Why aren’t design agencies winning design awards?

We really need to talk about why design agencies are so bad at winning design awards. At Cannes and D&AD this year, the design industry was shamefully underrepresented. Big advertising networks continued their track record of hoovering up design accolades whilst the big names in branding were almost entirely absent. Ad agencies aren’t branding specialists, so how do they keep stealing our pencils and our metal? Is it because we can’t do it, or that we can’t be arsed to do it? Is the problem with the awards system, or is it something bigger?

The first problem is that the communications industry is preoccupied with storytelling. We are all obsessed with narratives, frantically seeking them out in every dimension of life, desperately trying to force fit them into places they clearly don’t belong. Design isn’t usually about storytelling – it’s not that cerebral. Design doesn’t ask you to engage your logical brain to follow a narrative. It speaks to your heart – you are either moved by a piece of design, or you’re not.

Now, take a look at the Design Lions entries at Cannes this year. The entire system is set up to assess work not just on the basis of its merit, but also on the strength of the story that’s told to explain its merit. So your agency designed some really nice frozen fish packaging. Who cares? Unless it was animatronic, wifi-enabled and linked to a proximity sensor to create a stunt that was subsequently rolled out on social media. So you designed some cracking beer labels. Not interested. Unless the beer is made from bread thrown away by artisan bakeries and whose profits go towards raising awareness of food waste. Aesthetics aren’t enough, people! The industry demands purpose and story, too!

But if you need a 2 minute video to explain why a design idea is so good, is it really a good design idea at all? It’s so exhausting figuring it all out. So when something like this Japanese koi carp inspired sake packaging makes an appearance on the winners’ list, it feels like a breath of fresh air. It does not ask for your empathy or even your attention. It requires no decoding and no logic – it elicits a response that is instinctive and instantaneous. It’s easy. That’s what good design is about. Isn’t it?

Who knows. I don’t even know what design means any more. I always thought it was about making things more useful or more beautiful. But clearly, that’s not really enough for today’s idea-hungry engagement-obsessed hordes. Not everything at Cannes seems commercially viable, or even practical at all. But perhaps that doesn’t matter. Rory Sutherland has suggested that the festival is ‘the advertising industry’s catwalk’. In other words, work doesn’t necessarily need to be useful, or pragmatic, it just needs to inspire.

Maybe. Certainly it’s true that although stewarding a brand’s distinctive visual assets is arguably the most important part of brand management, it’s definitely not the sexiest part. An evolutionary redesign of a legacy brand isn’t going to win the Grand Prix. So let’s start thinking about what will.

I think the future is in design that plays a more dynamic role in a brand’s journey. We are long past the days when identities and packs simply had to reflect a brand’s values: now, they can actively advance the brand story. It’s what ABI’s VP of US Marketing described as ‘making big bets with big brands’. It’s what Coke did with Share a Coke, and it’s what Budweiser has done with the America can this year. That simple idea has so far created 1.3 billion impressions worldwide. Design making a real difference. No purpose or story in sight.

If we in the design industry are going to get recognised in the world’s biggest festivals of creativity, we need to start thinking differently about our craft. We need to be braver. We need to deliver more than just beauty – we need to make design useful again. We need to drive real change for the brands and business we work for. After all, there’s more than one way to build a brand. True story.

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