November 10, 2015

Judge, jury and executioners – inside an advertising festival jury room

jury

It’s over, three intense days locked up in a room looking at work submitted for the One Show China Festival and trying to choose the best examples of creativity from agencies across Greater China. Of course it’s an honor to be selected but it is very tiring, especially as you still have to keep up with your day job in between the judging. It all starts on the first day as the judges from different agencies arrive in the room. Some you’ve met before over the years and you wonder if you’re looking as old or tired as they are now. Others you’ve never seen before so you try to guess where they work by their clothes. No doubt the guy dressed as a fashion pirate works at the latest cool boutique agency. It’s a melting pot of designer glasses and designer haircuts as the “rock stars” of advertising take their seats. After the greetings and the sizing up of each other there is a welcome speech from the organizer. Then the fun begins. The lights dim and you’re facing hours of looking at videos that will hopefully inspire you but might possibly make you want to change career.

Every judge in the room has the power to make the work submitted a winner or face instant death. As you put your vote into the system via an iPad mini you desperately hope that the next project is going to be better than what you’ve just seen. You try to be generous then remember that the ultimate winners will reflect you as judges just as much as the agency that submitted it. What’s interesting is how repetitive the work is. You can immediately spot the projects inspired by previous winners at international awards. China is known for copying bags, cars and fashion. It goes the same for advertising campaigns. A clone of Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches – check! A Dumb Ways to Die rip off along with cute song – check! To be fair China isn’t alone when it comes to copying successful campaigns. One thing that seems unique however is the need for Chinese advertising campaigns to make the viewer cry. If I had to give awards for the number of tears shed in an online video there would be a global trophy shortage. Tragedy sells here, as does melancholy, yearning, self-sacrifice and utter sadness. If you are too happy then shame on you. Let’s turn that smile into a guilty frown. No matter if the product is soft drinks, USD sticks, infant milk formula, cars or insurance – leave them crying and it seems that brands will be laughing all the way to the bank.

Enough of the ranting. Emotion sells in China and if I don’t like it then I should go work somewhere else. It just gets a bit monotonous after watching TV ads and viral videos for 8 hours that tug the heartstrings so hard. I even felt myself tearing up at one point during a video from a fizzy drink brand about a daughter living far from her parents. Too close to the bone! But I shook it off like Taylor Swift and switched on my cold cynical mode. As a judge you’ve got to look at how original the idea is. How much it taps into a real insight and understands the target audience. You look at the craft that has gone into the work. Art direction, music or sound design, video editing, typography etc. China has a long history of beautiful craftsmanship and you see that coming through from time to time. Above all you have to ask yourself if you wished that your team had made this work. Does it make you jealous, full of admiration or left in total awe?

Hour after hour looking at case videos can be exhausting. You don’t want your attention to drift otherwise it isn’t fair to the people whose work you’re judging. Weeks or months of work have gone into every project. It’s what you do for a living so you know from experience the pain of giving birth to a great campaign then turning it into a brilliant case video. But in that darkened jury room you begin to get cabin fever. Soon you start to notice how the person next to you always smacks their lips annoyingly or breathes too loudly. Luckily the snack table is there as a welcome break. It too starts to be a distraction, calling out to you as the hours tick by, tempting you to walk over for one more cookie. Then before you realize it is all over.

After all the individual judging the most interesting part begins. This is where the work with the highest marks gets debated by the jury. We need to choose the best of the best. Award the gold, silver and bronze along with the best in show.

It starts with some friendly debating as each judge brings up a project that he or she believes either should or shouldn’t be in the shortlist. Quite often there is a real consensus but sometimes opinions clash. We go around the room to hear what everyone feels strongly about. Also, what the awards stand for and represents to the industry in China or further afield. Isn’t innovation more than just new technology but rather new thinking? Do we reward work that is beautifully crafted and ticks all the boxes or something that is anarchic and brave? One jury member points out that being safe is risky for clients today. In a digital era we have to recognize work that is game changing and captures the public’s attention in unconventional ways. The One Show Festival is meant to be the keeper of the creative flame as other award festivals become more and more corporate. China has changed so much in the past few years so the work that we award needs to reflect this. It’s a chance to show the world how creative China can be and inspire China’s next generation of advertising professionals.

The final judging takes place with everyone pressing their iPads to select the best in show. Even we don’t know which project won but we all have a good idea. We will all find out, just like the audience, at the award ceremony two days from now. We burst out into daylight, eyes blinking, feeling tired but inspired. Being a judge is a great reminder what we must aim for as an industry. We may not be saving the world but advertising can be as much a cultural force as any of the arts. It’s up to us to make what we do amazing, entertaining and innovative.

(First published on LinkedIn)