Welcome to the What If awards
A view from Sue Unerman

Welcome to the What If awards

In grim times, maybe this is what we need.

Awards season is upon us again (is it ever not these days?), with entries due for Campaign Media, the Marketing Society, Thinkbox, Outdoor Media, Festival of Media and more.

Enormous effort will be made to ensure that each brilliant idea is explained properly, and the results will be polished up to look as good as possible. It’s important to spotlight your best work so that it can be judged by a jury of the finest minds in media and marketing.

Effectiveness rules, of course, and a good story about customer insight and use of data helps to make the work stand out. There are very strict rules in place to ensure that everything that is claimed to have happened did in fact take place. This is right and proper.

But what if reality was only optional? I’d like to suggest another category for these awards: If Only. In this category, there’s no need for the work to actually have taken place. It can just be a really good idea that probably would have run, if only there had been enough appetite for risk and/or the budget hadn’t been cut.

The award would be judged on the basis of how strong the logic was. A brilliant yet untapped consumer insight would kick off the entry. The execution must be innovative, never done before (but technically possible). Full mock-ups of this would be required, along with a robust though speculative assessment of return on investment. 

Judges would be untroubled by grim reality and expect to be entertained and wowed.

It's a bit like the idea of the Olympics on steroids. Jeremy Clarkson once wrote: "I find myself hoping Russia reacts [to a proposed ban] by setting up an alternative Olympic Games where anything goes… on cable TV, Olympians on drugs." 

Stoned hurdling, drunk skiing and 400m on drugs were all part of Clarkson's vision. And as Russia’s Alexander Zubkov receives a two-year ban for doping (appeal pending), let’s add dazed bobsleighing. Might this make for a slightly more interesting sporting event than some (to the non-expert eye)?

I certainly would not ever advocate writing any kind of award entry on drugs of any kind, but I can see that allowing thinkers to escape from reality might lead to some interesting ideas being given oxygen – ideas that are currently stifled by economic uncertainty or unimaginative selling.

Most experienced planners would admit to ideas that "got away", like the imaginary big fish from the expert angler. Even those planners who have converted great ideas to reality will have others that have sat on the back burner for years.

At MediaCom, we’ve had an annual internal training scheme for many years that works a bit like this idea of "what if", as some external schemes do. Everyone in the agency and media owner delegates do a virtual "pitch" for a brief. And part of the brief is to push the boundaries, maybe further than everyone can in the day job. To think: "What if?" I always enjoy and learn much from this annual competition.

So, the What If award. It would be fun, it would be frivolous (and, in grim times, that’s not necessarily a bad thing), and we might just learn a lot from them.

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom