Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
04 September 2012
After the Libor banking scandal, the industry’s attention should turn to its own benchmarks. How credible are advertising awards ceremonies?
Two amazing events happened in London recently, one inspiring and exhilarating and the other less so.
At the London Olympics we witnessed some amazing moments. As ever, the IOC promotes good sportsmanship and builds the necessary protections in order to discourage those who seek an unfair advantage.This year, the IOC conducted more than 6,000 drug tests during the Games and they caught out nine athletes.
Just a few weeks before the incredible opening ceremony, Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond resigned over the fixing of the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor). The rate, used to fix the cost of borrowing on trillions of dollars of mortgages, loans and derivatives, had been manipulated by banks who were posting lower rates in order to make themselves look more credit-worthy. Cheating, collusion and transparency, what has this to do with industry Awards ceremonies?
In a business that is so motivated by awards competitions and in the setting of benchmarks, perhaps this is a timely moment to reflect on whether we are meeting the right standards of ‘fair play’ in our own industry. In this year alone, C Squared will process almost 3,000 entries from around 100 countries. In the last four years, since we launched The Festival of Media Awards, over 600 senior executives from 50 countries have acted as jurors, coming together in locations around the world such as Valencia, Montreux, Singapore, London, New York and Miami. From what our juries tell us, it seems that many Awards methodologies are old and tarnished – either failing to keep in step with good practice or simply having structures that are open to collusion, like Libor. Given that the only currency an Award really has is its impartiality and integrity, we believe this is an extremely serious issue.
We also believe that an Award has more integrity if the Award organising company is fully invested in the industry it is working for. The awarding body must have diversified revenue streams and not be overly reliant on entry revenues. As background to this point, consider this. Awards-centric businesses have rather a unique business model – the organiser asks for money but gets the entrant to do the work. The entrant writes the cases and has the arduous job of chasing up cases from across their global organisations (I did this myself, while working for a global media network – like pulling teeth!). Once collated, the organiser then asks the same industry to donate its labour for free to judge that work. So, with no major investment in intellectual property or in the fixed costs of a global network, no wonder Awards can be a high margin business!
My point is that if an organisation is motivated by this high-margin revenue alone, then things can happen which can damage integrity. For example, there is a natural bias to favour agencies that enter the most cases. There is also an incentive to allow categories to swell to bloated extremes, even when this begins to impact on the integrity of the judging process.
How credible can Awards be if a judge has less than 30 seconds to assess each case! All parties, entering companies, judges, sponsors and the organiser, must be aligned along a common interest in some symbiotic way. Everyone must come together and there must be an agreed mandate. When a creative agency wins an Award for media strategy or when an ‘Agency of the Year’ prize goes to a one-campaign shop, it is bound to call into question whether the organiser is really intellectually invested in the market it is trying to benchmark.
C Squared launched The Festival of Media Awards because the media industry asked us to. I am grateful to the former Mediacom global chief executive Alexander Schmidt Vogel and the inimitable Vivaki chief executive Jack Klues who called me separately within the same week to ask us to consider an Awards programme at our Event. By this time we had already built a community of interest – and of buyers and sellers – around an existing Event. And by not going for Awards entry revenues right from the start, we proved that we were more interested in benchmarking and debate than in ramping up high margin awards revenues. And we still are. We want to make more intellectual capital out of the trends we observe in order to improve the usefulness of all our brands. If we widen out our Awards across the globe we also provide a valuable – and consistent – benchmark as to “what good looks like” in global media. This is an exciting pursuit.
Five other quick points come to mind around Awards integrity:
1. Don’t mark your own homework
The Festival of Media and the M&M Awards have clients on their judging panels. Furthermore, a jury assessing the work of agencies should not have a chairman who is drawn from an agency. The Festival of Media Awards has always had a senior advertiser as jury chairman – in fact, we’ve had two chairmen since day one. The former Procter & Gamble global media director Bernhard Glock, has sat on every panel we have run, as ‘Chairman Emeritus’. He provides guidance for the client chairman of every Awards programme and perspective for the jury. He provides valuable insight into year-on-year quality, identifying trends that can provide enormous value when judges are arguing over a case.
We are grateful to over 100 advertisers who have supported our Awards in the last four years. Our panels will always strive to have 20% client attendance. In addition, we also ensure that this mix of clients is not overtly connected to any one agency group.
2. Remove short listing bias
Funnily enough, the setting of Libor has some similarities with the scoring of Olympic diving. In both cases, the highest and lowest rates or scores are discarded, and only then is the average taken. At The Festival of Media we have done this for years. It helps eliminate partisan voting to get entries on to our shortlist.
3. Avoid the “crowding out” effect
Most agencies think that if they invest in entering hundreds of cases – a major investment – that they will have more chance of seeing ROI in more wins. While more entries clearly have an impact on boosting probability, most good Awards try to balance this factor out. The best work should win, not necessarily the most ubiquitous. In non-entering awards (such as ‘Agency of the Year’) we now ensure that the spread of client work is taken into account – so that a brilliant single campaign that wins lots of individual categories does not impact on any more general assessment.
4. Match the method to the market
Why should judges look at the creative work if the Awards are about business success? When C Squared launched The Festival of Media Awards we set-up a “two-tier” entering system. Upon entering, we asked only for the written submission. If the case was compelling and made it to the shortlist, we then went back and asked for creative work and further video explanations.
Not only did this save agencies money, it also allowed the best argued business case to go forward – without any great creative to ‘beguile’ a judge (it does happen!). Even as media agencies are now generating creative ideas and producing content themselves, this system still feels like the best method.
5. Allow debate
We have tried mathematical scoring during the final judging and have tried to apply more systematic processes. But, judging is still an inclusive Socratic process. If you have asked a senior executive to give up their weekend (as is the case with The Festival of Media) you are inviting them to have their say. A good jury room takes time over the entries and respects them. There really is no other way to go about it. There are, of course, many other elements to creating a credible Awards benchmark. But I invite the industry to ask more questions of all Awards organisers in future. C Squared will continue to listen and support the market. The industry deserves its leading Awards programmes to be non-partisan with total integrity in their methodologies.
Charlie Crowe, chief executive, C Squared