with today’s advertising awards scene. And during the show itself, a number of jurors needed little prodding to reflect on the debate.  

"I want the Effies to have as much grandeur and importance as the Cannes Lions, because the Effies, from a client perspective, are really important," said one juror. "I worry about brand Effie if it’s just willing to hand out hardware to cases that have difficulty discriminating themselves."

The fact that the campaign was spearheaded by a nonprofit rather than a brand also detracted from its appeal, several jurors said. "For a nonprofit to go after a corporation to get an outcome like they did, what did that nonprofit have to lose other than a social agenda?" said one juror. "For a brand to go after a particular issue like that, it’s way more complicated. You have stakeholders, you have a board."

Nor was it lost on the jury that they were awarding the industry’s highest honor for effectiveness to a campaign that technically did not achieve its goal. Groceries Not Guns set out to change Kroger’s open-carry policy. And though it did persuade other retailers to ban firearms, Kroger’s policy remains in place. "That was definitely part of it," another juror said.

Of course, disagreements are part of the judging process. And there’s nothing particularly unusual about an advertising awards show declaring no winner in a category. The Cannes Lions have not awarded a top prize for Branded Content two years in a row, for example. And just last month, no Grand Effie winner was named at the inaugural UK Effie Awards. 

But not naming a top winner at a small, first-time event is different than doing so at the flagship gala, where 1000 attendees, many of whom flew in from other cities, paid $8,000 a table to attend. Though Davies noted that neither he nor anyone from the Effie organization pressured the jury to name a Grand Prix winner (an assertion confirmed by several judges), it would have been the first time since at least the 1980s that no North American Grand Effie was awarded. 

Whether having no top winner, or giving the honor to a less-than-deserving campaign, is a greater risk to the Effie brand is a question that jurors were still asking after the show had wrapped.

"Effies knew the cases it was going to put in front of us, and I think they should have had that moment and said, ‘You know what? These are all golds. But there’s not a Grand Prix here,’" a juror said. "That’s how you protect and advance your brand."

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