As the Covid-19 pandemic raged on, Cannes Lions’ announcement in January that it would proceed with hosting the International Festival of Creativity in person this year was met with scepticism and caution by adlanders, even those who most missed drinking rosé and bumping elbows with the industry elite on the Croisette.
So it came as little surprise when the organisers made a U-turn in April and said the festival would be online-only. For some, the prospect of another virtual outing raised a more existential question – one that has plagued the ad industry for some time – about the role of awards and how and why creative work should be lauded.
By the time the June issue of Campaign is published, adland’s awards season will be in full swing, culminating with the biggest international milestone, Cannes Lions, from 21-25 June. Other significant moments in the awards calendar include the British Arrows in March, the D&AD Awards in May and The One Show in June. Campaign’s very own Big Awards and Media Week Awards take place in the autumn.
Despite the move to virtual ceremonies during the pandemic, the energy around awards has shown that these events continue to hold significant weight in the advertising industry. While it’s true that threats from Covid still loom large and nothing can be taken for granted, recovery appears to be on the horizon and many people are craving a sense of normalcy and joy that awards bring.
They want to embrace creativity and innovation, to have their hard work recognised and benchmarked against the competition, and to remember what can be great about this industry to begin with, which is exactly what awards offer. At their best, awards can play an important role in shining a bigger spotlight on deserving creative work and elevating talent.
But for a while now, the very nature of industry awards and the kind of work that had become popular to honour have been under greater scrutiny. The rise of scam ads – work created with the sole aim of winning prizes rather than meeting a client brief – has blighted the awards system. Grey Singapore’s notorious I Sea app in 2016, which purportedly crowd-sourced images of the sea to spot refugees in distress but turned out to be fake, brought this issue into the spotlight and kept alarm bells ringing.
In 2019, the last time Cannes Lions hosted an in-person festival, the organisers updated the judging guidelines to say that scam “sits on a continuum” between “work that is fictitious… which hasn’t aired, didn’t run or hasn’t been approved by the client” and “the very progressive work. New forward-thinking products, ideas and other amazing things that push the industry forward” – a definition that puzzled some jurors for seemingly leaving a grey area.
After the recent D&AD Awards, creative Robyn Frost summed up some people’s disillusionment with the trend when she tweeted: “Fake work being awarded reinforces the idea we can suggest progress without making it. And we’re still all talking about why there’s so little progress on real issues in the industry. Take the energy and passion from the fake stuff and use it to solve for real.”
This raises wider questions pertaining to the purpose of advertising. Is it merely commercial, to sell stuff and help fuel the economy, as author and creative director Steve Harrison argued in Campaign in March? Or should it – as has become popular of late – have a hand in solving societal issues?
Perhaps, as D&AD chairman Tim Lindsay suggested, it is more nuanced. Addressing these issues for an SCA debate last year, Lindsay pointed out that the leaders of Unilever, which has led the way in building purpose into its campaigns, “haven’t turned into philanthropists. They have directors and shareholders. If it didn’t work for their business, they would have changed their management and their strategy. Ditto, P&G, Rabobank, Patagonia and many other large, successful companies – and countless smaller ones. They’ve all found that paying attention to people and the planet can also create profit.”
Among this year’s D&AD black Pencil winners are worthy initiatives, including FCB Chicago’s “Boards of change” for the City of Chicago, an activation that turned plywood boards used to barricade storefronts during the Black Lives Matter protests into polling booths for black Americans, and Mastercard’s “True name” campaign by McCann New York, which allows transgender and non-binary people to use their chosen names on credit cards.
Indeed, in her Cannes Lions predictions piece in the June issue of Campaign, Chaka Sobhani, Leo Burnett’s newly promoted global chief creative officer, praises the Mastercard campaign as “creativity that truly changes lives”. She expects “big winners to mark significant progress on this front, a moment when brand actions can be as powerful catalysts for change as any”.
But lauding work that sets out to make the world a better place should not mean resiling from rewarding creatively fantastic advertising that delivers on commercial objectives. Campaign hopes an ad like the breathtaking Guinness “Surfer” – the subject of My Campaign in the June issue of Campaign – which was said to have sold an extra Olympic swimming pool’s worth of the black stuff every month would still be a multi-award winner today as it was 20 years ago.
So a plea to the juries going forward: after a year when many businesses and livelihoods were devastated by the Covid crisis, let’s never be ashamed of advertising’s role in building brands, driving sales and fuelling economic growth. Now that is a cause for celebration.
Picture: Getty Images