The surprise departure of Michael Hockney from his job as chief executive of D&AD, the creative charity and organiser of the UK’s most celebrated creative awards ceremony (MW last week), once again raises the issue of British ad agencies’ obsession with winning awards.
Does having a cabinet full of trophies mean that an ad agency will create commercials that are necessarily more effective at promoting brands? Many people think not, though award winners such as Guinness, Honda, the Department for Transport (its camera phone ad for road safety by Leo Burnett) and Sony Bravia may disagree.
At the same time, the circumstances surrounding Hockney’s departure from D&AD suggest that awards ceremonies may be becoming too focused on raising money rather than celebrating excellence.
D&AD grants some of the most coveted awards among UK advertising and design creatives. Its yellow and highly prized black pencils are doled out every year for the most remarkable ad executions, packaging designs and graphic compositions. But it is understood that moves by Hockney to shift the annual awards onto an international footing and away from its best of British creativity focus have caused ructions within the organisation. "By looking elsewhere, they are ignoring their own market," complains one source.
The charity, set up in the early 1960s to promote creativity through education, denies that Hockney’s departure is the result of any disagreements over strategy. A spokeswoman says/ "Michael’s talent is as an agent of change and that’s what he’s done at D&AD. He’s professionalised it and is moving on to do other things. He is taking a break to do up his amazing house." The spokeswoman adds that he has successfully given the organisation’s awards a more global focus and has introduced new paid-for levels of membership, doubling member numbers.
Pay your way
The not-for-profit body also defends itself from criticism that it has become too nakedly commercial since Hockney took the helm in 2003. Some say that new awards categories are continually being added as a way of raising more money. They believe the membership drive has made the organisation less of a high-minded centre for creative excellence. Membership was previously given on the basis of winning awards, but now people can join if they wish to pay the fees.
Jim Prior, chairman of branding agency The Partners, which won a yellow pencil last year for the packaging design of Casa Loreto olive oil, says: "Our frustration is that it increasingly seems to be an exercise in creaming off as much money as possible. It is less focused on encouraging design and creativity."
His view is echoed by Design Bridge creative director Graham Sheersby, who says that on the commercial side "the balance has tipped over". But he backs the student awards and says these are very important for stimulating creativity.
The D&AD spokeswoman says getting more money is positive because it means increased funds to spend on education.
But one source says trying to judge advertising and design work from a range of countries and cultures requires a level of international knowledge that many judges lack.
According to one account, this was highlighted when an international D&AD panel was judging an ad for The Economist magazine, which carries the strapline: "Somebody mentions Jordan, you think of a country with a 3.3% growth rate." This is amusing to a Briton, where the busty supermodel who shares a name with the Middle Eastern country is rarely out of the news. But one of the D&AD’s US judges apparently did not get the pun. "Why would anyone think of Michael Jordan?" he was heard to ask. Another source talks of a South African D&AD judge who had never heard of Mr Kipling.
Some observers say the D&AD’s loss of its role as a platform for UK creativity means rival creative awards, such as those by Creative Circle with its explicit British focus, are increasing in importance as the D&AD drifts. It is against this background that Hockney, a flamboyant advertising man who helped set up the agency Butterfield Day Devito Hockney, was forced out of the organisation, according to many observers. His role will be overseen by marketing and advertising veteran Anthony Simonds-Gooding, who is chairman of D&AD.
Much of this may leave brand owners wondering whether the mania among ad agencies for winning awards really serves the interests of their brands. Creating ads that shift product and are loved by the public is, it seems, not enough for the advertising world. You would think a creative honour should be the icing on the cake of a successful ad; but some think the fixation with winning a gong is detracting from the agencies’ ability to serve their clients.
Mike Moran, former Toyota GB commercial director who is now managing partner of The Automotive Partnership, says awards linked to effectiveness are relevant, but that agencies are overly preoccupied with winning creative honours. "There are so many different criteria and categories, but so few seem to have effectiveness high up their list of reasons for the award. There is the danger of this sending the wrong message to creatives, encouraging them to forget their fundamental reason for being there," he says, adding: "There is a direct correlation between the size of the agency’s creative department and the extent of the preoccupation with awards."
Many agencies spend hundreds of thousands of pounds a year entering awards and dedicate much management time to the process. Proponents argue that having a cabinet full of trophies helps them attract the best creative talent and is a strong incentive to creatives to come up with great advertising.
However, there are ad agencies that eschew the whole awards merry-go-round. Karmarama, which has produced much-lauded work for clients such as Ikea, The Conservatives and Selfridges, does not spend time entering awards. Founder Dave Buonaguidi is scathing about his rivals’ fixation with winning gongs. "They are a distraction from our real job, which is to help clients sell stuff," he says. "Awards have created a different type of industry that’s not reflective of business. Clients want effectiveness, not awards." He adds that the awards culture creates an ego-centric attitude within advertising agencies and that there is a small coterie of creatives who dominate awards juries and thus determine what type of ads can be deemed as creative. These are ultimately subjective judgements.
That said, he is not opposed to awards that celebrate effectiveness such as the IPA Effectiveness Awards. In any case, if brands have been successful, the marketers will be well aware of this through sales figures. And awards run the risk of creating rivalries within organisations as some people may think their contribution has been ignored.
By contrast, Robert Senior, one of the founding partners of Fallon, which has a black pencil award for its Sony Bravia "Balls" work, says: "My sense is that awards are under-valued generally because when you win them, it can have an amazing effect and attract talent, which is the most pressing issue in the industry." He says juries are increasingly hard on deliberate, unjustified attempts to create award-winning ads.