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Op-Ed: What’s Wrong with Digital Awards

Now that he’s done pontificating about Pinterest for the time being, our regular contributor and HUGE senior marketing strategist Josh Seifert returns in time for awards season. As the headline suggests, our scribe points out how digital has evolved, but digital awards–eh, maybe another story.

With this year’s marketing awards season in full swing, I recently took a closer look at what’s winning awards in digital these days. With full credit to everyone who recently took home a CLIO or a Webby, I have to admit that digital awards have become a bit of a head-scratcher for me. If awards are meant to recognize excellence in the medium, I’m not sure what’s going on.

The Webbys are possibly the highest profile digital awards and, honestly, have done a great job of raising the profile of digital in websites, online film, interactive advertising and mobile, in too many subcategories to count. Each year, I log in to vote in the People’s Voice Awards (usually at someone else’s behest) and, after arbitrarily casting a few votes, quickly become bored and abandon the site. The field is simply too broad, maximizing the number of winners (and entries), at the expense of the overall relevance of the awards.


Most curiously, it’s ad agencies like BBH, W+K and DDB that are winning the most awards. It’s great that these agencies are being awarded in digital—much of the advertising is really good work. The problem is that most of it is simply the transferal of ads made for television to the online realm. This kind of work should win awards of some kind, but simply turning television into digital is arguably not excellent truly digital work. When this happens, the real wins in digital marketing and those that involve the most significant investments—platforms like Nike+ that constantly iterate and improve—get shortchanged.

My point is that as digital has evolved, digital awards have not, and have begun to celebrate the wrong things. Instead of concentrating attention on the kinds of digital investments that can change a business or an industry, we’re voting to celebrate the best online banner ad. Banners are distrusted, hated, and largely ignored. The likelihood of a single banner converting someone is in the same ballpark as being struck by lightning. Performance is so low that media sites must make it a priority to trick people into clicking as many links within a single article as possible—slideshows anyone? Surely we should be spending our time figuring out a better way to connect with people and not be awarding banners. The winners are actually interesting, because they transcend the banner category, incorporating social, gaming, or novelty to make their point. Awarding them in a narrow ‘banner’ category misses all of that and doesn’t recognize them as the creative ideas that they represent.

Another problem is that awards programs tend to honor one-off campaigns that are brief and buzzy, yet don’t incorporate meaningful engagement. I’m completely baffled by how “The Museum of Me” won both a Grand CLIO and a Webby. If you haven’t experienced this, I recommend turning up your speakers to get the full immersive effect. It’s interesting for about 12 seconds, exactly once, making me wonder if this was really the best use of social media. If successfully using social is about more than reaching someone once, then the brands that have built and managed to sustain significant presences should be winning awards, not the ones that create one-time apps.

When interactive awards are just about relatively short online campaigns, they fail to recognize what’s actually successful and sustainable in digital, and continue to perpetuate the myth that digital just doesn’t work as well as traditional ads—because, at least from my perspective, Museum of Me is not as excellent in digital as the other awarded campaigns are excellent in their own medium. The current crop of digital awards needs to evolve to reflect the realities of what’s most successful online, and it’s not only the banner ads and the one-time campaigns that should get the lion’s share of the recognition.

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