The Great Outdoor

Vote. Zero. Next.”

It’s a common refrain in a darkened studio at the W Hotel in Times Square, where seven judges sit around a table holding sticks attached to smiley faces. As some outdoor ads appear on a screen, the smiles shoot up, but mostly they stay put and the moderator calls for the next slide. “Vote. Zero. Next.”

The judges for this year’s Obie Awards, sponsored by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, are spending a late- February day sifting through 700 entries in 13 categories. There is little discussion and little movement of the smiley faces. An ad for Legally Blonde on a bus side gets zero votes. An ad for the New York Lottery gets zero votes. An ad for Chevy gets zero votes.

“This year, the judges are a little bit more discerning,” says OAAA chief marketing officer Stephen Freitas, crediting the selectivity in part to this year’s chief judge, the VCU Adcenter’s Rick Boyko, who helped coordinate the jury panel.

“There were some standouts, but they were very few and far between,” says Bruce Bildsten, creative director at Fallon in Minneapolis. Along with him on the jury are John Connolly, svp at MediaCom in New York; Brian Haselton, national creative director at Adams Outdoor in Charlotte, N.C.; Zak Mroueh, vp and creative director at Taxi Advertising and Design in Toronto; Beverly Okada, creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York; and Kevin Proudfoot, associate creative director at Wieden + Kennedy in New York.

When the judges get excited, it’s for an Ikea ad by Crispin Porter + Bogusky that has a small piece of furniture hanging off a billboard-size price tag and for TBWA\Chiat\Day’s “Silhouette” ads for Apple’s iPod. Okada explains that her favorite is the Ikea ad because “it’s selling the product directly in a clever way, in a way that makes their brand come through and their culture come through.” Plus, she notes, the ad would translate in any country.

Bildsten praises Taxi’s work for Mini in Canada, including an installation consisting of a caged Mini and a sign urging passersby not to feed the car. “It was a really nice use of the medium,” he says.

It’s a medium whose scope and visibility has been on the rise, thanks to high-profile, inventive work such as CP+B’s for Mini—cars positioned outside supermarkets just like kiddie rides, for example—and TBWA Japan’s live-action soccer-game billboard for Adidas. But judging from the reaction to the Obie entries, that kind of work is still in the minority.

“Like any other show I’ve judged, there’s really great work you’re jealous of and then there’s everything else,” says Proudfoot, who cites a Carmichael Lynch Cub Scouts ad showing cartoon figures of the Scouts as one favorite.

Adds Boyko: “The stuff that’s good is really good.”

Bildsten notes that some work from his shop, for clients such as BMW and United Airlines, wasn’t entered due to a miscommunication between the shop and its media agency. “It’s frustrating, and it may have happened to others as well,” he says.

Before the second round of judging begins, following lunch, Mroueh shows the jury a 2002 campaign Taxi created for a hip-hop radio station, pointing out its resemblance to the iPod ads: Taxi’s work also featured silhouettes of hip-hop dancers against brightly colored backgrounds. Bildsten later explains that the judges decided iPod still deserved a finalist nod, even though the ads were “very close” to Taxi’s.

In the afternoon, the jury debates the merits of the entries that won first-round votes. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners’ “+HP” campaign stirs one of the most contentious discussions. The ads—bright subway-station posters showing people taking pictures—got few votes in the morning, with some judges arguing the work didn’t have enough of an “idea.”

More judges warm to the work in the second round, and “HP+” becomes a finalist. “It’s like you were in the advertising,” says Proudfoot. “You’ve seen pluses on page and on TV screens, and suddenly you’re walking through a space that feels like you’re experiencing the graphic identity that the company is putting forth. That’s as interesting as a witty headline.”

By day’s end, CP+B scores the most entries on the finalist list—which is being released today—with its work for Ikea, the Miami Rescue Mission, Mini and Molson. Leo Burnett and its LB Works unit land three nominations: Starbucks, Altoids and Tampax. Other multiple finalists are Bartle Bogle Hegarty, DDB, McCann-Erickson and Taxi, with two nominated campaigns apiece. The awards will be presented April 20 in New York.

“In the end, the cream of the crop was outstanding,” Bildsten says. “Outdoor is more important than ever. People are realizing you can take over a city and put messages where [consumers] relate to things around them.”