The One Show in Mexico: Watching the World’s Top Creatives Judge 2016’s Best Ads

Scenes from purgatory and paradise in Playa del Carmen

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico—The spring sun is baking the white sand of the Quintana Roo coast, and flashing off one of the biggest infinity pools you've ever seen, here at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya, a sprawling, seriously swanky resort where families are shelling out $1,500 a night to enjoy a flawless week in March far from the spring-breaking kids sardined on beaches an hour up the road in Cancun.

Dozens of top advertising creatives are here this week, too. Not that they have much of an idea what's going on down at the beach.

They're spending most of their time in cool, darkened rooms up at the resort's conference center, a shuttle ride away from the coast, judging The One Show. It's a funny thing about judging these kinds of shows: You fly thousands of miles to a stunning vacation spot, and then you mostly have to work—for a dozen hours a day, sometimes more—in windowless rooms that might as well be in Toledo.

The Grand Velas Riviera Maya

The stunning scenery and impeccable accommodations simply serve as solace for an indisputable fact—that judging is a long slog, and can be very hard work.

The One Show jurors for 2016, a who's who of revered creatives from all over the world, have been arriving and leaving, in shifts, for a week now—staying a few days at a time, depending on the rigors of their particular jury. (Some category judging lasts barely more than a day; the Film jurors were stuck watching the monitors for four.)

I've come down, too, to see how it all works: the briefing, debating, philosophizing, voting, the sheer endurance contest of looking at thousands of individual pieces of advertising and design—and deciding, as a group, which of them are any good (and which creatives, as a result, will enjoy a nice boost to their careers).

In many ways, let's agree, it's an absurd task.

Getting a dozen people from a dozen agencies in multiple countries on a single jury to agree on what inspires them, what excites them, what moves them, what could move the industry—it's no wonder these things can get contentious. Then make it 13 of those juries. Then add in elements of nationalism and career-making, and the jury rooms at some award shows can get downright hostile.

The goal, mostly, is an admirable one—honor the year's best advertising. Of course, that's easier said than done. Sure, there are occasionally pieces of work we can all agree are singularly great. The rest? It's subjective—intensely so. Any system that aims to resolve that subjectivity into an objective list of winners will always be fraught with pitfalls.

Gerard Caputo of BBH New York

The jurors all wrestle with this, individually and as a group. Gerard Caputo, executive creative director at BBH New York and a Print & Outdoor juror this week, tells me there's a particular irony in subjecting top creatives to this kind of work in the first place.

"It's a really hard thing to take something that's so subjective and put it into a format to be evaluated," he says. "It's actually what we hate, as creatives, when we do our work with clients. They do that!"

But do it, these juries must. And at least it's creatives doing the judging, not clients.


Direct Judging

Both the Direct and Print & Outdoor juries are doing their final judging on the afternoon I arrive. They've already weeded out hundreds of entries at home, judging on the computer, before even coming to Mexico. Now, after another round of judging here, they're looking over the finalists and picking the winners—the entries that will get Gold, Silver and Bronze Pencils, or merit awards, which is a step down from Bronze. (Most finalists will receive one of these four prizes, though a handful of finalists will be left out of the annual entirely.)

As if it didn't have enough to do, the Direct jury has spent much of its time trying to decide what, exactly, the definition of direct marketing is these days. (This is hardly the first ad awards jury to be stymied in this way.) Direct used to refer simply to direct mail and direct response TV advertising. But with the advent of social media, in particular, much more work is explicitly seeking a response from the consumer—even if it's just a "like."

"There's two parts to this," Direct juror Pam Fujimoto, ecd at WongDoody in Los Angeles, tells me over lunch. "One, there's direct in terms of how you target someone more directly. And then there's the response you're trying to elicit on the other side—what kind of response, and what degree of response. Our discussion was around: Is a response that's as passive as a like or a share enough? Or does it have to be something that feels more transactional, or more specific, but maybe not all the way to a 'Call this number now,' like in the old definition, where we're making a sale. There's this big grey area."

Pam Fujimoto of WongDoody

"Does a like correlate to a buy? That's the million dollar question," adds juror Dan Fietsam, who was chief creative officer at BBDO Chicago and then ecd at FCB Chicago before starting his own business, The Fietsam Group, late last year.

Kevin Swanepoel, the One Club CEO, likes to be on hand in each jury room during the final round, if he can, to help answer these kinds of questions. (He or the One Club's content and marketing chief, Yash Egami, serve as facilitators of the discussion at this critical stage, as One Show juries, unlike many other award shows, don't have jury presidents.)

In the end, Swanepoel has suggested not putting too strict an interpretation on what could be considered direct work. "I think it helped that Kevin opened up the definition of it to make it a little looser," says Fujimoto. "In the end, it ended up somewhere in between. I was worried about it skewing too far in either direction—that anything is direct, or that it has to be something that elicits a sale directly. That rules out so many great pieces of work."

There was glowing discussion around a number of specific direct pieces.

Among them: McCann Copenhagen's "Europe's Most Punctual Offer" campaign for Scandinavian Airlines, a game that challenged people online to get fare discounts by screen-capturing SAS airplanes that were landing in real time; BBDO Russia's 3M campaign that turned retargeted banner ads into Post-it notes; and BETC's registration form for Canal+ that made the most boring part of paid TV—signing up for it—a lot more entertaining.