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Shiny Metal Objects

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Yes folks, it's that time of year again when hearts go aflutter with visions of shiny metal objects. I'm speaking, of course, of awards season.

There are at least 39 awards shows in advertising. I've counted. And I'm sure I left out a few. With so many awards, and more each year, the hardest thing to judge may be which, if any, to enter. Is an Addy better than an Andy? Is a Cannes Lion better than a Clio? And, perhaps most importantly, do any matter to clients?

I know the feeling of winning awards. It's great having your work and name flashed on a big screen and acknowledged by your peers. For a twenty- or thirtysomething creative person, those first awards can be both a confidence booster and career builder. Now, as a business owner with a different focus, I'm wondering if it's worth the effort.

The new business prospects I'm talking to don't care how many Addys or Andys or 4A's awards we've won. Most don't know what an Addy, Andy or 4A's award is. What they do know is that they need marketing help. And not even, necessarily, advertising help. They care about ROI. And they want to know if we have our finger on the pulse of Web 2.0 and can help them invest their marketing dollars wisely.

As consumer buying habits change, and the media changes, and traditional ads lose the impact they once had, clients are taking a more critical look at ad agencies. When judging an agency, the questions that most clients are asking are not "How many awards have you won?" and "What does the 4A's think of you?" but "What's your experience with social media?" and "How can we take advantage of it?"

I used social media to help answer this question about awards by posting it on the Adweek and LinkedIn Web forums. Those on the creative and new business sides saw awards as a helpful tool. Others believed that thought leadership and, ultimately, business results were what excited clients. For better or worse, many weren't convinced of a direct correlation between creative awards and sales success. One agency exec revealed a strategy used by a huge and successful advertiser not normally associated with highly creative work. To get some positive industry visibility the advertiser would take a few dollars out of its monstrous ad budget and allow a few award-caliber ads to run in obscure magazines or on 3 a.m. TV.  

Nick Wreden, an international branding expert and author of Profit Brand: How to Increase the Profitability, Accountability and Sustainability of Brands, believes that advertising awards actually hurt the industry: "The plethora of awards is dragging the industry into irrelevance in the eyes of the business community, which is especially disheartening at a time when marketing is trying to win a long-sought seat in executive boardrooms." He likens the awards show judging process to "having fathers and mothers referee their children's football games." For agencies to be treated as strategic partners instead of glorified art schools, he says, they "must judge advertising by the same standards that business uses to judge itself." Saying that awards hurt the industry may be extreme, but I understand his point.

Ad agencies, like all businesses, must find ways to differentiate themselves from the competition. Awards are one way to do that. So are press, speeches, interviews, trade articles, client testimonies, case studies, a great Web site, blogs, podcasts and good search engine optimization. Are creative awards better than thought-leadership articles? Is press better than a great Web site? Talk to different people and you'll probably get different answers. But one thing is certain: As more eyeballs and ad dollars migrate online, more clients are going online to research and judge agencies. What comes up when they do that is becoming another important barometer. I call it Google credibility, or G-cred. As marketing directors and CEOs try to decide who can help them grow their business in the coming decade, the question is: What's better, ad awards or G-cred?

Even with the rapid online migration, Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP Group, contends that the amount of money companies spend on the Internet is out of sync with the extent to which consumers are using it. At the recent DLD08 conference in Munich, Sorrell said that his company's clients spend about 10 percent of their budgets on digital media, whereas consumers now spend 20 percent of their time online. He contends that's "a disconnect that has to correct."

It's been 17 years since the Clio Awards debacle when an angry, crazed crowd rushed the stage to grab a trophy. I was an eyewitness that evening as my agency, Follis/DeVito/Verdi, was a finalist in three categories. A couple days later the front page of Adweek featured the unflattering photo of two tuxedoed ad execs, teeth bared and fists clenched around the same Clio. I know that people in this industry would like to forget that night. I just wonder how many clients have.

John Follis heads up FollisInc.com and authors The Follis Report blog. He can be reached at john@follisinc.com.