Advertising Awards Are Stupid. But Also Important.
I have a piece of art made by Rohitash Rao on the bookshelf in my office. It’s an award. A golden (plastic) statue that sort of looks like an Oscar stands on a wooden base. On the base, in wonderfully frantic hand-painted white letters, it says “YOU DIDN’T EARN THIS.” I love it because it reminds me of the foolishness of awards. Especially advertising awards.
Next to it, on the same shelf, sit my advertising awards. A One Show Pencil. A Clio. Some Addys. A Telly or two. I can’t seem to find the Cannes Lion (bronze), but when I do, that’s where it will go. I’m proud of these awards because they remind me that I have participated in doing work that was recognized by my peers as “great”, whatever that means. And that inspires me to try to do it again. And to know that I can.
Am I stupid? Not really. I know that winning an award doesn’t necessarily mean that the work “worked” on consumers. Many award-winning creative solutions didn’t have any effect on sales, as the haters love to remind us every year during award season. The very worst examples of this are the fake ads made by unscrupulous creatives who just want to win an award to soothe their fragile egos. Most award shows have tried to squash this by making new rules, but the award-addicts will always find ways to get around the rules. This is infuriating.
But in another way, I am stupid. I’m human. Like all humans, I have an ego. We are imperfect creatures. We need lots of ways to inspire ourselves to action. An action as simple as looking at our naked bodies in the mirror can inspire us to go to the gym. (Or maybe to buy roomier pants.) Tracking your finances can inspire you to make changes that help you save more money. These are ways that we hack our imperfect human brains.
I was always very disorganized. I thought it was just a part of being “creative”. But I’ve recently started Bullet Journaling as a way to inspire myself to stay on task and get more done. The simple act of writing everything down by hand somehow connects to a part of my brain that has way more organizational skills than I knew I had. And the work has gotten better for it.
Awards can be an inspirational tool. Awards are not the goal. Great work is the goal. But by hacking our egos, we trick ourselves into pushing the work to a better place. The result is surprising, novel work that can better spark the imagination and move people to act. At DiMassimo Goldstein, we call this Inspiring Action. Sometimes, it’s a traditional television spot. Sometimes it’s an experiential pop-up made to be shared on Instagram. Sometimes it’s a web-enabled doohickey that helps volunteer types find like-minded dates.
Awards are also a kind of shorthand for creative minds. The same way hobos marked houses with weird symbols to let other hobos know if they were safe or not, awards are a secret language that tell the makers of the world: “this agency will feed you and give you succor”.
Awards help us push past the obvious. Getting the work to a place that is “award-worthy” is an important way to check our inherent bias towards our first thoughts. We are forced to find elegant solutions to our clients’ business problems that can stand alone. Or to rethink the problem entirely. This is a good thing for business.
Our campaign for Shutterstock is winning a lot of awards. A shorty. Two webbys. A One Show shortlist (grumble grumble!). And a coveted, hard-to-win D&AD pencil. I haven’t checked the Cannes results yet, but it’s got a shot. And this may be the one case where awards are a part of the marketing solution itself, because creative people are the target. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t on our minds as we worked on it a way it normally isn’t at first. We had to impress the creative class and we did. Sales are up big.
So the shelf in my office will have more awards. But the Rohitash Rao piece will always stand in the middle, reminding us all that awards, in the end, are just tools we use to get to great work that works.
Yes, we’ve become “that guy.” DiMassimo Goldstein has a podcast. No big deal. (Eyeroll emoji.) In all seriousness, we don’t actually talk about The A-List Podcast that much. Because we didn’t do it to make ourselves famous. We did it because we’re curious about creativity and we’re obsessed with starting conversations. Here’s how it happened:
My friend Lauren Slaff has an ad school called Adhouse. A couple of years ago, I noticed that her Facebook presence for the class needed an upgrade and offered to help. At DIGO, we talk a lot about Inspiring Action and resisting the urge to just make a straight-up ad hawking your wares, so of course my first thought was, “We need some hard-hitting print and banner ads!” It’s amazing how theories become so hard to follow in practice. Duh!
Yes, paid ads are important, but the first thing we needed to do was to get across the difference of Adhouse. As I say in every episode of The A-List Podcast, “[Adhouse’s] philosophy? An ad class is only as good as the professional who teaches it.” At Adhouse, you learn from the people who do the work in the very places where they do it. You literally go to the agency where your teacher works one night a week and show them your ideas. It’s the closest thing to breaking into the business you can get for six hundred bucks.
So a team worked on some ads. They were funny. But mostly they were ads. Clever headlines. Hard-hitting copy. Blah blah blah. And in the end, while they might get some people to notice Adhouse, they weren’t going to be great for the team’s book or for DiMassimo Goldstein. We’re an Inspiring Action agency. It says so in our lobby! We needed to innovate.
A reminder from our lobby at 220 E23rd Street. :)
That’s when we had a bigger idea: Let’s just interview some ad greats themselves, giving the audience a little taste of what it might be like to take an Adhouse class but also getting their ad stories. We eventually settled on their origin stories, partly out of not wanting the show to be too production-intensive week to week but also in an effort to keep it valuable to our core target audience: people who are curious about breaking into the ad industry. We originally planned to do films, but that didn’t pass the production-intensive test either. So we settled on a podcast. NOTE: At the time, we had never produced a podcast. But that’s part of Inspiring Action: Jump and a net will appear.
We began by emailing a few ad friends of mine. Rob Reilly, Ty Montague and Greg Hahn all said yes. Hooray! Gramercy Post, a sound studio upstairs in our building, offered up their recording facilities. We would patch in the guests, and I would ask them their life story. We would record an intro and an outro, slap some music on it, shove in an ad-read for Adhouse and see what we got. Podcast in an hour.
Before we could pull the trigger, I had to talk to my partners and Lauren (our client) about paying for it. As far as the agency was concerned, it wouldn’t make us much money. Make that (scribble scribble) zero dollars, actually. But we would be learning how to make and distribute podcasts, and we would be getting our name out to a young, creative audience. Also, I’d be connecting our agency marketing team to the PR departments of agencies ten or twenty times our size, who would all want to get the word out about their own creative geniuses. Oh, and we could do it pretty cheaply and with a very small team. They said yes (thanks, partners!) and Lauren was happy to try anything (thank the universe for good clients). So off we went.
That was over two years ago now. We have learned a lot along the way and, as we launch season three on May 9th with Anselmo Ramos of GUT, I am struck by how much has changed, but also what hasn’t. Our format hasn’t changed. We’re still asking the guests how they found this weird career we call advertising. (I’m still amazed I found it myself, to be honest. I still feel like that kid from Jersey with the weird hair.) We still record at Gramercy Post. But sometimes we have the guests sit down in the studio with me now. The experience is different that way. It’s easier to connect to the person but can also be scary. (You have to make eye contact and stuff!)
The guests are from new places. I used up all my close friends in season one and two. Now I am interviewing people I never thought would say yes, and I’m still amazed when they say they listen to and love the show. This season will include conversations with the aforementioned Anselmo Ramos as well as Ricardo Casal and Juan Javier Pena of David, Nick Law of Publicis and Karl Lieberman of Wieden + Kennedy. We’re doing a whole design exploratory starting with Paula Scher of Pentagram and Bobby C. Martin of Original Champions of Design.
New Season. New Guests. (Clockwise from Top, Left: Anselmo Ramos of GUT, Ricardo Casal and Juan Javier Pena of David, Paula Scher of Pentagram and Bobby C. Martin Jr. of Original Champions of Design.
(By the way, we have toyed with doing a sub-pod about young people who just entered the business. (The A-List The Next Generation?) We’re still working on ironing out how to do that, which was an idea we got from some young listeners. But Casal and Pena from David and Dhruv Nanda from Oberland start us off with some new perspectives from the millennial point of view.)
One more difference in the show this year is the music. Ross Hopman, a friend of the agency at Duotone, loves the show and wanted to help out. We were thrilled of course. But we had no idea how great the results would be. In the end, we couldn’t choose one song, so The A-List Podcast might just be the only podcast out there with TWO theme songs. The one at the end is my personal favorite, based on an off-the-cuff joke to Ross: “If all else fails, just give me something like The Muppet Show theme.” God, I hope Kermit doesn’t sue.
It’s a funny thing about an Inspiring Action, but it almost always gives you more return than you bargained for. Our little podcast (with very little advertising to support it) has reached tens of thousands of people all over the world. We get notes and emails from listeners who have been in advertising for decades telling us how the show has reignited their passion for the business or kept them going during hard times. DiMassimo Goldstein has gotten clients asking us how to make podcasts and young creatives who want to work here. And, of course, Adhouse has never had so many applicants.
And so it is my pleasure to introduce you to more amazing ad people. That’s the moral of the story of The A-List Podcast by the way: It’s all about the people you meet along the way. This business is full of thousands of amazing people who get to solve problems for the world’s biggest brands in creative, unheard-of ways every day. They did this by finding people who were doing it and learning from them. Our goal was to get more people to imagine themselves doing the same and continue what the Lion King might call the Circle of Ad. Because whether you are a kid from New Jersey like me or a big brand who needs to reinvent yourself, creativity is the way. All you have to do is start a conversation with the right people.
Have we mentioned that season 3 of our podcast launches on Thursday? No big deal. 🙄
The old guy on the left is me. The cool guy on the right is Dhruv Nanda of Oberland.
In my 25 years in the advertising industry (wow, I’m old) I’ve worked at agencies that call themselves “big”. (Ogilvy. BBDO. JWT.) I’ve worked at agencies that call themselves “small”. (Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners. Taxi. Cliff Freeman.) I’ve been an independent freelancer (it doesn’t get any smaller than that) working at agencies on both ends of the spectrum (sometimes at the same time! Cha-ching!). Today I am a Chief Creative Officer and partner at DiMassimo Goldstein, an agency in New York City that is still smallish in size but growing fast.
Last week, I went to the Ad Age Small Agency Conference in Marina Del Rey, California. And I was inspired. Most of the attendees were “big agency” veterans like me who had bravely gone their own way. Sandy Greenberg and Terri Meyer. Bill Oberlander. Anselmo Ramos. Between speakers (and checking in with our teams), we all chatted about what it means to be small in a world that seems obsessed with size and power. In talking with my fellow “smalls”, one thought kept surfacing in my mind: There’s no such thing as a “big agency”.
A global behemoth like Ogilvy may have offices in every corner of the globe. But, in practice, each client gets a team of smart, motivated individuals dedicated to their brand. Example: When I was ECD on a giant financial news account at one of the big agencies above, we did the whole thing with about 20 people in total. That’s including the account team. And planners. Sure, we could call on the power of the network if we needed it. But, day-to-day, no more than 20 people did the work. Sometimes way fewer. And we rocked it. The big global snack company I ran got about the same (and a lot of them were the same exact people, honestly). One mega-client had the largest team in the whole place I would bet. But it amounted to less than 100 people in the end. And they all worked on other things, too. And took weekends off.
Robin Dunbar, a British Anthropologist, coined the Rule of 150, which states that the evolutionary structure of social networks limits us to 150 meaningful relationships at a time. Once a group of humans grows to more than 150 people, the group tends to lose cohesion and want to split up into smaller groups. This is hard wired into our brains from back when we were bands of hunter-gatherers running from tree to tree trying to not be killed by Sabre-toothed Tigers. Paul Lavoie actually used this 150 people rule to run his agencies. Whenever one got close to 150 people, he would go open another one in another city and start all over again. And every client was serviced by no more than four client-facing professionals. This is where the name of his agency network — TAXI — came from, four being the number of people you can fit into the average city cab. Paul knew that clients don’t hire “agencies”. They hire people they trust.
At BBDO, I was lucky enough to get hired to work in Gerry Graf’s group. There were eight creatives in that group. Those eight people made every ad for FedEx, Guinness, Red Stripe, Visa and Snickers. (To be honest, Gerry himself wrote a lot of the ads. He was tough to compete with.) I remember meeting Susan Credle, one of BBDO’s most celebrated ECDs, for the very first time in the halls. She was leaving to go to DDB. (Or was it Leo Burnett?) I shook her hand and she said “Are you new?” I said, “No, I’ve been here for two years.” We had never met until that moment. It makes sense. Susan’s group did M&Ms and AT&T. Were we working at the same agency? Does it matter?
It seems like the market is starting to understand the Big Agency myth. The stock prices of the holding companies have started dropping. Independent agencies are starting to be included in bigger pitches. Maybe technology has made finding great ideas easier. Maybe fracturing audiences and social media have made nimbleness more important than global scale. Maybe talent is realizing its own power and doing something about it. Many of the smartest people I know in this business have chosen to stay “small” as long as they can, at least in spirit. Jay Chiat famously said, “Let’s see how big we can get before we get bad.” But his creative leader, Lee Clow, may have said it best: “It’s more fun to be the pirates than it is to be the navy.” Arrrrr, matey. Arrrrrrrrr.
Another great thing about the smalls is that there’s just so many of them. So you can really find one whose mission aligns tightly with your brand. For instance, at DiMassimo Goldstein, a lot of our clients are direct-to-consumer brands who want to make customers feel like members of a community. We believe in co-creating with the brand team to do things in the world that lead to that result. We call it Inspiring Action. And we’re super passionate about it.
Maybe some boards of directors will always be soothed by the news that the CMO has hired a giant, global advertising agency that they’ve heard of. Nobody ever got fired for doing that, right? And, let’s face it. There’s no replacement for being wined and dined by a holding company exec who has been knighted by the Queen of England. But next time you are tempted to think you absolutely must hire a “big agency”, consider the small. Because in the end, no matter what size your agency pretends to be, all that really matters is the handful of people actually doing the work.
How do you turn an annual tradition into something brand new that will get people talking again? Find a precocious little girl, put her in a Flamingo costume and let her loose in Washington Square Park.
Okay I’ll back up. When our new client (The Bronx Zoo) gave us the assignment to help them sell tickets to their weekends-only, all-October-long celebration of Halloween (Boo At The Zoo), we knew we had to perform. So we decided to tap into NYC’s love of all things October 31.
Perhaps more than any other city in America, New York City loves Halloween. Around here, the costume shops start popping up as soon as summer ends, like ghostly harbingers of the dark, cold, candy-filled nights to come. And eventually, someone pops the chilling question: “What are you gonna be for Halloween?” Insert scary music sting here.
We wanted to give people that same feeling of anticipation for Boo At The Zoo. So we conjured up Flamingo Girl, a precocious, strong-willed seven-year-old who was so excited for Boo At The Zoo that she was already dressed in costume. Katie, an art director here, even made the costumes (we needed multiple heads for some reason) herself. Then a bunch of us (and Broderville Films) spent the day in Washington Square Park with hidden cameras as FG asked everyone her question: “What are you gonna be for Boo At The Zoo?”
She asked cabbies. And statues. And tourists. And policemen. And hot dog vendors. And dogs. In the end, we made a series of little films that are a love letter to New York and an invitation to “the biggest, bestest Halloween event in New York City.” We hope you enjoy.
Oh, and… what are you gonna be for Boo At The Zoo?