Financial Times, May 11, 2004
Never underestimate the importance of awards to the advertising industry. Anecdotes abound of the lengths agencies will go to to secure a prize. One French network promised each of its creative directors a share in a €1.5m ($1.77m) bounty if their work made it into one league table, and a Brazilian agency chief ordered his creative team to come in at the weekend “so that they could do the ads for Cannes”.
In some quarters there is a cynical belief that certain campaigns are created with a view to winning awards for agencies rather than driving sales for clients, or that competition juries favour big-budget and cutting-edge campaigns with which mainstream viewers are rarely familiar. None of which will, of course, prevent the industry’s creative tribes from descending on Cannes next month for the Golden Lion advertising awards festival, the industry’s equivalent of the Oscars.
Donald Gunn knows more than most about awards. Once dubbed “the man with the best job in advertising”, Mr Gunn, who spent three decades at Leo Burnett, has latterly dedicated his career to analysing creativity and tracking the best-regarded advertising and the agencies or countries which produce it. The results appear every November in the Gunn Report, probably the most respected, and certainly the best-read, measure of excellence in an industry obsessed by rankings.
So, to what does he attribute this compulsion to be honoured? “In every field there is an appetite to be the best and for that to be celebrated,” he says. He concedes that, compared with other creative industries such as music or design, advertising has a disproportionate number of awards. But their role in powering the business is fundamental, he says.
For agencies, awards create a virtuous circle: they establish reputation, attract talent and bring in new business. Even so, Mr Gunn believes they should be seen only as the icing on the cake. “Agencies should set out to create the best advertising for their clients. Winning an award is a bonus.”
The benefits may not be so obvious for advertisers. “Awards are not a priority for advertisers, but they do want the best, most original advertising, so an award provides reassurance: they are getting good work and they have good people at their agency.”
Mr Gunn has also examined the relationship between creativity and effec tiveness and has proved to his satisfaction that award-winning advertising increases market share. A study of 400 of the most-awarded campaigns in the world between 1992 and 1995 found that 86.5 per cent of the ads were associated with market success. In other words, ads with award-winning qualities were two and a half times more likely to achieve, or surpass, clients’ objectives. Leo Burnett reprised Mr Gunn’s study in 2002 and unveiled similar results: four out of five award-winning campaigns achieved positive market results for clients.
Mr Gunn’s insights stem from his experience as an agency creative chief and from the phenomenal databank that forms the backbone of the Gunn Report, launched in 1999.
While at Leo Burnett, Mr Gunn founded two institutions that still set creative benchmarks today: the Great Commercials Library, started in 1986, and the Global Product Committee. The latter involves a commitment that many agencies would find daunting: every three months, 20 of Leo Burnett’s top creative staff from around the world meet for a week to view the entire network’s output. Ads are scored and feedback is given.
To compile his report, Mr Gunn combines the winner lists from 52 national, regional and global award schemes (32 for television, 20 for print). But, just like Coca-Cola’s secret recipe, he has never revealed which ones they are. He says this is to avoid harming the contests that are not included (though it also makes it impossible for agencies to challenge the rankings). After much data-crunching, the league tables emerge – including top commercials, top agencies, top production companies and top countries – as well as a Showreel of the Year featuring the 100 most-awarded campaigns in the world.
Given Mr Gunn’s influence in the industry, one wonders if his rankings have ever been questioned, or if he has been offered incentives to skew results. “Much to my amazement nobody has ever seriously challenged the tables,” he says, “although there have been the usual queries about methodology”. A US network once hired a headhunter to find out which awards had made it into the report; it failed.
“There was a theory at one point that if you threw money at the awards and entered the maximum number of shows, you would come out well,” he says. “In fact, the agencies that spend the most are often those who are entering mediocre work.”
He has his own view about what makes an award-winning ad. He believes an agency’s shared vision and passion for good work – as well as a willingness to take risks – are more important than incentives (such as bonuses), or even strong leadership.
He has identified 12 “master-formats” which, he says, are a good starting point for delivering a selling idea in an engaging way: “Sitting down with a blank sheet to create an ad can be a lonely, scary process.” Approaches such as the testimonial or the celebrity endorsement can dramatise a proposition. Mr Gunn will flesh out his master-formats concept at a presentation in Cannes this year.
Mr Gunn has also spotted a welcome rise in creative standards across the world. “Three years ago, there were 22 markets represented in the 100 best commercials reel. Last year there were 28. Countries such as Canada, Mexico and India are moving up,” he says. Australia, he notes, has regressed since its 1980s heyday, while China has improved as Hong Kong talent has moved into Shanghai and Beijing.
This year, Mr Gunn is handing on the bulk of the work involved in compiling the report to his sister-in-law and brother-in-law. But, before then, he must complete possibly his most ambitious project to date: an online library of award-winning advertising he has tracked since 1962. “It will deliberately be the smallest online commercials library because it will only feature the best – and all the best – ads from around the world,” he says. The Gunn Report Library will be launched by BEAM TV this summer.
Mr Gunn claims he is taking it easy, but his diary tells another story. He has just returned from an advertising conference in Argentina, and later this year will attend festivals in Asia and eastern Europe, as well as Cannes. For this “awards supremo”, it is business as usual.