June 3, 2008
I have a love/hate relationship with marketing industry awards.
On Thursday, Scott and I will make the trek to New York for the annual PRSA Silver Anvil Awards. We’ve been nominated for some work we did with MacPhail Center for Music. This marks the third time we’ve been nominated for this “Oscar” of the public relations industry. Twice before we’ve come home with bellies full of shrimp and mushroom thingees, and some consolation lucite recognizing our work as pretty good, but not the winner of the top prize in our category.
We thought we had arrived on the national scene when we were first nominated for a Silver Anvil in 2003. We were quickly put in our place when I glanced at the tasteful “trophy” I had just been handed and saw that the honoree was “Fat Horse.” Hours later, one of our young staffers dropped the award on the streets of Greenwich Village after a night of celebrating our — well, we weren’t sure what we were celebrating. An embarrassed PRSA official later called and offered to replace the misprinted award. We kept the Bleecker Street-scarred “Fat Horse” trophy and sent the pristine replacement to our client. Keeps us grounded.
Why do we go to the trouble of competing for these awards? They are expensive, time-consuming and the award ceremonies make waterboarding look humane. It’s simple: it’s part of how we create buzz and establish a national reputation for the agency. We routinely compete with some of the biggest and best agencies in the country for business. They typically bring wheelbarrows to these award ceremonies. One of the most successful agency founders in the Twin Cities once told me: “If you want to be big, act big.” When he launched his firm in the early-’80s, he aggressively competed for awards, and credits that strategy with putting his shop on the map. They are still in business, and still doing great work.
Awards have directly helped us win major pieces of business, as they have independently established our work as some of the best in the marketing industry. That’s priceless to a relatively young agency trying to create a national reputation for excellence. But awards don’t matter to everybody. Nor should they. There’s a very fine line when it comes to serving your clients and serving your trophy case. Some agencies have made competing for awards an art form, and their obvious focus on winning those awards starts to beg some questions. For example, I think firms that consistently pad award totals with trophies for internal agency initiatives are showing signs of misplaced priorities. You know who you are.
There are other limits to the value of awards. I believe the local PRSA Classics awards, for example, have lost relevance. Winning a Classic really doesn’t mean what it used to, as the competition simply no longer reflects the breadth of the best and most cutting-edge work happening locally. A competition that still awards trophies for “best three-color brochure” without categories recognizing work in social media is stuck in a bygone era. This year, Fast Horse was among those who no longer saw value in entering until the Classics are updated to reflect where communications is going. If the Effies can broaden beyond honoring traditional advertising, I’m certain the Classics can get with the times as well.
So, we’re off to New York. Our brave “runner-up” face is well-rehearsed. If you’re planning to attend, please stop by and say hello. I’ll be the guy with the shrimp cocktail on my tie.