The winning formula

Discovering winning ways could be your ticket to the top in advertising. Matt Havercroft looks at how you can bag the big awards.

Successful advertising might be about original concepts, innovative execution and delivering the desired response for a client, but for any self-respecting advertising agency, success is measured in accolades too. While awards give instant kudos to an agency's creatives and earn them priceless loyalty from existing clients, they can also add considerable weight to a pitch for new work at a time when many companies' advertising budgets are under increasing pressure. A couple of gongs on your desk certainly won't do any harm to your career prospects either.

To identify the industry's high-achievers and innovators in every medium, from digital and integrated media, to print, radio and television, there are now numerous advertising awards. One of the most highly sought-after is a D&AD award, and creative talents from around the world gather for a glittering ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall in London each year, with the hope of being recognised as one of the industry's elite.

Spanning 30 different categories and covering all aspects of creative communications, from writing and art direction, to architecture, graphic design, music videos and photography, the awards are hard fought and well respected. Over 270 specially selected industry experts make up the judging panel, who cast their critical eyes over more than 23,000 entries to decide who deserves to win a Yellow Pencil (Creative Excellence) or Black Pencil (Groundbreaking) for their contribution.

But what makes an award-winning campaign? According to Nick Bell, global creative chief of DDB and a judge on the panel for TV advertising at last year's D&AD awards, the first thing he looks for is the strength of the entrant's strategy. "There are too many people in the business who still write advertising as though they have the divine right to viewers'/consumers' attention, but this just isn't the case," explains Bell. "People aren't particularly interested unless it touches them in some way, whether it's uproariously funny, emotional, or thought-provoking. With so much alarmist talk now, advertising ought to become better and better, as clients and their advertising agencies are forced to do more and more amazing things. In creating something like the Cadbury gorilla, they are content that gets the whole nation talking."

Bell's desire to see that level of innovation is echoed by Paul Collins, web director at Akestam Holst in Sweden. As a member of the panel for the online advertising entries at the D&AD awards in 2007, Collins says that his primary objective as a judge is always the same: "I'm looking for the 'big idea' - smart, intelligent advertising that conveys a message in a unique way. And, of course, the execution has to match the greatness of the idea."

While certain products would seem to be easier to advertise than others, Bell suggests that it's important not to take an ad-friendly client for granted or see an unglamorous brand as reason not to excel. For him, a strong campaign for a product that is less immediately marketable will always grab his attention first: "There are the so-called sexy categories - jeans, alcoholic drinks, cars - and then the more emotive subject matters like charities and causes," he says, "but I have a personal beef with all that, as too many people operate on the periphery of the industry. I go to a lot of the award shows and I tire of seeing creative teams who work on the 'easy' stuff. Having worked on McDonald's and Heinz, it should be possible to do outstanding work in any category, and that's where an agency earns its money."

Collins is also quick to condemn the idea that certain products are favoured, although he does suggest that the type of work that's winning votes has changed. "It's always about the creative approach," he says. "It does not make any difference what the subject is, as it's not going to win gold in D&AD or Cannes if the idea sucks. However, if I were going to identify a trend last year, it would have to be the year of the non-profit/public awareness clients. I've never before seen so much work coming out of agencies, which led to them making up three of 15 nominees in the online advertising category at D&AD 2007, as well as providing the largest number of entries in Cannes' 2007 cyber category."

With more categories for new media campaigns, the award-winning opportunities for agencies and clients embracing new technologies are greater than ever. Examples of big new media winners at last year's D&AD awards include Ogilvy & Mather, which picked up a Yellow Pencil award in the Viral Film category for its excellent Dove Self Esteem Fund campaign for Unilever Canada. Nike also scooped the prestigious Black Pencil award in the New Uses of a Website category for its impressive Nike+ website, which allows runners with Nike+ trainers to track their runs and monitor their progress through their iPods, and share information with other runners online.

"I think that technology creates new possibilities for us to utilise communication," says Collins. "Nike+ is a great reference here as this idea would have been disregarded a few years ago, but new technology acts as a springboard for us marketers to leverage even better ideas."

For him, the perfect cyber campaign is something that delivers in an unexpected way. "My all-time favourite ad has to be FedEx's Just in Time campaign. It's a few years old now, but its simplicity says everything for me and it won big in all of the large international shows."

As the shortlist is drawn up for this year's D&AD Awards, it would seem that the advice from the judges is simple: a great idea that is expressed well will always win the day. While an award could work wonders for your career prospects, Bell is keen to point out that there are no shortcuts to success: "When you're a young person coming into the industry, we don't exactly make it easy, and creatives know that the road to increased riches and fame is getting gongs against your name, but the danger is to try and make awards your God, and chase them. Do the right thing and do it brilliantly, and all that stuff will come."