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Berlin Brief

The Awards for Creativity in Advertising We Should (Also) Be Giving

June 22, 2015

Amidst the responses to the continuing growth in the festival’s size is criticism of the seemingly ever-growing list of award categories by which work is judged and various awards, or ‘Lions,’ presented.  In 2015, there are no fewer than 20 categories, ranging from traditional advertising stalwarts like radio, outdoor, and film to newer like Branded Content & Entertainment and Product Design.  Critics bemoan this proliferation for several reasons.  One is that categories seem to overlap and allow individual work to be submitted and judged multiple categories, thereby obscuring the exact criteria for individual awards.  Another is that the continuing expansion of possible categories dilutes the recognition of the hundreds of eventual winners.  Probably most vociferous is the criticism around the rapidly increasing revenues generated by a massive overall increase in works submitted – this year totaling more than 40,000. 

In contrast to those concerns, I am convinced that there should be more not fewer categories for recognizing creativity.  I believe, specifically, for the realm of brand and marketing communications, that achievements in creative business leadership and organizational change deserve to be recognized.  In these areas, dramatically new ideas and executions are arguably at the heart of the transformation of creative businesses today.

The marketing anthropologist Timothy de Waal Malefyt has written that the Cannes Lions festival (and the entire global advertising award system) assiduously preserves a distinction fundamental to the advertising and marketing industries since at least the 1960s.  Submissions are judged almost exclusively by ‘creatives’, accomplished practitioners from within the advertising industry, who use their own rules of form and style.  The resulting awards, Malefyt observes, recognize and evaluate ‘artists who stand apart as innovative and original, and who also operate within the commercial necessities of creating popular campaigns’.  While both are present, it is the celebration of ‘ideas and their originators for artistic value’ mostly separate from business imperatives or ‘commercial interests’ of clients that remains the festival system’s conspicuous priority.

My proposal is to expand the festival’s awards to celebrate creativity and even artistry in the areas of business, leadership and technology.  Here are ten categories that would recognize such achievement outside of specific brand marketing and communications campaigns.  While some are the equivalent of the technical awards that arrive early on Oscar night (or even at a separate ceremony), others affirm that advertising and marketing communications are businesses whose competitive and creative advantages can emerge from across all their activities and departments.  All of them would complement the emphasis of traditional awards on ‘artistic creativity’ by shining an overdue light on the many possible facets of business creativity.

Acquisition of the Year

Dozens of agencies are acquired, partly or outright, by global networks or holding companies each year.  While the outcomes of these transitions vary tremendously, the best acquisitions themselves turn on imaginative decisions and deals that have far-reaching benefits to agency, acquirer, and clients by enabling talent, fostering creativity, increasing efficiencies, and expanding opportunities.

Agency Business Model
With Special Award for New Fee & Compensation Scheme

The priority of reinventing longstanding ad agency business models amidst profound changes in the media and marketing economies is felt urgently around the world.  That priority has led to consistent experimentation and exciting breakthroughs in the value created by agencies for clients.  The most innovative models, including those that address longstanding models of agency compensation, deserve recognition. 

Agency Support Functions

In an earlier era when ‘creative’ was believed only to emerge from people and departments explicitly described by that word, many vital agency functions – including account services, finance, legal, and marketing services – were relegated to secondary and support status.  Today, opportunistic leaders view all these functions as potential sources of creative insights, ideas, and implementations that can generate value for clients.

Creative Culture Transformation
With Special Award for Building a Culture after a Merger

An energetic and sustainable creative culture has, for years, been the Holy Grail sought after by leaders of creative agencies.  Initiatives are continually launched to develop and strengthen such cultures.  Recognizing the achievement of those that succeed in doing so is long overdue, both in existing agencies and those that result from mergers. 

Cross-Agency Collaboration
With Special Award for Co-Creation

The Cannes Lions rules stipulate that only one agency can submit and receive an award. Increasingly, however, the most creative and effective campaigns involve breakthrough collaboration – say, among client, agency, tech firm, production house, digital boutique, and more. Even as the benefits of more sustained and robust collaboration are acknowledged in general terms, the collective advantage found in the shared generation of great ideas and extraordinary creative work deserves greater recognition.

Marketing Technology Platforms and Systems

A rapidly evolving architecture of platforms and systems is enabling marketers to transform their operations and customer management. These include experience and operations systems that interact, sometime through middleware, with backbone platforms and other marketing applications. Both the complex connections between these systems, as well as their component technologies, can be designed and deployed creatively to produce advantage and value.

Programmatic Agency of the Year

Online ad-buying, programmatic advertising, and other automated or algorithmic marketing are the technological enemies of traditional creativity. Yet these data-driven services, like the online exchanges that exist to buy and sell online media, are themselves the products of innovative programming and implementation that can offer great value to clients.

Strategic and Creative Talent Management

The recruitment, motivation, and retention of talent, both in traditional creative and other functions, are consistent priorities of today’s agency leaders. Novel approaches empower talent amidst a confluence of changes in organizational design, workforce demographics, technological capabilities, and client and social relationships.    

Use of Data Analytics in Building Brand Business Intelligence

In the general area of ‘Lions Innovation’ this year is a ‘Creative Data’ award meant to recognize the rapidly expanding role of data in shaping ideas. This is an important step – albeit one in which the priority remains on the ‘execution [of creative work] enhanced by the use, interpretation, analysis or application of data.’ We should also celebrate the imaginative technical achievement of data engineers, system building, and analytics that enable brand BI as well as campaigns.

Value Delivery to the Customer (not Client)

Digital technologies and social interaction have forced agencies to recognize that their primary contract with clients is often incomplete. Working with those clients to deliver value directly to customers of a brand is increasingly an opportunity enabled by the creative design, development and deployment of software and other tools.  

The traditional response to many of these awards might be that, however potentially imaginative, business decisions, agency designs and dynamics, and data and technology applications are ultimately contributors to the creativity and effectiveness of campaigns already being judged. That is, they are the institutional means that help to drive and shape the insights and executions that current awards already recognize. Such bracketing of traditional conceptions of creativity neglects the more thoroughgoing creativity and innovation practiced by our most consistently creative leaders and organizations. If, as it is often said, Cannes Lions and other festival prizes are ‘all about the work’, these new awards would begin to acknowledge a tectonic shift in advertising, marketing and media today: namely, that some of the most creative work is being done by creative leaders and other pathfinders across departments and functions whose ideas and executions ultimately enable agencies to better serve and create value for their clients.

David Slocum

Faculty Director
Berlin School of Creative Leadership
  +49 (0)30 39 88 96 99