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Tracking Lions and Diving with Sharks

by Bridget Johnson, Executive Creative Director

Adland’s ‘Oscars’ – The Cannes Lions – are just around the corner, with all its pomp and perhaps a little less pageantry this year and still Cannes and other celebrated awards shows often trigger an old debate: Are awards necessary? Do we need them or are they just another money spinner, an excuse for agencies and clients to pat themselves on the back and throw a hellava party?
Well, of course, they’re an excuse to throw a party and, God knows, we could all use one or two more of those right now but, truthfully, there are damn fine reasons to enter, acknowledge and celebrate great work through awards shows.
I didn’t always feel this way. A bit like Anne Hathaway in ‘A Devil Wears Prada’ I walked into advertising much the same way as she walked into the fashion world: naive and a little smug, believing that I understood exactly how the industry worked. I had clear views on what was right and wrong. Creative people setting benchmarks for what was good and bad was wrong. The notion of creatives celebrating themselves was just arrogant.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that. A while later I found myself (happily) in an agency of incredibly talented people. They weren’t arrogant. The best of them did not trumpet their ‘genius’ from the rooftops, but simply got on with it as if possessed by some unseen force that drove them to produce work that everyone could feel was great. Instantly. Their work went on to consistently excite the client for which it was produced and the agency was one of the most awarded in South Africa (my home country) at the time. 
The award-winning work did something else too. It drew new talent to the agency and became part of the agency’s culture of excellence. I know what you’re thinking: what about the client here?  What did it do for them? What did it do for the business and is there any commercial benefit to awards for clients once the champagne fizz fizzles.
There most certainly are benefits for clients.
The client I’m referring to in the example above as KFC and the agency was Ogilvy & Mather, Johannesburg. Over an 8-year period, KFC’s steady growth can be tracked alongside regular, significant awards in most market segments. While I’m not suggesting that awarded advertising work alone was responsible for the brand’s success, I don’t believe it was coincidental either.
Perhaps a more recent, global example is that of Burger King and its stratospheric growth under the leadership of CMO, Fernando Marchado, a loud, proud advocate for using creativity aggressively as a competitive edge. His current Cannes Lions awards tally (not to mention other award shows) sits at 160 and we haven’t seen this year’s results yet. Marchado believes that “future marketing leaders will need to not just invest, but believe that creativity can be a source of competitive advantage.” And that’s the crux of it:
Awards facilitate the belief and motivation that spurs creative people on to achieve beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. And when we do, it can be transformative for business.
Before I’m accused of sailing off into the sunset on a wide river of my own Kool-aid, I will address another niggle that might be hitting you round about now. It would be dishonest of me not to acknowledge that there is a dark side to awards. One where agencies or individuals pursue awards ruthlessly, even at the expense of the real brand or a client’s needs.  I do believe this practice, once rife, has been largely rooted out of the industry. Having been privileged to judge three international awards shows in the past two years, I honestly believe the industry has grown up in this regard. No one has the time or money for that kind of recklessness anymore. And with a much sharper focus on effectiveness and measurement in all categories, I think there is more balance in the judging process too.
The simple fact is that good, real work stands out in judging and is usually awarded accordingly. It’s the work that leaves no questions that get the results. Work in which you can see or sense the client’s support and involvement. This is the kind of work that makes awards shows great and valuable. 
Ultimately advertising awards, like any awards, give us permission to reach beyond ourselves, a goal to aspire to and a standard to be admired, celebrated and ruthlessly toppled the following year.
So here are a few of my favourite picks in this year’s Cannes topple-bait.

And finally, this one because I had nothing to do with it so I can admire it publicly and also it proves that brilliant, meaningful work can also be simple and relatively inexpensive.