by Mike Abel (@abelmike) So much time is spent in our industry developing brilliant work, yet how much time is spent on training creatives (and strategists and suits) on how best to evaluate it?

For example, we went into the Cannes Advertising Festival 2014 with a number of clear hopefuls — but also a degree of ‘expectation caution’. It’s hard to know what finds favour.

Mike AbelWorthy of recognition

You see, our Cannes Lions Gold- and Bronze-winning Street Store didn’t come first at the South African Creative Circle Ad of the Month, and our Bronze-winning Boxman print campaign didn’t place at all.

But we know that they’re both great ideas, and a few highly regarded and experienced SA executive creative directors made some accurate predictions in the week before the ceremony, including Pepe Marais of Joe Public, who called it that our Street Store — which is at the stage where it’s already doing incredible things around the world, bringing both dignity and clothing to the homeless — is worthy of recognition.

So what did the Cannes judges see in this — and other award-winning work?

Same refrain is heard

I’ve been in the advertising business for 25 years. Over this period, I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of winning teams for all the major global and local awards. And every time you head into judging season, both locally and internationally, the same refrain is heard: “It’s a lottery; you never know”. Indeed, you often don’t.

Some of the most-loved and -shared ads, which have significantly grown clients’ businesses, win nothing. There isn’t a person in the industry who’s not experienced this befuddlement.

Similarly, there have been sleepers that nobody expected to capture the judges’ imaginations which have gone on to get the biggest gongs.

World-class offering

The SA ad industry has for many years had a world-class offering. Certainly, throughout my career, local agencies such as Ogilvy, Jupiter, Hunts and BBDO have taken home massive awards and have punched well beyond our economy’s weight — and I was so gratified to see South Africa again winning so many major awards at Cannes this year. The judges there know their stuff.

I had many lengthy (and often boozy) discussions, on what made an award-winning ad, with the late Robyn Putter, mentor and global creative director for WPP and Ogilvy Worldwide. Earlier in my career, I had similar conversations with Mel Miller and the late Ricardo de Carvalho at The White House DDB, my first agency.

The only answer we could come up with was, quite obviously, the power of the BIG IDEA.

For any ad to win a major award, at its very center needs to be a simple, yet profound, idea.

Deep-enough grounding

As a “young person’s” game, a lot of the talent in our industry today might not have a deep-enough grounding to recognise this concept, as the communications spectrum has become infinitely broader, more confusing and complex.

For any ad, you hopefully have the Brand Idea, Advertising Idea and Executional Idea. If you were to examine some iconic ads such as BMW’s “Mouse” ad, David Ogilvy’s Rolls Royce “Clock”, or Bill Bernbach’s VW Beetle “Lemon”, each of these three key factors are plain and simple to see.

Similarly, for the famed Hamlet Cigars, Stella Artois and Nike, you can spot all three aspects immediately.

But, in argument, there have also been highly rated, obscure and often funny ads that did exceedingly well, such as Cup Noodle “Nissim”, which was largely based on an executional idea only, and, arguably, Cadbury’s “Gorrilla”.

Guidelines and frameworks

Two of my early mentors, Brian Searle-Tripp and Roger Makin, tried to make analysing the ad and idea simpler for the suits and, dare I say, the creatives by putting up a large poster in the creative department. It was a guide that asked a few simple questions and went something like this:

  1. Is the work on strategy?
  2. Does the selling message come through?
  3. Is it executed with flair?
  4. Does it reward the reader for reading, the listener for listening, or the viewer for watching?

De Carvalho used a similar technique:

  1. Is it Relevant? (R)
  2. Is it Original? (O)
  3. Is it Impactful? (I)

If it were, it would equate to ROI — a return on investment.

Clients loved this simple framework as it came with a promise of actually working, ie selling stuff.

A tricky business

What I think has added the X factor to South African work is our unique understanding of what we call the human condition. A lot of our work was, and is, possibly less “intellectual” than some of the developed markets but is thick with empathy.

A lot of the great work that’s won nothing might just not have found favour with the judges for this reason. They might have been high on emotion in terms of the executional idea but considered low on the actual pure advertising idea. You can see how it’s a tricky business.

A lot of sentiment also comes into play, such as how famous is the brand being advertised. Award darlings such as Nike, Stella, and Guinness, to name a few, have a lot of momentum behind them as they enter an awards room, as do the agencies they come from —Droga 5, Wiedens, R/GA, Crispin Porter, etc.

It’s like a car, really. If it has the Mercedes star on the bonnet, it’s immediately perceived to be a thing of quality vs a relatively unknown brand from an unknown or boring agency. Great judges are able to look beyond these distractions and preconceived ideas when they see the ad for the first time. Great judges evaluate it on its merits as it appears in front of them. It’s the only way.

Bettering our judging

For the longest time, too, we’ve been talking about “owning the hearts and minds of consumers”. Work that owns the mind often has a clearer idea at the centre, as you aren’t relying on an executional technique to get you across the line. International judges and top local ECDs are good at differentiating between the two.

But initial judging in local markets is often left to a “senior creative”, who may not have been exposed to some of these advertising giants — and possibly may not have had the proper conversations with their ECDs on how to judge work effectively.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of our most senior, seasoned and talented local and “semi-retired” ECDs — such as John Hunt, Brian Searle-Tripp, and Graham Warsop — could run industry courses, together with some of the leading ECDs, training local senior creatives (and even strategists and suits) on how to identify a great Advertising Idea ahead of a great Brand Idea (often a pure legacy benefit) or a great executional idea? And maybe we could bring in advertising giants such as Jeremy Sinclair or Dan Wieden to partner with them?

What a gift it would be to the local industry, not only in bettering the ideas but also in bettering the ability to judge them!

Mike Abel (@abelmike) is founder and chief executive of M&C Saatchi Abel. This article has been republished with permission from Mike’s blog, Mike & Friends.

“Motive” is the new by-invitation-only column on Contributors are picked by the editors but don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup.

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