In late June, a surprising bit of agency news hit. Publicis Groupe announced that none of its agencies will participate in awards shows or trade shows for the 2018 budget year. The move is being cited as a cost-reduction measure, the savings of which will go to a new artificial intelligence platform initiative called Marcel.
This is interesting for a few reasons. First, awards shows, trade shows, and vendor conferences (which are also prohibited) are expensive to participate in. There’s the time required to pull together entries, which is typically uncompensated. Staff are pulled off of at least part of their regular work schedules, and there are travel, hotel, and meal bills, just to start a list of how attending these programs can start to rack up costs. Vendor conferences can also be expensive without much to show on the other end, as these amount to little more than opportunities for exposure.
On the other hand, winning awards and the press coverage that follows is one way to attract new clients. It also demonstrates to existing clients that a firm’s work is worthwhile and notable, and that the work is recognized by peers in the industry as, well, award-winning. Awards recognize the work of valuable employees. Generally, the feeling is that by winning awards, you can grow your business.
There is even some evidence to back this feeling up. Although it is a bit dated, AdAge published an analysis in 2006 that showed that agencies that won awards were, generally speaking, faster to grow. A Marketing Agency Insider piece went further, listing a number of reasons that awards are beneficial to an agency including the establishment of important benchmarks for advertising effectiveness and raising the bar for talent, boosting client visibility and employee morale, adding new business, and agency differentiation/demonstrating specialization or expertise.
Is this a trend?
Although the Publicis announcement has made some waves particularly in the advertising agency world, they are not the first to back off of award participation. DBB, a global advertising agency that is part of Omnicom, published a biting opinion piece in 2016 titled “The end of false recognitions,” arguing that awards shows are essentially being conducted for industry self-flattery, rather than recognizing good work. This is particularly true, the piece suggested, for creative developed solely to “please a jury” rather than solve a real-world problem for an actual client.
Two high-profile decisions probably do not indicate a trend—but, given the size and prominence of those taking a step back, it is worth noting.
We’re all familiar with the concept (and reality) of scope creep, where a project starts to grow and expand well outside of its initial boundaries. In reading between the lines of some of the reactions to Publicis’s announcement, it sounds as though others are questioning the execution of one awards show in particular: the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
This program, essentially the Oscars of the creative communications industry (advertising, marketing, and PR compete and are recognized), is held every June in Cannes, France. Perhaps it is the setting, which is undeniably glamorous, that has taken the focus off of the awards and turned it more to the parties that surround the event rather than the industry sessions that are supposed to be the focus of attendees. In an AdAge article about the uproar that has followed the Publicis announcement, an unnamed executive is quoted as saying:
“I can see where they’re coming from,” said a consumer products group executive of the Publicis move. “This is one part business meeting and one part boondoggle.” He agreed that there’s efficiency in getting the whole industry together in one place annually, but asked: “Does it have to be in the South of France?”
If the focus shifts from recognition and learning to parties on yachts, and the price tag is allegedly somewhere north of $20 million spent by Publicis on this event alone, one can see why they might have elected to take a break for a year. As the lines between advertising, marketing, and PR continue to blur, an announcement like this does have a ripple effect through the communications industry. PR Week asks if Cannes Lions needs a “rethink,” and the article notes many of the underlying issues already mentioned above—the big one being cost.
Publicis’s decision has initiated considerable discussion about the role of awards, and what level of attention and emphasis should be placed on them. This is a valuable discussion to have, if for no other reason that occasional self-reflection is good. It will help to reestablish priorities, and examine what the real value of awards are, to the firms that win them and the industry at large.