Effie Awards propagating wilful ignorance?

The incentive is structured against comprehensiveness

Effie awards are fairly important awards in Advertising. They are about ‘effectiveness’ – They recognize campaigns that have been effective in achieving their stated goals. So far so good.

We have won it, a lot of planners I know have won it. It is an essential career milestone for many in our business. Some job postings mention it too – ‘need planners with experience in winning at Effies‘. It is that important.

So the incentives are not geared to bring out reality of the marketing effectiveness. The incentives are stacked to create a straight narrative that joins the dots between the results and actions of agency, most convincingly.

I am yet to read a case that credits a favorable policy change, economic change, societal change for gain of brands. Even though they do impact businesses. There is simply no incentive for writing such a case. (Who will go to collect an award for an economic case? The FM?) So even if Paytm had a windfall of opportunity with demonetisation in India, you won’t see an Effie case for it (I hope).

I understand Effies serve a purpose to encourage marketers to put in more thought and rigour in their practice. But since out of the many other variables that affect a business, a comm strategy tends to remain in focus with Effies, we remain blind to the complete picture. I will give you an example.
Recently I was working on a brand that lost market share. We were working hard to figure out why we were losing. There was a new competitor in town, but it’s communication wasn’t convincing. We did consumer research, comm tests etc. Turns out comms was not a factor at all, though brand imagery had suffered. The culprit was pricing – SKU mix strategy. With the right SKU, the value paradigm had changed. A high Share of Voice for a fairly good campaign couldn’t convince people to choose our product over the better value relaunched product by competitor. The competitor is kicking our ass and he can’t enter a case in Effies. Would you give an award for winning by identifying a sweet spot with an affordable SKU? I wish Effies would.

Need to Change Effies to reflect the need of change with Advertising business

So you realise that there are a whole host of variables to win the market with and Effies tend to reward only a few of those. It is unhealthy. Because as agency business gets marginalised, what will help it become more relevant is to find out ways to become more effective beyond ‘campaigns’. To remain competitive against consultancies and fb/ google, agencies need to look at the big picture, start looking at and rewarding marketing efforts that go beyond campaigns.

If one were to make sense of the world solely based on Effie cases, the person would come out as a gullible idiot with false sense of intellectual enlightenment.

We need to engage with the complexity, the uncertainty

Read a few cases and it makes you think that the marketing world is a very rational and simple world. But it is anything but.

The cases paint a flat picture of the world – the causality between efforts and the market response seem ridiculously simple, even as they project conscience of all the factors affecting the brand’s performance. Is it even possible, to know all the factors that affects a brand’s rise or fall? If causality was truly that clear, would companies need the army of sales managers, favorable retailer relationships, the many offers and schemes and lets not even get started with consumer’s irrational behaviors and preferences. We assume these ‘variables’ as ‘constants’ in our grand scheme of building the case. And that is not helping anyone.

If anything, awards only reinforce our illusion of certainty. It creates a false sense of expertise about a subject as complicated as applied sciences, but without the rigour of applied sciences papers and awards. A medical sciences paper would go to great lengths, source hundred of experiments, cite precedence to establish correlation and yet shy away from ascribing certainty, there will always be a caveat. Causation is difficult to prove. More so with psychology, sociology. It is almost impossible with these fields. And yet, advertising professionals write thousands of cases a year, joining myriad dots to convincingly prove cause-effect between a brand’s success and their effort.

The cases gives you a sense that an enlightened mind was behind the campaign – some cases read as dramatic as the story of Siddhartha. One gets a sense of an incisive insight cutting away unprofitable behaviors and perceptions, suturing profitable ones. In reality, brands seldom follow as simple a trajectory. I mean, sure, great ideas do have out-sized impact on brands. But it is easy to ascribe out-sized impacts to even mediocre ideas, in absence of a culture of rigour. We want to believe in it, so we do without critically examining the cases.

Often the germination of such ideas are random, their expression might come from unexpected quarters, their reception might be dependent on a lucky social chain of events… Great ad campaigns often had a huge element of luck, of serendipity involved. But we will never find a case talking about such lucky lifts. The cases build a myth of straight thinking – business problem statement leading to insight leading to creative idea. How many times has this process really progressed so linearly in a real agency?

And there is no reason to absolve ourselves of this randomness. This very randomness will help us remain relevant in the age of AI. If causality truly was achievable, we would have been replaced with robots by now.

So perhaps, it is in our interest to institute another awards – Lucky Ideas Awards perhaps. It takes efforts to get lucky, sure. I don’t wish to discredit the hard work behind good ideas. Indeed as John Cleese suggests – to get good ideas, one needs to work at it, push oneself harder and not be too pleased with oneself. Yes. But even then, to be in a position to think for a brand that has a cultural cache, that collects data and conducts researches, that has a confident and energetic marketing department who is willing to enter awards – needs luck.

Many brands simply do not have enough data on their business. Many do not want to experiment. Many do not have great ambitions. It requires luck to work with clients who are systematic, ambitious, willing to experiment. And after that you need to work hard for a good idea. and then immense amount of luck for that idea to be supported with the many thousand things happening that affect a business.

So essentially – recognise complexity and reward strategies that succeed, no matter the form of its execution, no matter the size of its footprint.

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Stop feeding the parasites

I received a curious mail today from Campaign magazine. It was soliciting content. so far so good. I skimmed through it and was delighted. They wanted content and towards the end they had mentioned a huge sum of money, almost half a year’s salary for me. I assumed it must be honorarium for the ones whose content is selected. I was thinking, man, these guys are amazing – can they really afford to give away that kind of money to contributors? Didn’t make sense. Perhaps it is a way of cultivating the best talent?

so I read the whole thing – turns out, they are not giving honorarium, they are ASKING for the sum. In exchange, the contributor gets their photo published in the magazine.

This is some weird shit. All this while I thought their business is in getting free content and distributing it at profit.  (which I find problematic anyways. Why should any labor be free?) But it turns out, their business is about validating the poor insecure idiots in the narcissist industry of advertising, who seek validation for their expertise.

I understand, for many small agencies perhaps, this is a way of getting noticed by the right people. For a down and out senior person, this is a way of getting back in the game. For a low esteem somebody, it is way of feeling secure about their expertise. and I am sure it is of positive utility to somebody somewhere, the use-case for which I can’t think of now. Nevertheless, what a scam!

The mice needs security and the vulture is selling helmets.

Advertising industry is plagued with this insecure-narcissistic game that drains its people of their money, their time and their esteem. The countless awards, the countless publications, the countless events – what good comes of all that masturbation?

Awards

Cannes, One show, Effies – what a fucking waste of money and efforts. It does curate some amazing work, but it is not available freely for all industry folks to learn from, now is it? It is available at a price and not readily usable. The learning, the cases, they are not turned into usable insights, usable learning tools for the young in the industry to learn from, freely. If it is behind paywalls,  it is useless. It is unethical to first charge for entries and then again charge for accessing the end product. Its the most dick move ever. In the age of AI, why can’t knowledge gathering digital dust behind paywalls, be turned into an Open advisory for a world where businesses grow more efficiently and people don’t have to weather terrible ads?
I can see the parallel here with the pharma industry – companies that have recipes of wonder drugs that can cure TB, malaria – but won’t give it out to needy people. Well, the comparison is wrong – atleast pharma companies own their own IP, all that award shows do is massage a few egos. Its the most expensive ‘curatorial’ service ever.

Awards might help build agency credentials. But why does a company need new credentials every year? I mean, I don’t see volkswagen or Mahindra spending as large a proportion of their revenue towards awards, as agencies do. No other industry spends as much money on validation as percentage of its revenue as we do.

Look at Publicis. With a year’s worth of spends on awards, they are planning to build a AI assistant for their employees! (Shitty idea, but one must commend on trying to be relevant) I mean they could start new businesses every year with that kind of money, put it to far better uses than advertising awards.

With Unilever, P&G cutting down their ad spends, agencies will have to further tighten their belts. They better start with the awards, instead of employee raises.

Publications

Which other industry has so many ‘thought leaders’, so many publications and yet doesn’t move an inch ahead in the game of innovating it’s own value proposition?
What do adage, campaign, afaqs, thedrum etc add to the universe’s knowledge? Not much. These publications regurgitate same points of views over and over again. They keep discussing similar trends over and over again without critical analysis (programmatic is the future, maybe it is not. Native is the future, maybe not. Context is king. maybe not. where is the data to support the hypothesis anyways?) Never have I read an actual original point of view about media/ business/ culture/ consumer in these rags. They are mere propaganda vehicles for ad agencies and its career climbers.
Its quite possible that half the ‘views’ and engagement of ‘famous’ campaigns are generated by people in marketing only – readers of these publications. I suspect, the feedback effect is detrimentally strong in advertising. Shiny, smart ideas get propped up even if it might not be effective.

Lastly, I feel the publications normalise the alienating bubble of advertising. By repeating trends that are not actually trending, by idolising campaigns that are not effective, by giving trophies to agency folks…  they are holding back the industry.

Agencies often have fairly smart people. People with ideas. People who can start their own businesses, create things of great value. Instead they get too comfortable by publication powered validations and publication powered point of views. They hold them back in the industry.

Events

Well, I think, advertising people would gain far more if they went to art galleries, tech expos, civic issue seminars, political rallies, academic seminars even etc. There’s marginal utility in going to advertising industry events where you will bump into people exactly like you. (unless you want to network).

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Essentially, stop becoming fodder for these parasitic industries that are growing bigger and bigger as the host industry diminishes. Get a grip on yourself, advertising industry.