What is more important: The best agency? Or the best fit?

The advertising industry is one that is obsessed with scoring, ranking and comparing itself.

There are awards for the best agency, best emerging agency, best (insert discipline here) agency, best new agency, best small agency, best agency by market and so on. Even within markets there are multiple awards, run by the various trade media, industry bodies and media owners. In fact it is possible that two or more different agencies can be declared “The best” for the same category and market in the same year. It makes you understand why so many people are confused by all of these awards.

One of the questions I will regularly be asked by journalists, marketers and procurement is ”Who are the best / hot / outstanding agencies at the moment?” It is a question that is often difficult to answer and largely irrelevant if you are a marketer or procurement person looking at agency selection.

Why is the ‘best’ irrelevant?

If the ‘best agency’ is truly the best then every marketer and every account would want to move their business there immediately. But in actual fact marketers by and large are happy to stay with their not-so-best agency. You rarely see agencies awarded the ‘best of’ actually pick up business based on these accolades and titles. Instead it is more about recognising what the agency has achieved or done in the past, prior to the awards, rather then what they are about to do.

The ‘best’ awards are inconsistent

The other problem with industry ‘best of’ awards is that the criteria, process, judging panel and outcomes vary wildly from award to award. Some are based on an entry alone. Others on entries and presentations and others on assessments of results such as new business wins and award wins. And if it is by written submission only, are we judging the results or the ability to write a convincing entry? And for presentations, is it the results or the charisma of the agency personnel presenting?

Some are judged by peers, by marketers, by industry consultants, by the media and journalists or a combination of all the above. Almost none of these are audited or independently validated and because of the criteria almost all are incredibly subjective and open to the bias of the process and the judging panel. Some are simply evaluated by the panel and voted on then the votes are tallied and the awards allocated in secrecy, others use the points to have the organisers allocate the awards and others are discussed by the panel and awarded by consensus agreement.

It is no wonder you often see different outcomes from the different awards for the same category in the same time period.

The criteria are broad and general

Rather than using specific, measurable criteria, these ‘best’ awards have criteria that are broad and vague and widely open to interpretation. Terms like Creativity, Innovation, Stability, Momentum and Effectiveness are provided but rarely defined and never calibrated. The allocation of what is effective and what is not is never provided, but simply left to the judges to decide.

Often the entries within the category are also incredibly diverse making like for like comparison open to interpretation. Is it better or best for a large agency to have 10% growth of millions of dollars compared to a small agency to have 40% growth of a million dollars?

Is stability a major agency maintaining all of their local clients, but losing a major client on a global account alignment or a small local agency saying their have never lost a client in their three years of business, with only five clients in their portfolio?

Of course none of this is insurmountable with guidelines and defined criteria, but in the majority of cases it is left up to the judging panel to decide. And in most awards the judging panel changes year on year as well. I have not done the statistics, but it seems the variables make winning one of these awards look a little like winning the lottery.

Most ‘best’ awards have an underlying agenda

Depending on who organises the ‘best’ awards, there is usually an underlying agenda, other than providing an impartial, independent assessment of the industry. The media owners will organise these awards to draw attention to their medium. The trade media will organise these to generate content and valuable income through entry fees, award night ticket sales, advertising and the like. And industry bodies will use these awards to drum up memberships and the associated revenue.

While there is an underlying agenda, there is the potential for the award results to be skewed to deliver a specific outcome favourable to delivering this agenda. The industry thrives on the gossip surrounding awards and the reasons why one agency succeeded over another for more than simply their achievements.

‘Best’ awards have a purpose

The main purpose of awards is to provide recognition. This is invaluable for agencies as it becomes a way of managing staff morale, it allows the agency to boost their profile and it helps to maintain and attract quality staff. For the organisers it is hoped that it fulfils their specific objective too. But what it does not do is help an agency win business.

Why ‘best’ awards do not win business

The fact is that while marketers may say they want the ‘best’ agency, what they really mean is they want the ‘best-fit’ agency. That is they want the agency that best fits their criteria, not the criteria set by the award organisers. They want the agency that delivers their requirements the ‘best’ as judged by them and not by a panel of judges selected by the award organisers.

The best creative agency, the best strategy agency, the best digital agency, the best media agency, the best whatever agency is ultimately decided in the selection process. Sure the ‘best’ award results are a pointer to who they perhaps should consider, but if these awards were relevant to the choice you would see the winners go from strength to strength in business growth.

Yet so much time, money and effort is invested into these awards. And in most markets and regions there is more than one award show, awarding the best. Can they all be right? Or are they in fact all wrong?

What do you think? Leave and comment and let’s discuss how these awards can be improved? Or perhaps even forgotten.