What gets lost in the current design of D&AD

Last year’s Spotify poster campaign from Who Wot Why was widely appreciated as the best of the year.

It gave us lines like ‘1983, UB40 Red Red Wine/2019, You be forty. Red red wine.’ and ‘1998, Into Britpop. Loves Garbage/2019, Into Britpop. Loves Recycling’, combined with the endline ‘Listen like you used to’.

This brought out the truth of ageing yet tenacious musical tastes and attached them to one of the companies that could cater for whatever they happened to be. You might be reminded that you used to be moved by the music of twenty years ago, and, despite the changes in your life, those tunes still hold a place somewhere deep inside you that might enjoy a revisit. If you’ve binned your old CDs, it’s all free and easy to find on Spotify. Job done.

It was certainly refreshing to see a properly visible billboard campaign using witty, quotable copywriting in service of a big, juicy idea. So I fully expected it to wipe the floor with all-comers at this year’s D&AD awards. How many Silver Pencils would it pick up? Maybe one for the campaign, but another one for the writing was a distinct possibility, plus a raft of Graphites (what they call nominations these days. They also have shortlistings now so at least it’s a bit more like Cannes, eh?).

It was eventually awarded just two ‘Wooden’ Pencils (that’s what they now call In-Book). How odd. I mean, I know the standards of D&AD are supposed to be high but that seemed a little harsh.

Then I saw the jury and all became clear: of the eight jurors, two were from South Africa (one of whom works in London), one is an Australian working in Indonesia, one is Japanese, one Colombian, one Spanish and one English. (I should mention that one of those jurors, Masaya Asai, is a friend and former colleague.) 

I’m going to say this very clearly lest my point gets misinterpreted: of course those people are brilliant at advertising, and fully capable of assessing a great campaign idea. But they will have their own cultural backgrounds and references that mean the pop songs that they heard in 1998 Bogota or Sydney might not be the ones that the people of London were dancing to. Will they get a joke about Nasty Nick? A reference to the 2003 march against the war in Iraq? A sly dig at how Ed Milliband eats bacon sandwiches? The chances are slim.

But, equally, will the English juror, when faced with a reference to Ay, Dios Mio by Karol G (Colombia’s current number one) appreciate it enough to know why it makes an ad great rather than good? What about a nod to Laskar Pelangi, Riri Rizar’s movie that went down so well in 2008 Indonesia?

See what I mean? Everyone gets a shot, but no one really wins, and that’s before I point out that you can only have eight nationalities on a jury, so tough luck if your ad is French, Chilean or Kenyan, or from one of the other 185 countries on this delightful planet of ours.

This point is in no way to lay any blame at the feet of those esteemed and highly-qualified professionals, but more to point out that D&AD’s inclusivity has inadvertently led to an exclusivity of great but localised advertising.

Which brings me back to the Spotify campaign and the reasons why it will always be under-awarded by an international jury. How many of them understood that ‘Garbage’ was a band, allowing the ‘recycling’ pun to make sense? Did they get the subtle yet essential difference between ‘Red Red Wine’ and ‘Red red wine’? (To be fair, this might also be an age thing, but that’s a matter for another post.)

Unlike the broader international-friendly ideas that were more highly awarded in the category, Who Wot Why couldn’t use the case study video to explain every pun and reference, leaving the ads to succeed and fail on their own merits. And even if they did explain them, getting across the way a fortysomething UK music fan might really feel those lines in their (funny) bones would be an almost impossible task.

Yes, I understand that D&AD can’t possibly cover the explanation of every comma, syllable and shade of mauve in every entry, and I’m sure some ads fell by the wayside in years when it was British-only. But by expanding so far into Cannes’ territory the problem has only worsened.

I also know that this is not a new problem and others (myself included) have had a pop at it before. However, here were are in 2020, with far more international companies producing far more work intended to run in many markets, with only cursory adaptation. That work, as you’ll agree if you spend any time in an international airport, is almost entirely bland: a picture of the product with a logo, or a meaningless easily translated, inoffensive platitude in the place of some copywriting that might actually engage through well-observed relevance.

Part of D&AD’s original remit was to stimulate, not congratulate; to fire people up to produce greater work which would then pull the whole industry along by inspiring its practitioners to greater heights. By sanding off the locally-brilliant edges, more and more of the work is rooted in the one-size-fits all territory of global blancmange. Not necessarily ‘bad’ ads, but generally corralled into the accepted template called ‘more likely to be understood by an international award jury by using minimal words and no local cultural references’.

So we now have a kind of format for awarded creativity that feeds into the style of the work produced in the real world, which then feeds into what people think advertising should be, which then shapes what is made, run, entered and awarded, and so the circle continues.

I get why D&AD did this (kind of): I assume the lure of more entry fees from across the world was too tempting to turn down. But this is clearly not a move that helps more people see a wider range of excellent creative solutions by which to be stimulated. There’s very little difference between the current winners of Cannes, Clios and D&AD, so why do we need all three? Even the One Show has gone some way down the same path, robbing us of some of those fascinating ads for Wyoming bike shops that might present a different method for tackling a London homeless shelter brief.

In the end, Spotify was awarded for its idea and its writing, so D&AD fans will get to see the campaign and learn from its craft. So, does any of this matter? Well, the problem isn’t so much the reduced awarding of the ads we’re aware of; it’s the invisibility of the ones that might have bitten the dust because of all the reasons I’ve mentioned above.

We don’t know what we’re missing, but I suspect it’s more than we might think.