The World: Neil French lends weight to World Press Awards

The ad industry's calendar is jammed with awards. Does it need another to celebrate the best press work, Mark Johnson asks.

Accolades adorn the walls of most adland office foyers. Awards, after all, are now key to winning business and building reputations.

But with the spiralling costs of entering awards shows such as the Cannes Lions - and their increasing number - the launch of a new global ad awards show is little cause for celebration.

Neil French, the controversial former WPP creative "godfather", set up the World Press Awards for advertising in June, in partnership with Barbara Levy, who runs the London International Awards. But the ad industry has responded with despondency.

Many cite cost as a primary issue. A written award entry can cost as much as £400, and with professional videos to accompany entries for programmes such as Cannes costing around £3,000 each to produce, it becomes clear why agencies are thinking twice about investing in such competitions.

The TBWA international president, Keith Smith, raises cost concerns immediately. He says: "The principle of what Neil is doing, in attempting to raise press advertising standards, is entirely laudable. But as an agency chief, I have to ask, 'how much more can we spend on awards?'"

Bob Scarpelli, the chairman and worldwide chief creative officer at DDB, believes the only way such a programme can make its mark on the ad awards calendar is by aiming to attract only the cream of the world's print advertising.

"The world does not need another awards show," Scarpelli says. "But any endeavour that spotlights great ideas is always welcome. Neil's show will have high standards. Showcasing great ideas and great work in any medium helps."

French says two things distinguish the WPA from other awards shows: the jury will comprise only six judges and both the winners and finalists will appear in an annual.

The judges are the DDB London executive creative director, Jeremy Craigen, the Ogilvy co-chairman and executive regional creative director, Tham Khai Meng, the AlmapBBDO Brasil executive creative director, Marcello Serpa, the Leo Burnett worldwide creative director, Mark Tutssel, the TBWA\Paris executive creative director, Erik Vervroegen, and the Jupiter Drawing Room South Africa chairman and executive creative director, Graham Warsop.

According to French, the right choice of judges was crucial. He says: "You do get a lot of riff-raff on juries, and that explains some of the weirder choices. I went and found what I considered to be the seven best press judges in the world and had the temerity to ask them if they'd be willing to do the gig. One American chap didn't want to fly, the rest said 'yes' immediately."

Yet French and Levy face a steep hill in the years it will take for the awards to become established. As Smith points out, launching a global awards programme involves more than breaking sponsorship deals and attracting the right entrants. "They have a hell of a job just to make sure they're judging real ads rather than scams produced for the purpose of winning an award at a press ads show," Smith says.

The show also needs to attract enough entries to pay its way and, more importantly, the best entries in order to achieve credibility.

When asked how many entries he is hoping for by January, when the judging will take place, French says: "Other awards shows have told me anything between 2,000 and 5,000. If the best stuff is entered - and that's the most important thing from the annual's point of view - I'd be happy with 2,000. I think we'll get a lot of entries from smaller shops too."

Another measure of success will be whether the show is included in the influential Gunn Report. However, Donald Gunn, its founder, points out that while his report covers shows around the world, it has never divulged which shows are included. Gunn advises agencies not to presume any awards show will be either included or excluded from the report. He says: "Last year, we included the top 34 shows in the world for TV and cinema and the top 21 for print. It was a mix of national, regional and local shows because national or regional juries have different perceptions from global juries."

Gunn agrees that the success of the WPA will depend upon whether all of the best agencies and pieces of work are entered. "If not," he says, "it becomes not a prize for winning but a prize for entering."

Then there is French's own reputation. Having most recently left the worldwide creative director role at WPP, after the furore surrounding remarks he made at a conference speech in Toronto, could his own reputation damage the show's future?

Well, if the widespread regard for French as a copywriter and creative guru are anything to go by - no.

Smith, who expects TBWA to "probably end up entering", says: "Neil is exactly the sort of person who can make a show like this work. He is larger than life and has all the charisma required to get it to work. Add to that his passion for print, and there is no-one better."

Even Scarpelli, who believes the awards calendar is already full, says: "When we win awards, we feel good and when we feel good, we do better work."

Then perhaps it is time to install a bigger awards cabinet.

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