Are CSR and Socially Relevant Ads dominating Creative Awards?

18 Apr,2018


By Sanjeev Kotnala


‘So we have a new agency of the year’… my chirpy greeting to an industry veteran while leaving Goa’s Grand Hyatt got an unexciting almost conversation closing reply  ‘You wearing a nice red shirt, and the jeans are good too’.

I realised it was not a good subject to discuss. The dejection was complete.  The excitement of the IPL inaugural match came handy to bridge the chasm.

But it is worth spending some time on the subject. We are pushing Creativity In Advertising into the list of most endangered art in business communication.



Abby is a transparent award system. The agencies earn points on legitimate advertising released within universally known rules. It is an award that is brand-, category-, size-, cause-, medium- and effort-agnostic. It aims to primarily focus and award uniqueness and relevance of the expression to the clients business.

The Master Jury at Abby putting their name to the creative awards included Prasoon Joshi, Agnello Dias, Amer Jaleel, Arun Iyer, Alok Nanda, Abhijit Avasthi, ‎Bobby Pawar,  K.V. Sridhar,  Nitesh Tiwari, Prashant Godbole, Raj Kamble, Raj Deepak Das, Santosh Padhi, Senthil Kumar and  Swati Bhattacharya.

Yes, like every other mega-award, there is no limitation on entering the work across multiple relevant categories and winning. And no restriction if a digital agency enters print craft. There are no restrictions and a debate on it will lead nowhere.

You cannot fault an agency winning basis pro bono, legitimate just-for-awards work, campaigns for an unheard client or winning across categories that are not part of their perceived competence arena. If one has reservations about it,  then one must change the rules rather than find fault with the agency’s desire and ambition to win.

I believe, the absentee agencies alone do not define the level of creativity in this country.  The issue is important but not good enough to cast doubts on winning agency’s efforts. I perssonally endorse Ashish Bhasin’s observation ‘Everyone who is going home with a metal from Goafest 2018 is truly deserving of victory and I congratulate each and every one of them for their incredible wins. It is definitely truly deserved.’

The only solution is in making awards more exciting and challenging along with getting maximum agencies to enter their best work.



The net impression voiced by many is full of negativism. It seems creativity is confined to safe and presumably non-controversial ‘Cause Marketing’ and ‘NGO’ space.  The creativity in Indian awards does seem to be over-skewed at the moment.



CMOs are under relentless pressure to deliver results. The QSQT syndrome and consumer shifting loyalties make them vulnerable to the extent of being creativephobic. Their ability to take a risk, amplify valid insight and to take punt creatively is severely restricted. And, if they do get a brilliant idea, that is relevant, original and impactful, they are professionally human enough to run with it.



Creative agencies have multiple agenda. Their success and growth are linked to revenue results and is at the mercy of the client CMO and top management.  The weak spine makes no efforts to push the envelope.

On the other hand, the brand buzz and awards are business leveraging tools. They also impact employee satisfaction and pride.

Today, an ethical misadventure can lead to significant collateral damage.  The game is played and won, without breaking the rules. Hence, the question of ethics and morality does not arise.

Not equating pro bono or social service campaigns with creative developed for corporate brands is being utterly myopic in approach. Every one of them is a brand and a client the moment they pay for their creative development and exposure. It does not matter and is never the criteria for evaluation, if the client is small or large, focussed or diffused, regional, local or national.

Yes,  there is enough ‘only for awards work’ in the industry. Some clients appear to disappear after the awards season. There are new charities that are one-time wonders. The genuineness of work cannot be questioned beyond the specified rules. Where guidelines are violated with impunity, don’t expect unsaid norms, ethical and morality guiding agencies to enter what is loosely called genuine work.



The organisers cannot find a solution to a global problem. Please do share, if you have a solution. The organisers need to be fair in evaluation and application of rules. They need to create a jury that is respected and ensure that the voting is unbiased and uninfluenced by external factors. Hopefully, we do not have issues on this subject.

There are rules, and then there are escape routes. Globally organisers have tried their best to avoid unexciting morale-dampening incidents. They can narrowcast the net on the size of business, time of exposure, value and frequency of exposure or any other parameter unless they redesign the complete awards. The advertising club has done so with the Marquees awards, Afaqs with FoxGlove awards, and IAA has successfully done it with the Olive Crown Awards, IndIAA Awards and IAA Leadership awards.



The smaller clients and NGO are a fertile ground for creative expression. They are willing to take a punt.

One can’t fault agencies unearthing these wonderfully cooperative organisation willing to sing the tune and help them expose creatively powered expressions.  It becomes a release valve against the rationalised murder of creativity in many boardrooms.

The only problem is a long-term issue. Such escape routes instead of providing an exponential positive upward shift can potentially force us into a downward spiral. If it happens, it will further mar the industry image and create rifts that will be impossible to fill.



It seems that size of the brand in the real marketplace and creative award-winning potential is negatively correlated. Even, if the high revenue brands win, they do so on tactical, festivities, CSR oriented Cause marketing, ground activation and sporadic non-revenue initiatives.

There is a rhetoric question. Why does creativity die a natural death in regular brand building campaigns? Presumably, the brands address the same target audience with the award-winning creative and the brand-building campaigns. In that case, one of the approaches is not right. Or one of them knowingly ignores consumer understanding. And this is the birth of ‘Only for awards’ campaigns.

It is acceptable to infer that the campaigns backed with mega organisational budgets and where the CMO puts the neck on the block is the right one.

The argument that there are other awards for effectiveness, relevant and impact is misdirecting the debate.



I never said there is a solution on hand. The award has evolved via negativa. It’s all about knowing that something is wrong than to be able to fix it. Actions that remove are more robust than those that add because addition may have an unseen complicated feedback loop.

While this is a fear that traps most organisations and Industry bodies. We must applaud the organisers to have taken some positive steps in the directions. Not all of them are popular with the industry.

I do not expect an early solution. You can’t correct this situation with awards continuing to be a measure of creativity without efforts, inputs, longevity and results.

I believe, there is enough reason to introspect and keep the debate alive. This is no elephant in the room. Maybe the churn will lead to moksha.



Meanwhile, I heard the industry veteran say: I have told my team that the next three month agenda is to find, pitch and cultivate clients like the one that won. I refuse to play football with IPL rules.

That was an entirely human reaction. I wish him success as it keeps the light at the end of the tunnel super bright.


Sanjeev Kotnala is a senior strategy consultant and educator. The views here are personal



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