Creative awards remind brands of the need to take risks

While advertising awards have little commercial value to clients, they at least remind us that great ads are cheaper and more effective at driving purchase behaviour than relying on outsize media spend.

Cannes Lions
Cannes marina, home to the Cannes Lions awards

With the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity almost upon us, it’s an opportune time to consider the dead certs versus the long shots for a hallowed Grand Prix.

Where advertising, marketing, design and PR are concerned, there’s definitely a chasm between these two camps – and it’s one that can be likened to the relationship between nature and nurture.

LISTEN TO OUR PODCAST: Reigniting the spark: How brands are coming back to creativity

For anything to be truly nurtured, there’s supposedly an actual datapoint to aim for – 10,000 hours. That, if you believe the book Outliers: The story of success by Malcolm Gladwell, is all the practice you need to become a true expert in something.

Fancy beating Serena Williams at Wimbledon? Just don your whites and smash yellow balls for 10,000 hours. Need to master Schumann’s Toccata in C? Tickle those ivories for just over 416 days. Have an urge to become the next Stephen Hawking? That’ll be 600,000 minutes of your time, good sir.

Perhaps unsurprisingly a 2014 Princeton Study refuted Gladwell’s neat but ultimately naïve assertion. Practice, they found, does not necessarily make perfect. Expertise depends on a number of interconnected factors, most notably the base skill and learning capability of the individual. The Princeton boffins suggested that practice alone mattered surprisingly little:

  • In music, practice counts for a 21% difference
  • In sport an 18% difference
  • In education a 4% difference
  • In the workplace, a paltry 1% difference

The balance comes from natural talent, the ability to learn cumulatively and determination. But it remains true that you don’t get to be brilliant at anything without committing a certain number of requisite hours, no matter how naturally gifted you may be.

In advertising, the nature vs nurture analogy corresponds to the space between creativity and high media spend. Those who lack natural creativity (or the willingness to take risks) might be swayed towards nurturing their brands through big spending in order to reach their goals. Each approach has its merits, and both produce results in their own inimitable way.

The big spend option is the apparent conclusion reached by those brands hellbent on using up a lifetime of hours advertising their wares with adequate creative, in the vain hope that by drowning consumers in sales noise they’ll eventually acquiesce through apathy and exhaustion.

Creative awards are an objective reminder that you can still motivate customers on a more emotional (and cheaper) level.

Example number one: Peloton. I’m sure you’re aware of the ‘spinning cycle meets live-streamed personal trainer’ business? Of course you are – you can’t watch sport on any channel at the moment without being bombarded by its enthusiastic spokesmodel Leanne, peddling its wares with a Haribo family bag’s worth of Tangfastic clichés.

“OK, Peloton – let’s do this.” That’s the intro. Then she shows off the personalised UX of the bike’s in-built, interactive plasma screen: “David in Edinburgh – that’s 200 rides. Let’s make it count.”

Which worried me somewhat. Can Leanne see all the riders on her screen? Or are you just a name, number and dollar amount on her bike-mounted spreadsheet? Hopefully it’s the latter.

Peloton’s massive media spend and glitzy set locations must be why its bikes cost a Lycra-busting £1,995, paid in monthly instalments – and don’t forget you also have to fork out £39.50 per month for the video stream subscription.

This probably also pays for its celeb endorsements from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Hugh Jackman, once again proving that fads in Hollywood – like cocaine, Kabbalah and, indeed, Peloton – should probably be shunned by anyone east of Pasadena.

Peloton won’t be troubling the awards judges at Cannes next week. It has decided on the blunderbuss approach of constantly nurturing a captive audience rather than employing natural creative genius. The brand has been valued at over $4bn, so its chosen path isn’t necessarily incorrect.

Also unlikely to be picking up any Lions is the indefatigable Grammarly, which seems to have block-booked every YouTube ad slot from last Christmas to eternity. You can just imagine its CMO walking into Google HQ with $20m dollars in a briefcase. When asked who his target audience was, he simply shouted “bring me everyone!”, before sauntering out for a long lunch.

While we’re here, the Trivago girl gets a dishonourable mention, too. She sees more vapid airtime than Holly Willoughby and Caroline Flack combined.

The value of great ads

So, there are plenty of non-runners – the bigger, arguably lazier spenders who treat marketing and advertising as siege warfare. There are, however, plenty of ad land’s finest currently steam-cleaning their ivory linen suits and buffing the pennies in their loafers, ready to decamp to the south of France, hoping their creative genius will finally receive the long overdue recognition it deserves.

Those agencies on the shortlists tend to follow the path of nature rather than nurture – simplicity in strategic thinking, organic communication, pure copy, natural intelligence leading to intelligent design.

Look at some of last year’s winners and you see sheer genius emanating from every pixel. These campaigns are so strong they would have gone viral in the 1860s, shared by excited factory urchins via scraps of newsprint.

For all this creative brilliance, though, is there still a point in these awards beyond individual and agency ego? Having been both sides of the agency/ client fence I know that for an agency there’s great PR boon to winning, plus there’s the significant career boost that a trophy can offer a creative team.

On the client side, it’s harder to commercially justify the effort and cost that goes into winning an award. After the obligatory social post, internal mailshot and press release that everyone ignores, the silverware tends to sit morosely in glass cabinets of reception areas gathering dust – a reminder of a time long forgotten when you were a brave business with great agencies doing challenging work.

READ MORE: Measuring the magic: Why brands need to refocus on the effectiveness of creativity

That said, we exist in a data-dependent place now in which the nurturing of metrics and analysis often gets the nod over gut-feel, sixth sense and cojones.

Creative awards are an objective reminder that you can still motivate customers by tickling their decision-making parts on a more emotional (and cheaper) level without the need the bludgeon them into a flaccid submission with a barrage of hard-sell noise.

For that reason alone, we should be glad they exist.

Harry Lang is the founder of Brand Architects, a strategic brand and integrated marketing consultancy. You can contact him at Harry@BrandArchitects.co.uk or via LinkedIn.

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