Skip to main content

A woman walks past the Cannes Festival Palace where takes place the Cannes Lions 2010 International Advertising Festival in Cannes, June 23, 2010.Sebastien Nogier/Reuters

This weekend, advertising folk from around the world descend on Cannes to study the year's most innovative campaigns, swill cocktails on the Croisette, hear from thought leaders and, most of all, pat themselves on the back. Again.

While almost no one disputes the prestige of winning a Lion during the week-long "Oscars of the ad industry" in Cannes – it received a record 34,301 submissions this year – even a well-respected award show like this is part of an absurdly long line of accolades. There's the One Show and the CLIO. More honours from the Effies, OBIEs, Andys, Webbys, Cassies and Bessies. Then there's the ADC, ADCC, D&AD, CAPMA, LIAA, and the CMA. The Gunn Report attempts to make sense of it all, by tallying results from the world's top 46 award shows. Not the top five or 10; the top 46.

"I don't there's another group around that is more fond of celebrating themselves than we are," said David Gibb, executive vice-president with JWT Toronto.

Why are there so many awards? It would be glib to attribute it entirely to the stereotypical ego of advertising executives. Even honorees have limits, which may be why some of Y&R Toronto's old statuettes were reportedly spotted for sale at a Toronto flea market last year. The fact is that shows like these are big business, and there are plenty who want to chase that money.

When EMAP International bought the Cannes Lions festival in 2004 for £52.5-million (about $127.5-million at the time), it reported that the show had made £7-million in profit the previous year.

Industry associations and trade publications looking for new sources of revenue have taken notice of big events like these and launched their own shows – each drawing money on entry fees and attendance.

"It's become a joke. As soon as you enter all the shows, then you're asked to buy tickets. I can't even fill tables with clients and staff any more; the market's become so diluted with these shows," said David Leonard, president and chief operating officer of DDB Canada.

That negative sentiment is even more notable considering that DDB is one of, if not the top spender on awards shows each year. It sent more entries to Cannes than any other Canadian agency. DDB has employees whose full-time jobs are almost entirely consumed with keeping track of the awards calendar and co-ordinating submissions.

Like many who believe the advertising awards circuit has become bloated, Mr. Leonard does not believe he can stop participating altogether.

"It's a necessary evil. Everybody's playing the game. You don't have a choice," he said. "Like it or not, awards are the currency by which creatives are judged by their peers. It's what makes these people famous, and thus valuable."

For young people attempting to launch a career, however, agencies that win awards are often seen as the most desirable places to work. "It allows us to attract the best young talent," Mr. Leonard said. That talent allows an agency to do better work, which helps to win more business.

A wall full of floating shelves covered in statuettes is also a marketing tool for wooing prospective clients.

But do those honours actually bring in business?

"It's not the primary reason why Pepsico chooses to partner with someone," said Robb Hadley, director of marketing for Pepsico Canada.

Zak Mroueh, president, creative director and founder of independent agency Zulu Alpha Kilo, agrees. In his two-plus decades in the industry, he has found that winning awards can get an agency on a pitch list – a major goal in itself – but has little bearing when it comes to winning the pitch. His agency has decided not to display awards in the office, preferring to send a message that they are focused on building the next client's business.

"Some agencies are set up as awards machines, to create work that appeals to judges," he said. "You might get a different reaction from consumers."

Pepsico's Mr. Hadley echoes that sentiment. The company supports its agencies' bids to win awards, but he is more excited to see a campaign win at a show like the Cassies – which rewards return on investment – than at a show preoccupied with creativity alone. "If it wins creative awards but never sees the light of day in connecting with consumers, that's a less important goal to go for," he said.

Mr. Hadley said he is pleased to see that Cannes this year has added a new category specifically based on measuring a campaign's effectiveness.

That emphasis on effectiveness is an emerging trend on the award show circuit. Roughly four years ago, DDB Canada scaled back spending on award shows and decided to concentrate more resources on shows that are ROI-driven.

Many agencies have taken that tack. Tony Chapman, founder of agency Capital C, decided a few years ago to pull out of award shows almost entirely. He has no entries at Cannes this year, and is sparing with the handful of entries Capital C makes.

JWT Toronto has also cut back on its award-show spending in recent years, focusing on large shows like Cannes and effectiveness-based shows such as the Cassies.

"We call them commercials for a reason," JWT's Mr. Gibb said. "It's not about art for art's sake. It's about delivering something that reaches specific commercial objectives. That's why we get paid.

"Awards can be distracting."

Clients are also increasingly impatient to demonstrate results. In recent years, the average tenure of a chief marketing officer in Canada has become shorter, and advertising budgets tighter. For a CMO who often has only 18 months on the job, sometimes award-winning work is the easiest way to show his or her bosses that their investment in marketing is working. This may help drive more awards that actually follow the money, and cut down on the rest.

Ultimately though, agencies may have to vote with their wallets if the award-show bubble is ever going to pop. Mr. Gibb still finds Cannes inspiring, but believes the rest of the herd will thin in coming years. He believes that with the global nature of business, regional shows in particular may find themselves on the chopping block.

"In the next couple of years, you'll see a consolidation," DDB's Mr. Leonard said. "People are going to back out. … At least, I hope that's where it's going."

Interact with The Globe