SUPPLEMENT: The British Television Advertising Awards 1996; 21 years of the BTAA

The BTAAs are not usually associated with controversy but despite this, Michele Martin recalls some high points of the past 21 years

The BTAAs are not usually associated with controversy but despite this,

Michele Martin recalls some high points of the past 21 years

There have been many memorable moments from the British Television

Advertising Awards, which celebrates its 21st anniversary this year, but

picking out any real humdingers is a problem.

Yes, there was the night when Graham Fink came dressed as Robin Hood to

collect his quiver-full of arrows, only to leave empty handed. Then

there was the judging session when the celebrity guest juror, Malcolm

McLaren, was four hours late. And some of those custom-made films that

rounded off BTAA evenings in the 80s could be quite stinging. Who could

forget that Antiques Roadshow spoof calling Collett Dickenson Pearce ‘A

bunch of old fakes’?

But anyone who arrives at the Grosvenor House this year expecting

anything more controversial than that is likely to be disappointed.

Because when it comes to throwing bread rolls and booing loudly at the

winners, BTAA is a resounding failure. ‘We like to leave the place

pretty much as we found it,’ Peter Bigg, BTAA’s administrator says,

adding that the most heated debate at present is whether the ceremony

itself should take place after dinner, as it does with most of its

rivals, or before, as it does now.

‘I can’t remember being at BTAA and hearing people gasp over the

decisions,’ Tim Delaney, creative director of Leagas Delaney and

chairman of this year’s BTAA jury, says. ‘It’s a very solid event that’s

always been run properly and doesn’t change how it votes every two

minutes. Its continuity is a very important part of its success.’

‘By and large, it isn’t very controversial. But that’s partly because it

focuses on one aspect of the industry and because it always gets really

good jurors,’ John Hegarty, chairman and creative director of Bartle

Bogle Hegarty and chairman of the jury in 1993, agrees.

BTAA may be celebrating its coming of age this year, but it matured long

ago in terms of organisation and sheer level-headedness. It is that

rarest of advertising bean-feasts - an awards show where polite applause

is more likely than catcalls. And with 1996 entries up 20 per cent to

1,218 compared with last year, the festival’s future looks brighter than

ever, fortified further by its recent inclusion on the Creative

Directors Forum roster of endorsed competitions. It proudly boasts a

place alongside respected rivals such as the D&AD and Campaign’s Press

and Poster Awards.

Occasionally nicknamed ‘the British Cannes’, BTAA plays second fiddle

only to the D&AD in terms of creative prestige, but scores highly on its

all-round view of work. Paul Arden, chairman of Arden Sutherland-Dodd

and chairman of the BTAA jury in 1992, says: ‘D&AD may be more respected

by creative people, but BTAA is better respected by account people and

the industry as a whole.’

Not that the festival lacks creative credentials. This was, after all,

the event that started life handing its first Best of Show award to CDP

for its classic Parker Pens spot starring Penelope Keith and has kept up

the heat ever since.

Notable winners have included Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury for Maxell’s

‘my ears are alight’ ad in 1990, CDP’s Hamlet ‘photo booth’ spot in 1987

and BMP DDB Needham for its Courage Best ‘gertcha’ and ‘Margate’ films

in 1980 and 1982. Most recently, BBH has picked up three successive top

ITV Awards for Levi’s ‘swimmer’ in 1993, ‘creek’ in 1994 and ‘drugstore’

last year. Do BTAA jurors have a thing about denim, perhaps? ‘No, they

just have a quality fetish,’ Hegarty says.

The BTAA began life as the London Television Advertising Awards in 1976,

the brainchild of Peter Levelle, then head of Picture Palace Productions

and now chairman of Beechurst Films. Before that, British commercials

excellence had been rewarded through the auspices of the TV Mail Awards,

a well-meaning but badly run festival which disintegrated in 1974 after

a particularly disastrous ceremony. ‘The projector broke down and there

was a riot, after which TV Mail wisely decided the thing had no

credibility and stopped it,’ Levelle says.

His intention was to create a non-profit-making festival, overseen by a

holding company, with shares at a nominal pound-a-time and stakeholding

directors who ‘managed the awards on behalf of the industry and became

its custodians’.

It was a fine idea and one that has since gained a great deal of

respect, but proved a hard sell in the formative years. Despite backing

from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and the Advertising

Film and Videotape Producers Association, entries in that first year

pegged at just 382 and agencies and production companies were slow to

come forward to invest in the management company.

Levelle says: ‘Quite a lot of people held back to see how we did.’

Hegarty adds: ‘It didn’t have much credibility in the early years, it

looked a bit cobbled together. Agencies saw it as something that

production companies were more into.’

The fact that the situation changed was largely due to the arrival of

Tony Solomon, then the newly retired head of TV at Dorland and the man

who agreed to take on the mantle of chairman. Until his death in 1993,

Solomon guided the organisation and used his industry clout to attract

leading creative names to judge the awards. Without him, it is doubtful

how quickly the event would have got up and running. ‘We needed a bit

more credibility and so someone suggested that I talk to Tony. He agreed

to get involved and the whole thing took off from there,’ Levelle

explains. By 1980, demand for company shares was so great that people

had to be turned away. In the same year, as a reflection of their broad

popularity, the awards dropped the ‘London’ tag and became ‘British’.

Solomon was aided in his mission by a list of notable help-mates, not

least Levelle, who has stayed involved all the way through and is still

vice-chairman, and Bigg, who joined in 1979. ‘You wouldn’t want to do

any of this without him, he’s so well organised,’ Martin Boase, one of

the founding partners of BMP DDB Needham and the former chairman of

Omnicom UK, says of Bigg. Boase is one of the inaugural directors from

1976 and still sits on the BTAA board. When Solomon passed away, only

two days after being presented with a lifetime achievement award by

Hegarty at the 1993 awards, it was obvious to the board that Boase

should step up to the role of chairman.

But personalities alone were not responsible for building up the awards;

two structural elements also marked out BTAA from its rivals in its

early days. One was its system of assessing commercials by product

categories - such as household appliances, clothing or toys - rather

than catch-all sections for films of a certain length, as D&AD does. The

other was its insistence on having clients on the jury, making it the

only major TV advertising awards ceremony to take such a stand.

Both criteria have made their mark on the character of BTAA. Categorised

judging has enhanced the event’s reputation for taking perhaps a less

precious, more pragmatic view of commercials than some other awards. As

Levelle says, even a brilliant ad for a white goods product might get

lost against ‘sexier’ films with broader scope. ‘Our system stops an ad

like that being buried under Volvo or Levi’s,’ he says.

The inclusion of clients has had a similar effect, with the 18-strong

jury split evenly three ways between agencies, production companies and

marketing heads. But even though the presence of clients is a well-

accepted practice now, some creatives still wonder whether it is a good

idea. Alfredo Marcantonio, vice-chairman of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO,

says: ‘Clients can be seduced by fine imagery rather more quickly than

an art director and the bias at BTAA is definitely towards beautifully

made films that tell a nice story.’ But to contradict this, the

festival’s written judging guidelines state: ‘Execution should be

servant, not master, of the idea.’

But it is a rare quibble, directed at an event that has nevertheless

established itself sufficiently over the first 21 years to look towards

the next 21 with confidence. It has set a provisional date of 19 October

for its first spin-off British Television Advertising Craft Awards,

which will celebrate the production industry - a development that Bigg

says is essential because of the business’s worldwide standing. ‘Our

craftsmen are in world demand, production is one of the things we do

best and we should acknowledge that,’ he says.

To observers such as Hegarty, the development shows an impetus that

could equally be used to help the BTAA develop a more international

flavour. ‘You might not have to devote a whole show to it, but trying to

showcase the best of the rest of the world in some way seems a good

idea,’ he says.

But for now, BTAA remains a festival dedicated to showcasing the best of

British to the rest of the world, rather than the other way around,

helped by an annual show of winners that is circulated to shows and

museums across the US. Whether it will cast its net wider in the coming

years remains to be seen. Meanwhile, BTAA remains a very British affair

with pats on the backs for the winners, stiff upper lips for the losers

- and no doubt a few crossed fingers behind the scenes that it will stay

that way, at least until the doors have closed safely on Grosvenor House

for another year.