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Do Creative Awards Matter for Agency New Business?

Posted by Mark Duval on Jun 27, 2019 8:14:00 AM
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According to a new analysis of nearly 600 case studies in the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA)’s databank, the effectiveness of creatively-awarded campaigns is at its lowest level in 24 years (as measured by the average number of “very large business effects”).

Another study of 75 Grand Prix and Gold Cannes Lions winners between 2010 and 2018 reported that most Cannes Lions Grand Prix-winning ads were not effective (as measured by emotional response). These studies imply, as marketing consultant Peter Field has observed, that “creatively awarded campaigns are no more effective than non-awarded ones.” What does that mean for your agency? 

creative awards for agency new business

In working with many award-winning agencies throughout 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. Ultimately, prospects want to know three main things: What have you done? Who have you worked with? And what results have you gotten? Every mention of an agency award should be followed by an answer to the question, “so what?” Obviously, the answer should not be that the awarded campaign was ineffective.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • What is the new business value of awards for agencies?
  • How do awards benefit agency clients?
  • What is the correlation between creative excellence 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 fall under that umbrella, at least not directly. Those may include employee motivation, morale, agency culture, talent retention, and recruitment, to name a few things. 

Creative excellence 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 is that assumption warranted?

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, this is what I found:

1. In 2010, AdAge covered a report conducted by the IPA, which found that award-winning ads were 11 times as effective as other ads. The IPA examined 213 case studies as a basis for their conclusion. While compelling, this research is no longer current (newer research draws an opposite conclusion); it’s also somewhat limited in scope, and it was conducted by a trade organization with a vested interest in a particular outcome.

2. According to McKinsey, 67% of companies scoring in the top quartile for Award Creativity Score (ACS), which measures the number of Cannes Lions awards won between 2001 and 2016, have also had above-average financial performance (including organic revenue growth).

3. James Hermann, who wrote The Case for Creativity, found that the Cannes Advertisers of the Year (for years 1999 through 2015) outperformed the S&P 500 by a factor of 3.5 (MarketingWeek).

4. Marketing consultant Peter Field conducted a new analysis of IPA data and found that the average number of very large business effects reported by creatively-awarded campaigns fell from 1.9 in 2008 to 1.4 in 2018, the lowest it has been in 24 years (MarketingWeek).

5. System1, a UK-based predictive marketing firm, tested 75 Grand Prix and Gold Cannes Lions winners from 2010 to 2018. They used a scale of one to five to measure emotional response to TV ads to predict likely effectiveness and long-term brand growth. While most Grand Prix award-winning ads were ineffective, the Gold Cannes Lions winning-ads performed better (AdWeek). 

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

Here is a round-up of what ad industry leaders have said about the benefits of awards:

  • 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).
  • Awards can be a great way to gain free positive publicity for your agency (TheWowCompany).
  • “Creative awards are an objective reminder that you can still motivate customers by tickling their decision-making parts on a more emotional (and cheaper) level without the need to bludgeon them into a flaccid submission with a barrage of hard-sell noise.” (Harry Lang, Brand Architects, in MarketingWeek).
  • Awards can set your agency apart from the pack, distinguishing it from competitors (Drew McLellan, Marketing Agency Insider).
  • "Awards get you new talent, which allows you to win new business and inspires the team to do better work." (Kevin Swanepoel, CEO, The One Club for Creativity, in AdWeek)
  • Awards 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).

winning awards for agency new business

Agency executives on whether creative awards are a waste of time

Jami Oetting of 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?

  • 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 good 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, is mixed. And business results are what get the attention and respect of 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.

This post was updated on June 27, 2019.

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Image credits: creative awards for agency new business © / Yuri_Arcurs; winning agency awards for new business © / Oat_Phawat

Topics: Agency New Business

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