In a Web 2.0 world, are advertising awards losing their shine?

Yes folks, it’s that time of year again when hearts go aflutter with visions of shiny medal objects. I’m speaking, of course, of Advertising Award Season.

There are at least 39 advertising award shows  — I’ve counted — and I’m sure I left out a bunch. With so many shows, and more added each year, the hardest thing to judge is which (if any) to enter. Is an ADDY better than an ANDY? Is a Cannes Lion better than a Clio? And, what-the-heck is a 4A’s Award? Most importantly, do clients give a f@#k?

I know the feeling of winning awards…I’ve got a closet full of them. It’s a rush having your work, and name, flashed on a big screen and acknowledged by your peers. For a 20 or 30-something agency creative those first awards can be both a confidence booster and career builder. Now, as a business owner in a Web 2.o world it’s a different story.

The business prospects I’m talking to don’t care how many ADDY’s, or ANDY’s, or 4A Awards we’ve won. They don’t know what an ADDY, or ANDY, or 4A Award is. What they know is that they need help marketing their product in a very confusing, evolving marketing landscape. And not, 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 much more critical look at ad agencies. When judging an agency the question that most clients are asking is not “How many awards have you won?” or “What does the 4A’s think of you?” but, “What’s your experience with Social Media and how can we take advantage of it?” This is not the question most ad agencies want to be asked.

To help answer my title question we used Social Media. We posted the question on the ADWEEK and LinkedIn Web Forums. The answers were predictable: Those on the creative and new business side saw awards as a helpful tool. Most others believed that Thought Leadership and Business Results were what excited clients. And many weren’t convinced of a direct correlation between creative awards and sales success.  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 award 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, need ways to differentiate themselves from the competition. Awards are one way to do that. And, so is press, blogging, interviews, trade articles, client testimonies, case studies, a great website, podcasting and good SEO. Are creative awards better than blogs and Thought Leadership articles? Is press better than a smart website? Talk to different people and you’ll probably get different answers. Yet, 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 CEO’s 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?

It’s been 18 years since the Clio Award debacle when an angry, crazed crowd rushed the award stage to grab a Clio. I was an eyewitness that evening as my agency, Follis/DeVito/Verdi, was a finalist in three categories. Two days later the front page of ADWEEK featured the unflattering photo of two tuxedoed ad execs, teeth gnashed and fists clenched around the same Clio. Award-winning agency owners would like to forget that night. I know a lot of client marketing directors that haven’t.