Very Faint Praise

Award-show season is near, and it’s time to get those entries in. While you’re reviewing your greatest hits, you might want to dig through your graveyard of dead ads—the ones that are produced but never make it to print, on air, or to whatever home they were intended for. If you’re still mourning a few of them, you may get them the recognition they deserve. No, hopefully not by trying to pass them off as real ads (as many people have in the past, in what are commonly referred to among award juries as “ghost” ads or more scandalous “scam” ads), but by entering them in a new category, “Playground,” at this year’s Art Directors Club Awards.

Paul Lavoie, chairman and chief creative officer of Taxi in Toronto and New York, heads the jury for the 84th annual competition, scheduled for June. As part of his charge this year, he will ask the jury to recognize advertising “as part of a broader canvas.” To be able to do that, the show has added two categories: “Playground,” which intends to reward work that was produced for clients but never ran; and “Hybrid,” designed to recognize nontraditional advertising.

Introducing Hybrid is smart, considering the increasing value placed on the efforts judged in this group—integrated work, viral campaigns, branded content. But what about Playground?

Lavoie argues that it’s the answer to the increasing presence in award shows of those ghost and scam ads. Many juries have been duped by them, and agencies have even had to rescind trophies, hang their heads in shame and hope they don’t get blacklisted the next year. What this indicates, says Lavoie, is that there’s a need for a outlet for this work, and the Art Directors Club is providing one. “The Playground is a place where you can experiment with new ideas and raw techniques,” he says. “In fashion, people don’t wear half the stuff on the runway, but it defines new trends.”

I think it does only one thing: It encourages more ghost and scam ads by validating them with an award. Actually it does something worse: It perpetuates the idea that creatives produce their work with something other than the client’s best intentions in mind—to win awards —an idea that many in creative circles have long struggled to dispel.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting work that hasn’t been produced commercially published somehow, but [Playground] exposes a little bit of the reason people enter awards, which is sometimes not a good reason,” says Jeff Goodby. “Creative people have worked really hard not to be seen as airheads that make work for their own satisfaction, and this kind of goes against that argument.”

Although the category is properly named, I still don’t feel this type of work has any place in a professional ad-award show. They’re not ghost ads or scam ads. They’re not ads at all. They never made it through the rigorous process and out into the world. And that’s the name of the game. The whole point of making the work is for it to be real advertising, not personal art.

I’m sure the work will be enjoyed and appreciated for what it is, but it won’t dissuade the scamming. Those hungry to get an award in the hopes of advancing their careers will still want the real deal, and Playground won’t be it.

It may, however, expose some good young talent. Ari Weiss, a copywriter at BBDO in New York, argues that “for a creative, any opportunity to get good work seen is valuable.” But beyond the student category, I just don’t think an award show is the place to do it.

The One Club used to host a “Night of the Living Dead” exhibit to showcase work that never quite made it. But according to Mary Warlick, the event got so popular that when the trades ran some of the work, clients got mad. Now, “Night of the Living Dead” is dead, too. That should tell you something.