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Inside the APG Creative Strategy Awards

This is a perspective from Michael Lee, CSO at the VCCP Partnership and Chair of the APG who was Chair of Short Listers for the awards in 2021. It’s his insider account of how the different stages of short-listing work: How and why decisions are made, why many of the papers that made it through to the short list rose to the top of the pile, and why some papers don’t get through.


Before we get into the detail, there are a couple of things in this piece that that illuminate the ethos of the awards and what the judges are looking for; reiterated at the end.


Fairness: If there is one thing I care about passionately, it’s being fair. No big brands favoured over small brands. No big agency favouritism. No preference for TV ads over DM or UX. No penalties for being a B2B campaign over a B2C campaign. If a paper is written by someone who isn’t a native English speaker, we’ll account for that.


Untold Stories: Nothing would make us happier than to surface the less well-known stories; the less glamorous brands. After all, this is the only awards of its kind: The Creative Strategy Awards. We know there are brilliant planners everywhere, coming up with highly creative strategies that are growing brands, transforming businesses, creating jobs, keeping people in jobs, stimulating brilliantly original creative ideas that in the end, are what stop us from being replaced by AI. At least for the next few weeks.


How to Get on the Short List

By: Michael Lee


What’s going on in the judges’ minds?

The reading stage


There are 12 judges and each judge will be given 50+ papers to read over a few weeks. They are reading them in the evening or at the weekend because of pressure of actual work, so you have to bear in mind that if they are reading 10 to 20 in one day, they can start to look a bit the same.


Judges tend to reward the papers that stick in the mind and are easy to understand and they are more likely to mark down papers that seem a bit cliched. But don’t get me wrong. This task is also infinitely interesting, and they are looking to find as many great stories as possible so make yours readable and digestible in one go.


Whilst reading they will be evaluating the paper against the scoring criteria. Check them out and make sure you are on track:

  • How compelling is the story i.e. how effectively have you expressed the overall thinking and idea (written case)? 20 marks

  • How strong is the creative strategy? 20 marks

  • How much do I wish I’d done it? (The jealousy factor) 5 marks

  • How ‘useful’ is the case/the learning, and/or could it be reapplied? 5 marks

How did I make my decisions? 90% of my thinking, especially at shortlist stage was focused on scrutiny:


Did the strategy really play a big part in the success of the idea or is it just a great idea with little evidence of the role strategy played in that? (We can spot a crafty post-rationalisation because we’ve all done it ourselves!)


How good is the strategic thought itself? Now that, is arguably as subjective as asking, how good is this drawing? But over time, we judges have hopefully got better at knowing the difference between a great creative brief and an average one, and we typically use the same criteria: ‘Blimey that’s clever’, ‘no-one’s thought of that before’, ‘that’s a great platform for a great creative idea,’ 'that’s going to make a huge difference’.


The First Round of Discussions

Getting onto the long list


This is where the judges are looking to create a long list to go on to stage 2 of the short listing.


Typically, your paper will have been read by at least 4 of the judges. A few papers will have got consistently low marks, and they tend to be knocked out more quickly as that leaves us more time to discuss the more borderline cases. Last year we had 100+ papers that we needed to shortlist down to about 50 at the first stage of assessment.


My appeal to you is, don’t make it too easy for us to dismiss you in the first round. And here are some helpful tips to keep you on track.

1. Writing Style


This is not about flair. You don’t have to be a brilliant prose stylist to get through; just follow a few basic rules that you probably do anyway.


Make sure you write clearly and have a sound structure to your story. You don’t need wacky formats to stand out or to go all Quentin Tarantino with the story. And beware hyperbole (The business was on its knees.’ ‘Sales were down a massive 0.7% YOY’. ‘We broke the internet’ or referencing the judges – it makes them a bit uncomfortable.


It's no different to how I’d always recommend you write a deck. Have the basic narrative architecture nailed and if that all flows nicely it will probably translate just as well to prose.


Be honest. That can be distinctive in itself. Luke Alexander-Grose who wrote the Cadbury’s Twirl Orange paper took that honesty to another, highly memorable level. Have a read of the paper.


Humility can also be very distinctive. Loz Horner wrote an excellent paper on Taylor’s Coffee Bags. He showed that we venerate the ‘clever’ so much that we sometimes miss of undervalue the power of the obvious.


2. Evidence


Don’t play fast and loose with the results


A big part of our job is to scrutinise so we’re on the look-out for overclaim. You don’t need it if it’s a sound story.


There is no need to big up your role in the success or monopolise the success (‘it was all down to our strategy’).


Be careful riding the wave of correlation. There were some examples of this around Covid that begged the question, what about the bounce back from Covid? And the fact that everyone in the category did well?


And take care claiming results are amazing when the actual data is a bit thin like screen grabs of tweets.


‘We trended for 10 minutes on Twitter’

‘3m impressions for a paid media placement’


It’s better to be modest and honest so no need to include embellishments and exaggerations as they can make it easier to undermine your argument.


‘This feature was so successful that it is now a permanent part of the website.’


(In this case, I checked, and no it isn’t.)


Don’t be tempted to be wayward with the truth. Given the plethora of excellent papers with evidence that isn’t easily exposed, judges are going to penalise you if it turns out what you claim is easily discovered to be not true. We’re mainly planners. We’re obsessed with detail and we have a nose for things that don’t sound quite right.


Why do we care so much? I think it damages our own credibility as strategists who are meant to be experts in commercial rigour.


But it’s not an effectiveness award so you don’t need to be perfect


As I said in the launch of the awards, it doesn’t mean that evidence should be complete and econometric data needs to be mandatory feature. We’re fully aware not every client will pay for econometrics and not every idea/campaign needs to be finished before you can consider writing about it. If it’s a non-paid for campaign, it’s OK to show earned media value and to talk about long-term metrics which this will have contributed to, as in the Cadburys Twirl Orange paper.


IAMS Nose ID app and the Formula E paper were both highly regarded papers. They are two examples of strategy proving its value in new places, which often required new forms of measurement.


The IAMS authors admitted their evidence was incomplete, but there was also enough to give us sufficient confidence that it was a highly effective idea.


When you have good evidence, arguably it makes it very difficult NOT to be shortlisted.


All of this should get you through to the long list and the second stage of short listing.



The Second Round of Discussions

Getting through to the final short list


You probably have passionate advocate amongst the judges. The task here is to make it easy for them to make your case.


Put yourself in the judges’ shoes. We’re now round the table and fiercely debating, and the scores are pretty similar. There are lots of really good papers, and we’re just talking about the podium places; the difference of a few points here and there. We’re asking why should this get a Silver/Gold rather than a Bronze? What’s so special about it?


Here are some indicators that a paper is a winner:


1. It was memorable.It’s the one with’… for example, the Friends episode or Don Corleone for KFC.


2. It told me something new: The best use of a medium, or type of idea, or the process of getting to a great idea; McDonald's Canada, for example.


3. It made an impact in a new way/place/space that proves a new source of value for creative strategy. In other words, it shows that our skills are getting applied in more and more valuable and impactful places. Formula E and IAMS are good examples.


4. It represents best practice in that it shows an approach that everyone should be taking every time they have this type of brief. This gives judges a reason to champion it. The clarity of the McDonald's Long Term Thinking paper in terms of structure of comms pillars is an example.

Now you’re contender for the very highest level. What makes you a contender for immortality?


There are two things in particular that make it almost impossible to not reward a paper very highly, and we’re talking the kinds of paper that eventually get awarded Gold and Grand Prix at the second stage of judging:


1. The scale of impact is absolutely exceptional. This is not just the campaign itself, but the impact on the brand long-term, and even better, the impact on the business and the legacy it will generate for our profession/industry. Hence Cadbury/Mondelez getting the Grand Prix.


2. The ‘we’ve never seen this before’ effect. And let’s be clear it doesn’t have to be about innovation. Marmite is a great example. But McDonald's Long Term Thinking is another great example. They demonstrated the reputation and appreciation of the value that sustained excellent planning brought to the business by showing how planning fee income has significantly outstripped growth rates vs overall income growth on the account.


And finally, let’s remember the scoring. We’re talking absolute fine margins at this stage, 1 or 2 points here and there. Remember there are 5 points up for grabs for the paper that makes me wish I’d done that go green with envy, unsettles me, triggers my impostor syndrome; has me going to bed thinking ‘I’ve never come up with a strategy as good as that. This person is going to take my job in a year’s time’. Those 5 points could make all the difference


And finally, fairness


Just a little postscript - If there’s one thing that I care passionately about, it’s being fair: No big brands favoured over small brands. No big agency favouritism. No preference for TV ads over DM or UX. No penalties for being a B2B campaign over a B2C campaign. If a paper is written by someone who isn’t a native English speaker, we’ll account for that.


We ended up with Gold and Grand Prix winners, many coming from Adam&EveDDB and my own agency, VCCP, not because of any favouritism, but simply because they were the best written and the best evidenced, papers. It would have been unfair to penalise them just because they were about big brands and from big agencies that regularly win.


(And remember that any judge, including the Chair has to leave the room for any discussion about papers from their agency and they are not allowed to score or comment on them at all. Sarah Newman is present at all the judging to ensure impartiality).


Be in doubt, nothing would make us happier than to surface the less well known stories; the less glamorous brands. After all, this is the only awards of its kind. The Creative Strategy awards. We know there are brilliant planners everywhere, coming up with highly creative strategies that are growing brands, transforming businesses, creating jobs, keeping people in jobs, stimulating brilliantly original creative ideas that in the end, are what stop us from being replaced by AI. At least for the next few weeks.

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