Imagine the elderly wife of the chairman of a giant company.
She visits her husband at work one day and notices he can’t help staring at all the young secretaries in hot-pants.
All these girls have legs that go on forever.
She thinks “I’d like him to look at me that way.”
So she goes out and buys herself a pair of hot pants.
Then she wears them when her husband comes home.
She says “Well, what do you think?”
And she can’t understand why she doesn’t get the same reaction.
Big, old agencies are like that.
They see the newer, smaller agencies winning awards with wild advertising.
They want to win awards, too.
So the brief goes out to all their creatives “Win awards, at any cost.”
And what happens?
What they used to call in New York ‘the chairman’s wife in hot pants’ syndrome.
When I was at art school there, all the exciting agencies were the small ones.
They were winning all the awards.
The problem was the big, old agencies got jealous.
Y&R was the second biggest advertising network in the world.
They saw themselves as more creative than the other big agencies.
In fact their President was an ex art director.
Steve Frankfurt.
Steve wanted to show his agency could win awards.
The problem was, the smaller agencies had smaller clients.
Clients whose ads had to change the status quo in their market.
Y&R didn’t have a lot of clients like that.
Most of their clients dominated their markets.
They didn’t want to change the status quo.
If Frankfurt wanted to win awards, he’d have to try something else.
And he did.
Charity advertising (what Americans call public service).
It was much easier to win an award with a message that said “This can save your life” than it was with a message that said “This will get your clothes whiter”.
So Y&R won tons of awards.
And they established a reputation around town for it.
And they attracted a lot of the most expensive creative talent.
There was only one problem.
All this expensive talent wanted to work on award winning accounts.
Public service accounts.
They didn’t want to work on the accounts that paid the bills.
So the juniors had to work on the multi-million dollar consumer accounts.
Eventually it occurred to these clients.
“Hang on, we’re paying lots of money for this agency to win awards doing work for other people. They’re promoting themselves not us.”
And Y&R started losing big accounts.
And gradually it occurred to Y&R that winning awards was the opposite of what they’d thought it would be.
It was costing them business.
And eventually Steve Frankfurt stepped down as president.
Now does any of this have any relevance today?
Well, I recently saw a letter from a CD to everyone in the network.
The general drift of it was “We must win awards. It doesn’t matter where they come from. If you can’t do it on existing clients, find someone who will let us do it for them.
A charity, a small shop, a local merchant.
It doesn’t matter what you do, from an A4 leaflet, to a commercial, to a FaceBook site.
If it looks like it will win an award, the agency will pay to write it, produce it, run it, and enter it.
But we must win awards at absolutely any cost.”
Ii seems lot of people think this is a new idea.
But actually Steve Frankfurt did it bigger and better 40 years ago.
And it didn’t work then.
So what do we think will happen now?
Well most probably the same outcome all over again.
As soon as the clients who are paying the bills notice what the agency’s doing with their money.

As George Santayana said 100 years ago “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

  • Soap Box

    The voice of reason, in a crazy, mixed up world.

    When I was younger and a lot more naive, I never entered any work for awards.

    BBH did for me once and it won something silver.

    But I really didn’t care because I honestly believed, that CDs would look at your work and make up their own minds.

    Today, some CDs rely on/look at awards, like fashion victims look at designer labels.

  • Dave Trott

    Hi Soapbox,
    ‘Awards Victims’ is a nice way to describe this obsession.

  • Soap Box

    Very pleased you like it Dave.
    Currently, I’m working in a lovely agency full of very talented people.
    Some of them are highly awarded and there is a big push for awards here.
    However, if you spoke to individuals in this agency,
    the truth is most of them don’t care about awards and do know their own minds.
    But the agency feels it has to win enough – just to compete.
    It’s just like the Emperors New Clothes.
    Awards aren’t a bad thing, if they’re kept in perspective.
    Like winning something at school, for working hard.
    But most places blow them completely out of perspective.
    And create work (which isn’t right for the brand at all) around them.
    They start with an execution, then try to post rationalize etc
    Planners should be marching in the streets today, to stop this madness.
    Imagine if all awards were dropped, what would happen then?
    I think work would be judged on two criteria.
    Do people even notice it i.e. does it stand out?
    Does it actually say anything relevant to them
    – to motivate them into doing something about it?

  • Grilla Login

    Not @ Cannes then, Dave?

  • Dave Trott

    Soap Box,
    Those were Bill Bernbach’s criteria.
    Years before planners even existed, he was saying that should be every copywriter and art director’s criteria.
    And he’s the man who invented modern advertising.

  • Soap Box

    wow, didn’t know that honestly. i’ve heard he’s a good bloke but the only clever ad men i know about are you and the ones i’ve been lucky enough to work with :)

  • Dave Trott

    I’m a big believer in Cannes.
    Just yesterday I picked up a couple of cannes of tuna and a couple of cannes of Guinness.

  • paulc-c

    Change the judging criteria. Campaigns have to deliver real results. Clients will be happy & Agencies still get their awards.
    Or is somebody going to tell me that award winning creative doesn’t work?

  • Daniel Pianesi

    These ‘Awards Victims’ cannot see the wood for the trees, they are trying to imitate what other agencies are doing, trying to get exposure for the wrong reasons. I would say to them “Kill the Cow!” (there is a nice parabole, found a similar version on the net )
    Maybe instead of aiming for the awards, they should be looking at their own staff and what could they do to have satisfied/motivated minds sitting at their desks. (move people around, ask the juniors to have more input on what the pro are doing and vice versa, get to know your staff, be interested in their personal goal, convince them to ‘try something new’, create a sense of unity, less hierarchical and more personal communication) That way every day in the office will be an awarding experience. IMHO

  • Grilla Login

    Santayana – knows his way around a guitar as well, Dave.

  • John W.

    I’m still looking for a decent cannes opener.

  • Chris Worsley

    I won one I didn’t even know I’d been entered for and wasn’t even at the awards. Another one I WAS working for a big company but completely ignored the parameters of the judging panel and did something creative. And won. I think because I had ignored them?
    Funny old game awards.

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