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Forget The Recognition, There’s Another Reason Why Creatives Are Obsessed With Winning Awards

Why is it that Art Directors and Copywriters have a seemingly insatiable desire to win awards?  Is it our pitiful need for praise, a pat on the back, and an acknowledgement of a job well done? Yes. Is it our desperate desire to be recognized as a somebody in a nobody industry? Yep. Is it our shallow hope that winning an award will get us laid after the post-show gala? You betcha. However, there is an equally powerful, though seldom discussed, incentive behind our hankering for One Show pencils, Cannes Lions and Black D&AD pencils.

It’s called money.

That’s right, most of us are also motivated by coin. So a big part of all that tantrum throwing when our ads don’t get approved is due to money. You see, every time one of our great ideas doesn’t sell, the opportunity cost to our future income is staggering. We’re talking about tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars of potential income loss. How’s that? When you’re an award-winning creative you get offered a lot of money by agencies that want award-winning work. At award shows headhunters, agency CEO’s and ad groupies are all over you like green on grass. You’re wined and dined and treated like a rock star. Next thing you know, you’re jetting around the world in first class, shooting spots in exotic locations, dating Czech supermodels and making more money than you ever dreamed possible. Pretty heady stuff for a geeky English major from Nowheresville, NC.

So there. Now you know the real reason why creatives pitch a fit when our ads die untimely deaths in presentations and focus groups. Everything is riding on those ads. (Including the prospects of riding in better sports cars or having Czech supermodels riding on us.)

Of course, all this is bad news for clients trying to build a brand. It’s hard (if not impossible) to maintain a consistent look and tone with your campaign when your creative teams keep quitting to work for someone else.

Great Creative Talent Is Easy To Find But Hard To Keep

Isn’t it ironic that in an industry that gets paid for building brand loyalty there is no brand loyalty between creatives and agencies? The fact is, the average creative only works for an agency a year-and-a-half. It’s no coincidence that’s about how long it takes for a good creative to add some new award-winning stuff to his book, get a better offer and jump ship. By hopping from agency to agency, a creative with a good reel and print book containing two or three award-winning campaigns can almost double his salary with every move. And if they win some major awards, (like Best of Show at Cannes) they can literally triple their salaries in no time.

On the other hand, if a creative hasn’t produced any award-winning work in two years at an agency, he’s going to jump ship to an agency where he has a better shot at winning something  – if he can. If a creative is still at the same agency longer than two or three years, chances are:

He’s cashed in his chips and the agency is paying him more money than God.
He can’t get a job anywhere else.
He owns all or part of the agency.
His wife makes more than he does and doesn’t want to move.

To make matters worse, most agencies could care a less.  There are plenty of other creatives out there with bigger, better, more award-winning portfolios than your current staff.  This is just more bad news for clients who want a consistent look and feel to their brand. The new creative teams are going to fight like hell to change the campaign and make it their own.

Not to mention, it takes a lot of time for copywriters to master the tonality of an already established campaign – if in fact, they ever do.  I’ll let you in on a nasty little agency secret. Agencies rarely promote their own creatives. If there’s an opening for a Creative Director, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they’ll hire someone from outside the agency. Even if there’s a senior art director or copywriter working for the agency that’s more qualified to fill the position.

The reason behind this is pretty simple. It’s called ego. Creatives work in teams consisting of an art director and a copywriter. Teams of art directors and copywriters usually work under a team of creative directors. There is absolutely no way a Creative Director who’s an art director is going to degrade himself by promoting a senior copywriter that used to work for him to be his new partner.  Ain’t gonna happen. (Unless of course, he’s worked with this writer out of necessity and they win some big awards together.) Usually the only time a senior creative gets promoted to creative director is when the current creative director:

gets fired
quits to make more money at another agency

So if you’re an art director or copywriter waiting to get promoted to creative director by your shop – you’re probably wasting your time.

So how do agencies choose a new creative director?

You guessed it.  They hound the award shows looking for the new creative superstar who will put the agency on the award show map.  When you win an award, headhunters are all over you like green on grass. They pore over award annuals. And usually, the creative with the most Lions and Pencils  goes to the highest bidder. Unless, the creative gets an offer from a really hot shop where they think they can produce more award winning work and eventually make more money when they sell out to a big, giant corporate conglomerate and are never heard from again. The problem with this model is there’s no correlation with hiring an expensive, award-winning creative and new business wins, effectiveness of agency work and agency morale. In fact, it’s been my experience just the opposite occurs. (But that’s another topic for another day.)

So what’s to be done about it?

The most direct solution (and least likely to ever happen) is to break the stranglehold award shows have as the end-all, be-all arbiters of copywriters and art director’s self-worth and actual worth. Let’s face it; your advertising peers will not acknowledge you as an advertising creative genius unless you’ve won at least one Cannes Lion, a One Show Pencil and a D&AD Pencil.  On the other hand, your parents and friends outside the industry won’t consider you a creative genius until you’ve won a Clio. Now what’s crazy about all this, and excuse me for stating the obvious, none of these shows have anything to do with the right and true measure of great advertising – results.  OK, what about the Effies, you ask? While the idea behind the Effies is spot on – honoring the world’s most “effective” campaigns – the results submitted are dubious at best. (Having won a few, I know.) The Effies have been and probably always will be the Account Executives’ award show.

Here’s what’s worked for us.

As Creative Director of The Republik, I personally receive about 50 job inquiries a month from some of the most talented writers and art directors in the biz. Probably because several creative blogs have ranked us as one of the top ten creative agencies out there. Most of our art directors, writers and graphic designers have been with us for much, much longer than the agency norm and I have no doubt they will be here for years to come.

Yet, The Republik is a small agency in a small market and we don’t even enter most award shows. So how do we keep our art directors and copywriters happy when we really don’t enter award shows? And how in the world is it possible to be recognized as one of the industry’s hottest creative shops when we’re not really winning any awards?

Easy. We replace the lure of advertising awards with more satisfying alternatives. Creating work that exceeds our clients’ expectations is highly valued here. In fact, The Republik’s compensation model allows us to generously bonus art directors, writers, designers (and AE’s) who create effective work. As an employee-owned agency, everyone who works here (after proving him or herself) has an opportunity to become a Republik partner. We turn our staff into advertising superstars by making sure their work is written about and featured in every on and offline medium possible. In the last five years, The Republik’s work has been featured over 5,000 times by news outlets as diverse as The New York Times, Country Music Television, Boating Magazine, Inside Edition, Creativity, Time Magazine  and CA to name a handful.

The results?

Our creatives not only feel like they’re being paid well, they can actually make more by doing more effective work.
Everyone loves the instant gratification of seeing his or her work discussed in print. (Our clients like it too – but that’s another story.) There are few fights between AE’s and creatives over the work – the goal is no longer about winning awards but to create results.

Ironically, the work is creatively better. (We not only believe, but also know, there is a direct correlation between great artistic work and positive results. (For more on this, see my blog on Pull vs. Push Advertising.)
The Republik has some of the lowest creative and account turnover rates in the biz.

I could go on, but I have more rewarding work to do. Let’s face it, this blog isn’t going to win me any awards or more importantly, earn me more money. Oh, and for the record, my wife is Czech.

by David Smith The Republik

Photo Credit: Unknown – Licensed CC-BY-NC-SA


For a business constructed on new ideas, advertising remains uncomfortably stuck with its old ideas of how to construct a business. Ad agencies, whether private or publicly owned, are almost all built on a 19th Century corporate formula. Did everyone miss what happened after 1999?

What employees want.

1999 was the advertising industry’s last “good” year, boasting bonuses and flush salaries. By 2000, the news was of layoffs. One figure showed 43% of New York City’s marketing industry—mailroom to VPs—were on the street. No ad job was secure. It was the year that, for the advertising employee, corporate paternalism died.

After 2000, no agency owner could ever again expect to find people who believed their own best interests were also their employers’ first, or even second or third. In an industry whose inventory, famously, “goes down the elevator every night,” the consequences are, or should be, far-reaching. But the overwhelming majority of ad agencies continue to run on the assumption employees will continue to risk their livelihoods for a fixed salary, while they watch the owners, divide the rest.

That’s no longer true in the wider economy. According to the U.S. census, only one in three California workers held a “traditional” job. 32 million U.S. workers were either soloists, temps or micropreneurs, making them the largest segment of the working population, larger than all public sector employees combined. And perhaps most telling, 70% of all U.S. businesses had no employees.

Clearly, people desire more of a stake in the business they work for than they trust the traditional corporate employer to provide. That’s probably been true for as long as there has been business.

Thanks to globalization, an individual can now produce in a few years what once took a large corporation, decades. In 1990, it took a manufacturing plant to be a fashion industry mogul. In 2008, it took a phone call to China. Andy Spade (husband of Kate) went from being a copywriter to a fashion tycoon in 5 years. And he never built a factory.

The barriers to forming an ad agency are even lower. And advertising peoplehave always been among the business world’s most creative, and most restless. As an advertising agency owner, the idea of employees who neither see their agency’s success as their own nor see any obstacle to opening up a new, competing shop down the street is scary.

What agencies want.

If for no other reason than self defense (actually, there are plenty of other reasons, but they tend to sound a bit touchy-feely to anyone not personally involved) a better corporate model for today’s advertising agency is employee ownership.

The employee-owned agency has access to a wider talent pool. If an ad agency lives or dies on its talent and creativity, what sense does it make to hire from only that dwindling group of people who don’t demand a share of the success they bring their clients?

The employee-owned agency fosters loyalty. Isn’t it preferable to offer workers a portion of the wealth they produce, and keep them, than to have the best and brightest of them go off and build their own company?

The employee-owned agency is more productive. Who will work harder, the employee whose efforts may or may not be rewarded based on what three or four finance subcommittees might or might not decide, or the employee who knows he or she will get a percentage of the agency’s quarterly profits?

(Incidentally, the question of effort ties directly to another topic, far beyond this blog’s scope – that of performance-based agency compensation. Briefly, traditional agency ownership and performance-based fees do not fit.The agency’s owners may fervently wish to see their clients succeed. But the creative director still wants to build his portfolio. For the employee-owned agency, performance-based compensation “works.”)

Lastly, the employee-owned agency is flexible in the event of a downturn.Where the traditional agency has no choice but to cut jobs, losing capabilities, the employee-owned agency maintains its staff. Yes, their paychecks suffer, but at least they are still working. And the agency can continue to fully serve its clients.

What employee-ownership is not.

Republik employees do not vote on what color to paint the walls. One of the original and most progressive employee-owned agencies was St. Luke’s in London. They were a partnership that dissolved, I think, because of the inertia of having to discuss every single decision.

Powerful leadership remains vital to agency success, and for us, the key to reconciling authoritarianism and democracy lay in the separation of short-and long-term goals. The Republik’s Executive Committee is elected, one person, one vote, by every agency employee. Once elected the day-to-day management is in the hands of the Executive Committee. (Our inspiration was the U.S. Constitution, with its checks and balances and the insulation from mobocracy provided by the Electoral College.)

And no, employee-ownership is not the answer for everyone. Specifically, employees who cannot risk a fluctuating paycheck. Not to mention stockholders and individuals who want to retain an outsize share of their agency’s upside potential.

The unforeseen trade-offs.

There are some surprises in store for the employee-owned agency. You willfind it is stressful for employees to know too much about their company’s financials. But know they must. Each quarter’s gains and losses are public knowledge. There are giant agency VPs who have less idea of what goes on in their companies than the lowest man on the totem pole here. Then again, some of those giant agency VPs like it that way.

You will find that the work can be less sexy. When employees start watching their client’s bottom line, they start thinking maybe a Web 2.0 database building program is more important than a new TV campaign. Personally, I miss doing big TV spots. They were fun.

You’ll wince when a strategist tells the client, “this part of your media budget is wasted. Save it.” Even though you know it’s the right thing to do.

On the plus side, you will be relieved of your police department duties. You will have a cop on every beat, ready to pounce on any employee pulling less than his fair share, or helping himself to a little bit more.

You’ll spend less time fine wining and dining your clients and more time eating burgers with your new boss, the receptionist.

And you will gain new and unimagined listening skills. Sometimes they will pay off in big and unexpected ideas. Sometimes they will be sorely tested.When you can keep your eyes intently focused during the receptionist’s explanation of how the next client’s strategic brief ought to be subtly tweaked, you’ll know you’re getting the hang of it.

by Robert Shaw West Brand Futurist The Republik Companies Chairman/CEO

Photo Credit: Tesmec via Wikimedia Commons – Licensed CC-BY-NC-SA