December 2, 2021

Four observations from judging your first award show

Evan Dulaney

Senior Copywriter

A few years ago, when I got my start in advertising, I overheard a conversation centered almost completely on lions and pencils. I was a little perplexed. It wasn’t a chat about someone’s Animal Planet binge or the superiority of Ticonderoga #2s. And it didn’t involve any of that agency’s clients – we weren’t in the wildlife or writing utensils verticals as far as I knew. So, I eavesdropped a little more closely and finally realized they were talking about some of advertising’s most hotly coveted awards. Palm, meet face. 

Thankful my naïveté wasn’t exposed, I started to educate myself on, ya know, some of the most important barometers for success in my chosen career field. These babies were boons for agencies and could adorn your CV like merit badges on a Boy Scout’s sash. They were hard-earned recognition for our creative art. And while they aren’t the end-all-be-all of a career, or even a brief, they’re the ultimate carrot to produce your best innovative work. 

One of the first questions I had, though, was simple: Who judges these things? Was Cannes determined by some nameless cabal? Were there advertising gods that convened in the great halls of Adlantis and decreed another win for Wieden + Kennedy? Nope. Instead, it’s often a healthy mix of seasoned marketing professionals, CMOs, CDs, ECDs, CCOs, and BAMFs. People who’ve seen it all, know it all, and done it all. 

And also me.  

Yep. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to be a judge for the Campaign US BIG Awards, which recognizes the top creative work across various media disciplines and business sectors. First, I had that sense of “Who let this guy in?” A lingering, unhealthy dose of imposter syndrome made it feel like I was being summoned to judge the NBA Slam Dunk Contest right after I just learned how to touch the rim. These awards, however, were designed to let some fresh blood in; the juries were purposefully comprised of “up-and-coming creatives with three to five years in the industry.” No important acronyms needed. I met the criteria. 

I was honored and thrilled to be part of the process. Just as chefs might dine at a competitor’s restaurants for field research, I believe in sampling what comes out of other agencies’ ovens. It keeps you inspired and curious while allowing you to refine your creative palate. Judging was like eating your way across Michelin star restaurants (and eating for free, no less!). My fellow jurors and I had a unique inside look at the year’s top work and discussed the entries with the same fervor and passionate debate that my friends and I analyze the Fast & Furious franchise. Only these conversations resulted in, well, actual results. 

Since confidentiality is crucial to the show, I can’t get too specific about the pieces I judged, but I can dive into a few key takeaways from the experience:

Originality Still Wins

Fresh ideas are the currency of our business. They tend to make the biggest market impact and they tend to win the awards. It shouldn’t be a surprise, but originality is much easier said than done. We live in a culture that recycles IP more than we recycle plastics, so when something is new and innovative, it stands out. Some entries regurgitated tropes or concepts we’ve all seen before. It doesn’t mean they were bad—remakes can be awesome—but they couldn’t transcend the echelon of the original no matter how hard they tried.   

Commit to the Trend

Gone are the days of simply just being in the conversation. To make waves, it’s best to be the conversation. There was a clear separation between entries that were simply hopping on a trend and those that went all-in on a trend. What does it mean to go all in? Use your resources to make a new product, change packaging or collaborate with someone new in ways that stay true to the trend and your brand. Going far beyond a one-off social post won’t just make you part of the narrative, it lets you be the narrator. 

Not Everyone Agrees

This was the ultimate reminder that art is subjective. Yes, we pin quantifiable, meaningful metrics to creative (i.e. earned impressions, views, conversions, etc.), but that’s only part of the equation when judging work. Taste is a factor, and that’s the case whether you’re an award show juror or an everyday consumer in a focus group. My jury ran into this a few times and, guess what, that’s ok! We defended our arguments, agreed to disagree, and let democracy (a.k.a. our scoring sheets) do its thing. 

The Future is Bright

Several entries addressed social, political, and environmental issues with solutions that actually moved the needle. This isn’t necessarily unique to this year, brands and agencies have done this for quite some time, but it’s becoming more and more prevalent. And we should expect creative to continue to tackle Earth’s myriad problems because they aren’t going away any time soon. Seeing the innovative, impactful output of our industry gave me hope that creatives and clients will make a difference in everything from climate change to racial justice. Hearing the passion ooze from the jury as we deliberated these entries, it became evident that the up-and-coming legions of creatives are activist artists who’ll use their talents for good. 

If the opportunity to judge a show ever comes a-knockin’, I say take it. Remember, it’s like a free meal at advertising’s best eateries. You walk away feeling rejuvenated and inspired.  And while it’s unlikely every single piece of creative should be overnighted to Cannes, it’s important to have the ambition to think big and ask questions (one of Curiosity’s strong suits, I might add) on every brief. This won’t just yield award-winning work; it can yield the best results for clients. Read The Case for Creativity by James Hurman if you don’t believe me. This book, which I read shortly after my lions and pencils epiphany, shows a strong correlation between creative excellence and campaign effectiveness. Thus, the hunger for awards and the thirst for metric client success are not mutually exclusive. They’re one in the same that can leave everyone a winner.

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