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The Globe and Mail

Amir Kassaei makes his case against the ‘madness’ of advertising awards

The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, formerly the International Advertising Festival, attracts thousands of delegates working in the creative communications, advertising and related fields.

Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

In just a month, Hollywood's elite will descend on the Oscars red carpet to pout, pose and pray that their names will be called during the industry's biggest award show.

But those stars aren't the only ones clamouring for statuettes. In fact, there is an industry even more fond of giving itself awards than Hollywood: advertising.

Some ad agencies have staffers whose full-time job is to manage award-show submissions. The influential Gunn Report ranks the best agencies and campaigns each year by tabulating the winners of the 45 "top" award shows. And that's narrowing down the pool of advertising award shows – to 45.

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Amir Kassaei is sick of it. The chief creative officer of DDB Worldwide recently wrote on that his network of ad agencies will be submitting significantly less work to award shows this year. Mr. Kassaei was in Toronto this week for FFWD Advertising Week, and discussed this decision with The Globe.

Why do this now?

It's a long-lasting process we've been talking about inside the company for the last couple of years. At the beginning of the year, we had to make clear to everybody that we will change our plan, our attitude, toward award shows. The move that we are now making is a substantial one. Let's really be selective. We are only entering work that we believe made a difference in the marketplace, or if a client is asking us to enter it because they want to know how the industry is thinking about it. We will have a few submissions in the major award shows, but we will not play the game the way everybody's playing it – the quantity and the money game. We are not doing that any more. No. You will see few submissions from DDB in award shows. The consequence will be that we will not play a major role in award shows, which is fine for me. Somebody has to stop the madness.

What's wrong with awards?

We have to look at what the real recognition should be: adding to the business of your clients and shaping society. That should be the goal. Not getting a phony award from advertising people who are awarding themselves. If you compare us to the car industry, at the moment we are awarding people who are coming up with funky, phony prototypes – and the same people aren't able to build a real car. That is what has to change.

What do you mean by prototypes?

In the last couple of years we've been coming up with technology solutions which are fancy and impressive in a jury room, but don't mean anything in real life. At the end of the day, we are not artists and we are not technology people – we are salespeople.

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Like virtual reality, for example?

Exactly. We've forgotten to focus on the relevancy of things. The majority of things they are awarding don't have anything to do with the real world, real business or people's real lives. That's what they have to change.

What about those who say that awards help promote ad agencies to clients?

Clients are interested in a valuable partner who is able to deliver substantial results. They are not measuring in terms of awards.

Are you concerned about retaining talent? Young employees often see an award as a building block in their careers, and gravitate to agencies where they feel they can win them.

No. No. No. No. I strongly believe that real talent, really talented people in our industry, are the people who have one goal: use their talent to help clients succeed. Come up with innovative ideas, add value to the business of your clients, and if the industry recognizes it you win an award. If that's the order, you are a great talent. I don't believe that the real talent are only interested in winning awards.

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Why do you think your industry has so many awards?

Because we consider ourselves as not really an important industry, and we are not recognized as something which is really valuable to society. So we have to come up with something where we are making up our reason of existence. That's maybe the reason. We are producing made-up recognition because we don't have this reputation for importance to society.

I wonder if that's why you see so many more awards lately for campaigns that are tied to a social cause.

Yes. But the problem is, I don't believe the majority of these ideas were produced by people whose main ambition was really to help people. They were doing it – and that's the cynical part – to impress a jury room. If you really want to help people, help people.

What would you like to see the rest of the industry do?

If a group of agencies – the big ones – decided to say, 'Let's look at what we want to award,' that would help a lot, to say this is the bar we want to achieve.

Just how much money are agencies spending on trying to win awards?

Global networks are spending millions and millions of dollars on submissions, case studies, and everything else. And the crazy thing is, that's clients' money. We are in the service business. We are actually spending our clients' money to come up with stuff that doesn't mean anything, to get an award, which doesn't mean anything to the clients' business. Then you realize the madness of it.

So all the DDB offices around the world have been instructed to reduce their submissions?

Everybody knows, in our network, what it means. Everybody is supporting it.

What's the reaction been?

A lot of support. The majority of people – from the industry and also from the clients – are supporting our point of view. They've said it's time somebody stands up and says the right thing.

John Wren, CEO of your parent company Omnicom Group Inc., has said he also supports this decision. Do you think other agencies in the network might consider a similar move?

Everybody was thinking about it. Nobody was talking about it openly. I hope others will join us.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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