To Award or Not To Award…

Quite an announcement by Publicis: a year-long award hiatus, maybe longer, maybe forever.

Let me first take the positive view as it’s too easy to simply rant (don’t worry, I’ll get to that later):

  1. Contributes a bit challenger brand status to this otherwise struggling agency holding company. Might even position it as a leader, if it comes to pass that others follow suit. (PS. I really hope not.)
  2. Makes Publicis look like a more responsible business partner to its client base. (PS. Maybe in some cases, but I doubt in the majority.)
  3. An interesting way to fund and launch “Marcel”, Publicis’ new AI robot who promises global collaboration on any assignment. (PS. The relationship between Marcel and this awards decision represents a big contradiction.)

It’s probably pretty obvious I’m having a hard time looking at this from the positive angle. In a word, this announcement makes me sad.

Now, when smoking was outlawed in bars in NYC, I was also sad. I was not a smoker, and I probably should have invested in Febreze given how much of it I used after long nights out absorbing second hand smoke into every clothing fiber, but I feared this would kill NYC night culture. I turned out to be wrong, I’ll admit, but I don’t think I’ll be wrong this time. I think this decision will kill Publicis’ creative culture, leading their own top talent away and making it really difficult to attract new talent into the company.

Ad industry award shows are indeed a bit out of hand – the number of them, the amount of money needed for submissions, the amount of time it takes to prepare submissions and the creative media that is sometimes purchased (is there a 30-second, 2am slot in Oklahoma available to run this thing? Perhaps on a show no one watches?) – in order to fulfill them. My own husband has boxes of awards in his office he and his partner haven’t even unpacked because there’s no more real estate on which to put them. There is money invested by his agency in every single one of those awards, and it adds up to a lot. But don’t underestimate the value of that investment.

  1. Coming up with amazing creative ideas is really, really hard. Selling those ideas is really, really hard. Making those ideas better (even just preserving them) through every stage of execution is really, really hard. If you can make it through all of those steps, and have a fabulous idea at the end of it, you deserve recognition in the form of big juicy awards. Because it’s pretty unlikely you’ll get recognition in the form of a raise or a bonus these days. Just look at the pride on this DigitasLBI team’s faces upon winning a Grand Prix for their work with Whirlpool… that pride translates directly into a motivated workforce who desperately wants to be in that position again next year. Publicis, you really think it’s a good business decision to take that motivation away?_RB1448820170621.jpg
  2. Creatives, and creatively-minded producers, strategists, account people, media execs, etc. rely on these award shows to build their portfolios and advance their careers. If they don’t have the opportunity to incorporate awards into their portfolios, they’ll go find somewhere else that gives them that opportunity.
  3. “We’re not just in it for the awards” is something every client wants to hear because it feels responsible. BUT I’d also say that most clients like to partner with winning agencies, and the ones angling for the strongest work also like to be recognized as strong creative partners. In short, clients like awards too. Of course, not all work that wins awards drives business, but great creative work (yes, the kind that gets awarded) has a much better shot at driving business than unremarkable work.

Disruption to the status quo is never comfy. But having disruption happen to you, as creative agencies have over the past several years with publishers, platforms, content developers, media agencies and in-house creative service teams all eating away big chunks of their pie, is much less comfy than when you’re the one in the driver’s seat. Publicis has decided to self-disrupt, and therefore arguably has more control over the ramifications, whatever they end up being. For that, I do applaud them. Though given the fact that it sounds like most employees heard about this decision the same way Comey heard he was being fired doesn’t bode terribly well.

Who knows? Perhaps the company believes that Marcel will be an interesting enough distraction for its employees to deter mass-exodus. The premise is pretty cool, I’ll admit. But in practice? Christ. Collaboration is hard enough down the hall, especially since everyone is expected to work on a gagillion things simultaneously. But across the globe? To tackle big, challenging assignments? The best output – strategic, creative, or otherwise – happens when the people working the assignment know each other well, they can be their unguarded selves and build on each other. Constantly working with people you need to get to know seems grossly inefficient. Not to mention if someone isn’t aware of a brand, there’s a learning curve that must be climbed over and over again. And let’s be honest, less than half (I’m being very, very kind) of agency assignments are the big, juicy ones everyone wants to work on. So who is going to sign on to work on the shit assignments… especially ones that are the ultimate responsibility of an agency account leader 12,000 miles away? So yes, the technology powering Marcel is super-cool, but in the end, the ultimate test is whether it delivers great creative (although we’ll now have one fewer way to gauge it)… hmmm we shall see, but I have my predictions.

So to award or not to award? As long as the industry values awards, which it does, not participating just doesn’t sound wise. And funding a new venture that’s designed (or so it’s explained) to create work strong enough to win awards by defunding its potential to do just that, is perverse.

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