Why Awards Shows Are Broken - And Why We Can't Stop Attending Them

In the 1950’s somebody had the genius idea of hosting the first advertising awards show.

It offered a space for folk to get together and celebrate all that was creative and innovative; to see what the other side was up to and bounce ideas about freely. In an industry where people rarely pat you on the back, awards shows offered a space for just that.

And for a while all was good.

Then things started to get a little out of hand. Nowadays, millions of dollars are collectively poured into entry fees annually. There are enough shows that you could enter almost two every day of the year (with a two-week break to recuperate). Some clever agencies have begun satirising the very concept of awards, and according to one source, there are shows in more countries than even exist.

They’ve become an industry in and of themselves – which begs the question: how much back-patting is too much?

Before we go ahead and attempt to answer that very loaded question, we’ll preface by saying that we’re not going to just chime into the idle chorus droning on about awards shows being evil. They still have a lot of merit.

There are many reasons why awards shows have swelled in size and importance over the last few decades and this is not an attempt to deride them as a concept. Just to point out a few of the trends that got this conversation started in the first place.

Let’s begin with the major reasons why advertising awards shows exist.

Competitive Bullshitting

You might have heard this one before: awards shows facilitate creativity. It’s a given. Put a bunch of creatives in a room, ask who is the most creative, and sit back with a glass of rosé and watch the ideas flow. Nothing gets people going like comparing themselves to one another.

Now pushing people to one-up each other for a shiny prize may not be the most positive means to an end, but it creates some killer content, right? And advertising is, after all, a competition for attention – why should awards shows be any different?

The attentive reader might chirp up here that awarding work based on creative merit is flawed because you can’t measure creativity objectively. They wouldn’t be wrong. The counterargument might be that decades of awards shows past have set the precedent for the quality of work that deserves merit, and you can definitely measure entries by that standard. The real question is: whose standard is that?

There’s an underlying assumption to all of this that the more creative a campaign is, the better advertising it is. The more ‘worthy’ it is. It’s not untrue, good creative sells.

But who’s judging the creative that gets awarded? Other industry creatives, that’s who. And aside from the glaringly obvious conflict of interest, there’s a larger issue at foot here.

That problem is that often creative goes so far up its own ass trying to win awards that it misses the point altogether – selling the product. It’s creatives selling to other creatives rather than consumers. Here’s a parable by a contentious figure that spells this out a bit better.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of culture that awards shows have established and continue to cater to. There’s an echo chamber happening that’s leading to a total disconnect between industry and consumer, and awards shows are fanning the fire. The ‘creativity’ that awards shows claim to facilitate is wasted if not applied meaningfully to business problems.

You Gotta P(l)ay to Win

The awards show model seems pretty watertight at a glance. Awards are given for creative excellence. The creatives that win awards get the pick of the crop with agency jobs, and vice versa. Clients can distinguish the most creative agencies by their awards and shift their business accordingly. Overall, the collective creative bar of the industry is raised.

Everybody is happy. Well, on paper, anyway.

If you’ve been to one of the larger awards shows recently (or just kept up with industry news) you may have smelled the discontent that’s been brewing underneath it all.

‘Scam’ ads are rampant. Claims of corruption among jury members have been brought to light. Several large agencies have pointedly backed out from entering awards shows altogether. It’s common knowledge that an agency’s chance of winning awards is correlated with how deep its pockets are and whether their ECD is on the judging panel. It’s all a little doom-and-gloom.

So should we be worried?

The simple answer is no – not for those reasons anyway. People were saying the same things 30 years ago. Advertising awards shows are an integral part of the game, and they’re here to stay. For now, the highs are still there, and the collective hangover hasn’t hit yet.

What we should do is question the efficacy of awards shows at doing what they say they do.

It’s not that entering awards shows makes you a lemming. You have to play the game to win. Lots of influencers in the community realise that awards should be a by-product, not an end product, and are vocal in saying so – so by all means if think you’ve made an award-worthy piece of work, go enter it!

The real issue is the tunnel vision that comes with the prestige that awards shows manufacture. There’s a sweet irony there – the industry devoted to selling things has been convincingly sold the idea that awards are necessary. Oh, and the entry fees of course. It’s no secret that awards shows are big-business profiting off an industry that’s obsessed with winning. There should be an awards show for awards shows – they already did it with the statuettes.

A Sign of the Times

Aside from getting us to buy what they’re selling (yeah, we admit it, we’re hypocrites too), one thing that advertising awards shows do really well is that they act as a cultural barometer.

Some wise guy once said that advertising is a reflection of culture. So it would make sense that awards shows are the largest cultural mirrors that exist. While it’s unclear if most of society is wearing business casual while networking in southern France, we’d wager that if you were to line up the Cannes Lions Grand Prix winners since the festival’s inception, you’d have a pretty nice visual timeline of culture since.

The thing is, as much as there's a dark side to awards shows, there's no real incentive to change them. They're a deeply ingrained part of the ad-world. They're also the few weeks where we can kick back and forget about pitches and deadlines, so we figure that as long as you don't take them too seriously, they're OK, right?

Let’s be real – we like to keep up with what’s hot. We like to see what’s going on, what technologies are about to boom and who is using them. We like the flashiness and the lustre and the allure of the new. We like the statuettes and the rosé and having the same conversation 6 times in half an hour with people who look like janky celebrity look-alikes.

We like being a part of something that makes it all seem worth it, and most of all, we like the validation that comes from having our back patted. Maybe a little part of us even needs it – and maybe that’s why we keep going back.

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