Last week, the D&AD New Blood pencils were handed out at a glitzy ball in London. Tipsy, freshly minted students swaggered on stage to collect their trophies, big ambitions in every gleeful smile with thankfully none of the big egos to match.
To every one of them, I say well done. You worked hard, competed against the best in the world and came out triumphant. You earned that stage. Some of us have been there in the past, like my partner, a Lincoln graduate who won his New Blood Pencil what must now seem like ages ago.
However, while I have nothing but praise for those involved, I think these awards are teaching us a lesson, one that the industry refuses to hear.
Every year, I keenly follow New Blood, getting inspired by brilliant ideas. And, let’s be honest, some of them put us to shame. D&AD is known for having some of the highest standards in the world for good reason. But time after time, a bitter aftertaste remains for a singular reason: While many of these campaigns are unquestionably brilliant, they never ever get made.
Today I am asking a question that I’ve not seen asked before. Why is this the case?
Brands work in partnership with D&AD to set open briefs. Edgy, often transgressive briefs that task students with tackling some of the biggest social issues and trending problems through marketing.
And yet every year at the end of New Blood, those brilliant yellow and even black pencil winners get put back on the shelf. The festival ends with the same refrain: “Thanks, but no thanks.”
So, what do pencil winning students do? The best of them get snapped up by ad agencies, and within a few months they’re on the intern or junior placements circuit doing the rounds of the top agencies in town. And in a strange, sad way, it’s all downhill from there. Many young people will gradually become disillusioned with yet another banner ad, yet another piece of social content, yet another asinine brand partnership.
Today I’m asking clients and brands: What happened to your courage?
If these ideas are good enough to win some of the best accolades our industry has to offer, then they’re damn well good enough to get made.
For example, in the Adidas brief, which would have been hotly contested, a Black Pencil was awarded for a campaign called “Make Waves With Waves.” The idea started with a simple but brilliant insight: “70% of black girls can’t swim and five and a half times more black kids die drowning than white kids.” So Adidas would empower black girls to swim with free lessons, swim caps and after-swim haircare products. It addressed an elephant in the room—the social pressure and racial discrimination around black girl’s hair—showing and championing positive role models to get them in the pool.
A day later, the ad industry will go back to work and those brilliant ideas will be forgotten and abandoned. Why? Well, perhaps in the case of the random example above it would be seen as perhaps too racially divisive.
“Does Adidas have a right to make this sort of statement?” one fearful account manager will ask.
A brand manager will pipe up, eager to kill it off, “I have some concern regarding the potential for this campaign to be seen as pandering. It’s not an area we want to get involved in.”
Time passes, as it does. Months later, Adidas will reveal another uninspiring campaign, stacked full of celebrities and influencers, yet completely bereft of creative magic. If we as an industry really want to say that we give a damn about so-called brand purpose, then these are the sort of campaigns we really need to be making.
Creatives often think they have the most important job in an agency, but we don’t. We need persuasive colleagues that can sell great work and make campaigns like this happen. We need to persuade CMOs to make the hard choices, not the easy ones. It’s not safe to produce a campaign that looks like everyone else’s.
I love D&AD New Blood, but it simply illustrates a widening gulf between the very best in creativity and increasingly scared agencies unable to sell it in. After all, what’s the point of having a great idea that goes nowhere?