Thursday, 5 June, 2008

Awards and the graveyard

It is common knowledge that ad agencies live on awards, and only the very untalented and shameless say anything against them, more so since 'research proves that award-winning ads work actually work'.

As a certified loser, I can dare.

Let's start by looking at this research, by Donald Gunn ( actually says. I'll paraphrase his article, Do Award-Winning Commercials Sell?, which you'll find in How Advertising Works (edited by John Philip Jones).

Dunn investigated 200 of the most awarded commercials of 1994-5, which between them had won 1,483 awards around the world. He found that:
  1. 174 (87%) 'were associated with marketplace success'.
  2. 119 'achieved or surpassed' objectives in terms of 'specified increases in sales value or sales volume or share'
  3. 55 were successful against 'attitudinal or awareness or image-related goals'
  4. For more than 50, over 25%, the level of business success was 'astonishing'
  5. On comparing the data with that from his 1994 study, he found the results 'remarkably similar'.
By the 1996 data, 72.50%, or 3 out of 4, of the commercials were successful. Overall, the success rate is 86.5%.

Which is great because, according to Gunn, “In any given market category over a given period of time, what tends to be happening on average is that about one-third of the brands are going up, one-third are going down, and one-third are holding. The 86.5% success record found in this study is more than 2.5 times better than 33%.” (My emphasis.)

In short, we have clinching proof that awards are not only good for egos, increments and promotions; they also do good for clients' businesses. It's win-win!

So what's wrong? Plenty.

First, the survey suffers from the same defect as the The Millionaire Mind, a book that Nassim Taleb (of Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness fame) calls the stupidest book around.

This book, after examining the traits of some extraordinarily rich guys, declares that one thing they have in common is a big appetite for risk. In doing so, Taleb points out, it most conveniently ignores the 'graveyard statistic' of multitudinous risk-takers who did not get rich but ended in financial ruin. Had the author of Millionaire Mind taken this static into account, he'd have probably concluded that taking risks, in spite of the stupendous returns it sometimes fetches, is unjustifiably risky.

(I haven't read The Millionaire Mind but Dr Taleb's analysis is good enough for me. That places me on the same footing as Gunn's disciples, though with one redeeming difference. I'm painfully aware that I'm taking something on face value.)

Gunn ignores the graveyard statistic of award-aiming ads which didn't make it to the podium. At the very least, he should have looked at ads entered for awards instead of just the super-winners.

The real peeve of the sour losers is not against the award-winners, whom they are wildly jealous of, but the triers. In other words, we feel that awards pickle impressionable minds and pulls the entire industry off-target.

Also, the very fact that these ads surpassed marketing goals hints at the possibility of there being more aims than creative excellence in their commissioning. While we may conclude that creative excellence didn't harm, can we be as sure that it helped? Did it make the critical difference?

As an advertising practitioner with a dozen years' experience (admittedly, in the Dark East), I can vouch that ad campaigns are rarely backed by well-thought through marketing plans and quantified goals. So Gunn was, in any case, comparing positive anomalies.

Last, but not least, he picked commercials, which form, to this day, a small fraction of the ads that are entered for awards or win them. There are far more award categories for print. The reason is very simple. While TV commercials probably account for the lion's share of overall ATL marketing communication spends, print makes up the numbers.

I'm sure advertisers and agencies think far harder and longer before deciding to make and run a commercial than they do when they have to decide on a press ad.

Plus, scam press ads are fairly common. Even the most renowned agencies indulge in this sin. Ads are run in publications that exist in name alone, to fulfill an award entry criterion. (Think state-funded 'art movies' made solely for the awards circuit, and not for commercial release.) The equivalent for TV commercials is unheard of, perhaps because it is well-nigh economically impossible. Again, the choosen medium points to the possibility of there being more than creativity at work.

But sour grapes apart, why do I rant? Partially, because it's my favourite passtime. But I rant because I genuinely believe that the ad industry, by making awards the sole yardstick of creative excellence, does itself a disservice. By 'overvaluing' genius, it shuts out craftsmen to the extent that it now faces a crisis for the latter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's that fundamental of economics (and direct marketing), isn't it? People respond to incentives. And in every shade of agency, people are incentivised to produce award-winning work, not craftsman-like stuff that works.