Gunning for more ad awards, creativity loses plot

25 Jul,2014

By Ravi Balakrishnan


A little over a decade ago, when the Abby awards were still the only show in town, the after party found Prasoon Joshi in a pensive mood. As team Ogilvy celebrated their ‘agency of the year’ win with a characteristic lack of subtlety – drums, horns, and people in black posing for interminable photoshoots – Mr Joshi, then early in his stint at Mc-Cann Erickson reasoned, “There are youngsters from many agencies who’ve won their first trophy tonight. But all of that is being forgotten in this obsession with who won most. We should celebrate the work and not the numbers.”


Mr Joshi may have been among the first to voice this concern, but he’s far from the last. Several creative leaders in India are increasingly vocal about missing the forest of creativity for the trees of a final tally.


Festivals like Cannes Lions have arguably made things worse, adding layers to the competition like Holding Company of the Year. WPP won for the fourth time running in 2014, which according to media reports led Interpublic to boast of its far better win to entry ratio. Closer home, Goafest officially scrapped ‘agency of the year’, ostensibly to make it more about the work and less about the numbers. It however resulted in a cottage industry where previously math-phobic creatives sliced and diced the numbers till they were left with a rank that satisfied them.


Apart from no year being complete without some controversy, protest or conspiracy theory, the numbers game is tainting large parts of the industry.


Remember all the worldwide chief creative officers who’ve lashed out against scams? Creative directors in their employ will tell you, off the record of course, that the scamming happens entirely with their approval, frequently on their insistence. Truth be told, it’s hard to say no when even a laggard that gets lucky and scores bronze adds one more to the total tally. It’s resulted in a business where scams are the worst thing to happen only so long as you get caught.


The judging process too is compromised as long as tallies – official or unofficial – continue to be important. Says Bobby Pawar, chief creative officer, Publicis, “Judges may be more open to acknowledging how they feel about a piece of work when voting for it doesn’t make them losers. When you have younger people on the jury who haven’t won that much, it’s hard (for them) to be charitable.” In every award jury, if some industry folk are to be believed, there are people wondering “what’s in it for me?”


With the role of tallies coming into question, the Gunn Report is perceived to be the biggest villain of the piece. Started in 1999 by former Leo Burnett adman Donald Gunn, it’s currently the largest, most authoritative source of league table on ad agencies. The 2013 edition considered 46 award shows – global, regional and national. While undoubtedly a definitive source of information on the varying creative fortunes of agencies, doing well in the Report has become an unhealthy obsession.


Mr Pawar says sardonically, “It’s a great idea – for Donald Gunn. Or CEOs and creative guys looking to put notches on the belt. I don’t think it’s a good idea for work. Let’s not reduce creativity to accounting because that’s what these things do.” Adds a creative chief who wishes to remain anonymous, “I know the networks love Gunn but does the report motivate me to break the mould? Is it inspirational?


Or just an impotent report card?” The latter has no place in an industry that’s playing it fast and loose, finding ideas from unlikely sources, some of whom are not agencies. The Gunn Report had not responded to our questions at the time of going to print.


The alternative: Let the year be remembered not for who scored the maximum but for the best work. Irrespective of where it came from or what else the agencies who created those pieces won. In spite of being the top ranked Indian shop by Gunn this year, Mr Joshi, currently president – South Asia, McCann Worldgroup continues to have a purist perspective.


“The creative world is more like a garden than a wrestling ring. We shouldn’t be trying to outshine each other but to complement each other. People will say ‘here comes Prasoon again with his poetry’, but I’ve said this since I was in school. Every child is unique but the moment you ask ‘kitne number aaye?’ you make him start thinking in those terms.”


However, in spite of these pious and occasionally poetic sentiments, it’s unlikely that tallies are going anywhere. Because as KV Sridhar aka Pops, chief creative officer at SapientNitro points out Gunn and accounting are unnecessarily being pilloried. For one, the report is a lot more nuanced, measuring both the width as well as depth of wins.


At worst, it represents a deeper malaise: “Gone are the days when creative people were obsessed with peer recognition. Awards are now more about business development. There’s nothing wrong (in wanting to win big) since this is how advertising agencies sell themselves. It’s both for the benefit of new marketers and to tell your existing clients ‘we’ve still got it.'”


The obsession with tallies is less about creative oneupmanship. Says Mr Sridhar, “It’s the obsession of people like Martin Sorrell and Maurice Levy. It’s a global diktat to every agency since this is how a brand seeking to enter the country decides on who to start talking to. Every country head is measured by creative reputation as much as bottomline. If you deliver 21 per cent instead of 23 per cent you are sacked, but if you’ve got a creative reputation with 21 per cent, you get your bonus.”


And so what it comes down to is this; when the agency man’s stuck at the wrong end of the barrel, even the most virtuous will start Gunning for more awards. Don’t blame the player, blame the game.


Source:The Economic Times

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