Do Creative Awards Matter for Agency New Business?

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In working with many award-winning agencies over the course of my career, one of the challenges I encounter is how to translate awards into compelling messages for new business development. The most common roadblock is connecting an award to business results for the agency client.Here are some questions I will explore in this post:

  •     What exactly is the new business value of awards for agencies?
  •     How do awards benefit agency clients?
  •     What is the correlation between excellence in creativity and business results?
  •     What is the best way to leverage awards for agency new business?

I want to note that I am specifically focused only on the new business value of awards. There are many good reasons to go after advertising awards that don’t fit in that category, at least not directly. That includes employee motivation, morale, agency culture, talent retention and recruitment, to name a few things. I’m also not going to get into attending awards shows, which is a separate issue with its own unique merits.
Excellence in creativity and business results

Within the advertising industry, it seems there is an assumed correlation between excellent creative and effectiveness (a.k.a. “business results”), but what is that assumption based on?

Last June, Tracy Brady, VP of Communications for Hill Holliday, wrote an article on awards shows for AdWeek. In it, she said: “Better creative means better business results, we say.” She goes on to attribute this statement to Epsilon CCO John Immesoete:  “…all the Lions (or Clios or Pencils) in the world don’t matter if you haven’t moved the growth needle in the client’s business.” So the need for creative to result in tangible business results is acknowledged here by two industry leaders, but whether and how it does that is not accounted for.
Searching for evidence tying business results to award-winning creative, I found this:

1. In 2010, AdAge covered a report conducted by the U.K.’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) which found that award-winning ads were 11 times as effective as other ads. The IPA examined 213 case studies as the basis for their conclusion. While this research is compelling, I’d prefer to have additional supporting evidence. My concern with this study is that it’s no longer very current, it’s somewhat limited in scope, and it was conducted by a trade organization with a vested interest in a particular outcome.

2. In 2013, Werner Reinartz and Peter Saffert from the University of Cologne in Germany wrote about their research on advertising creativity in the Harvard Business Review. Considering whether creative award success is a good measure of an agency’s creative potential, they concluded that there are “more rigorous metrics for assessing success in advertising.” Three examples they give are the Manager Magazine Kreativ Index, the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT), and an unnamed advertising creativity scale developed by communications researchers at Indiana University in 2007.

They applied two of these scales to their research, while still noting the subjectivity of their measurements (“…the more creative ads (by our measure)…”).  Comparing 437 ad campaigns from 90 leading German brands, they measured five dimensions of advertising creativity and used a statistical sales response model to measure the sales performance of the advertised brands over time. Reinartz and Saffert seemed to be more confident about the precision of their measurements of creativity’s effectiveness than the ability for creativity itself to be measured. They found that the ads they had measured as more creative resulted in a significant increase of purchase responsiveness.

It’s important to note that for this increase in purchase responsiveness to apply to award-winning creative, one must agree that:

1) creativity is measurable in some consistent manner; and

2) the process of winning an award is more objective than subjective, free of politics and other influence, and accurately reflects the most creative of the submissions.

Suffice to say, while this research is interesting and compelling, it’s a bit tangential and I’d still feel better with additional evidence to support the presumed link between creative excellence (as demonstrated by awards) and business results. Until then, for me, the jury is still out.

Why the hard line on demonstrated business results? Because for all the benefits that winning awards may have for your agency, in my experience what moves client decision-makers the most is the ability to demonstrate ROI and make a difference to their bottom line.

“Creativity is impossible to judge. The creativity applied to facilitate measurable effectiveness, however, is not. Most award shows aren’t based on results, and that’s the real challenge. The bottom line? Measurement isn’t subjective. And if you make effectiveness your North Star, you’ll never get lost.”  – Steve Babcock | EVB (at the time)

What are the benefits of awards to agencies and their clients?

Here is a round-up of what ad industry leaders have said about the benefits of awards to agencies and their clients:

  •     Winning an award makes the agency’s creative potential visible and tangible to clients (Harvard Business Review).
  •     Invitations to pitch are often based on rankings from leading award competitions, so you will likely be invited to more pitches (Harvard Business Review).
  •     In a pitch, your award(s) might make brands perceive your agency as less risky, and make it more desirable to be associated with, making new business wins more likely (TheWowCompany).
  •     Can be a great way to gain free positive publicity for your agency (TheWowCompany).
  •     Can set your agency apart from the pack, distinguishing it from competitors (Drew McLellan, Marketing Agency Insider).
  •     Boost client visibility, which can strengthen your client relationships, make your agency seem very customer-centric, and lead to more work with existing and future clients (Drew McLellan, Marketing Agency Insider).

Agency executives on whether creative awards are a waste of time

Jami Oetting (at Hubspot) asked some agency leaders about their opinions on creative awards a few years back, and here’s what a couple of them had to say about it:

  •     Business Objectives First: “I strive to cement one agenda and one agenda only: to solve the business problem and to always aim for big impact with minimal investment….If the goal of your department is to win awards, there is potential to start making decisions based on what you believe juries will like, not based on what really needs to be done to accomplish the business objectives.” – Steve Babcock |  EVB (at the time)
  •     Clients First: “…[We] prefer investing our time and money against tools and services that truly differentiate BFG and can deliver tangible results for clients. As a result, BFG has never joined the award circuit. Yes, we’ve entered, and we’ve won our fair share. However, in all cases, our entries were made on behalf of our clients. Awards are a great way for a client team to celebrate their hard work and contribution to the partnership, garner internal support for future advertising, and substantiate their choice of agency.” – Kevin Meany | BFG Communications

What is the best way to leverage awards for agency new business?

  •     Focus on awards that are meaningful in your market (Drew McLellan, Marketing Agency Insider).
  •     Milk it for everything you can: send out emails, press releases, post it on your website, announce it on social media, and add the award credit to employees’ email signatures (Drew McLellan, Marketing Agency Insider).
  •     Even if you don’t win an award, if you were nominated it’s still marketable and can be a way to draw attention to your work (Ruben Webb, in The Drum).
  •     Your award submission itself can generate new business from the judges. Ruben Webb, CCO of Stein IAS, even suggests targeting awards based on the potential for new business from the judges, saying, “It’s the most accurate form of direct marketing I can think of…” (The Drum).

In closing

Awards can support agency new business in many ways. There are definitely reasons to incorporate awards into your agency growth plans and think about strategies to get the greatest new business value from those efforts.

That said, the evidence tying award-winning creative to effectiveness, or demonstrated business results, still appears to be slim. And business results are what get the attention and respect of your clients’ C-suite (who often weigh in heavily on pitch decisions). When it comes to awards and effectiveness, ideally your agency would have not just one or the other, but both. The idea that one automatically causes the other shouldn’t be presumed. We’ve written about some ways for agencies to better capture data and demonstrate business results here and here.

by Mark Duval / Duval Partnership

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