What a tangled web we weave when we try to win awards

Written by
Jeff Brooks
May 14, 2013

Say a car dealer calls you up and offers you a really cool car, really cheap, maybe even free.

You ask, ‘Does it fit my needs?’

‘Dunno,’ the dealer says. ‘Probably not.’

‘Is it a high-performance car?’

‘Not exactly. To tell you the truth, it barely works.’

‘How's the mileage?’ you ask.


Now you're getting annoyed. ‘You want me to take this crummy car that's not useful to me in any way. Why?’

‘It's beautiful. Completely beautiful. I can guarantee it's better-looking than your current car.’

You look out the window at your faithful but dowdy old minivan. He's right about that. Your current car isn't going to win any beauty prizes, but it does everything you need.

‘Did you say “prizes”?’ the dealer says hungrily. ‘That's why we're talking. See, if you take this car, we might win prizes.’


Glory! Fame! Improved portfolio! Trips to New York or even France!

If you are a nonprofit organisation, you might have had conversations like this. Not with car dealers offering stupid cars, but with ad agency people peddling stupid ads.

They are fishing for awards. And they want you to pay for it. Frequently, they’ll disguise the fact that you’re paying by doing the work ‘pro bono’. Which doesn't cover the opportunity cost and potential damage to your other marketing or even your reputation.

Here's an obvious example of fishing for awards, done on the back of WWF México:

WWF Commercial - Threads
from Troublemakers.tv on Vimeo.

This ad doesn't have the brutal stupidity that a lot of similar creations have. In fact, it’s rather pretty. But pretty doesn’t get the job done. Especially when there's no call to action. Not even a hint of one.

All this ad does is say that we are all connected. It doesn’t prove we’re connected, it merely asserts it. And it does that only through abstraction, making string the symbol for actual connection. Pardon me, but I think my real-life connection with butterflies, whales, or elephants is more interesting, emotionally deep and visually beautiful than a fake connection where we’re all made out of twine.

But none of that matters. Because this isn’t an honest attempt at marketing or fundraising. Three things tell me that:

  • The agency and the production house get prominent billing in all the online postings. A clear sign who’s really meant to benefit from the work.
  • The version that’s being bandied about is in English, even though the client and its audience are Spanish-speaking. (See the Mexican version.)
  • It has that wow-how-did-they-do-that quality.

It's time for nonprofits to stop playing along with this damaging stupidity. If ad agencies want to win awards, that's fine. Just let them do it on their own dime. Don’t be fooled by their false, pointless glamour. We should not be involved in filling the world with messages that accomplish nothing. This crap is crowding out real messages that might actually accomplish some good. It’s crowding it out in our audience’s minds or in our own organisational bandwidth. It’s not free and it's not even cheap.

Worse yet, it can strike a devastating blow against your reputation, like this award-bait masterpiece done a few years ago for WWF Brasil. This piece actually won an award before people started to notice how vile and dunderheaded it was.

Save yourself the trouble an embarrassment. Say no to fishing for awards.

About the author: Jeff Brooks

Jeff Brooks

Jeff Brooks has served the nonprofit community for more than 30 years, working as a writer and creative director on behalf of a variety of organisations including CARE, World Vision, Feeding America, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, National Wildlife Federation, and many more. He blogs at Future Fundraising Now and Moceanic. In previous careers, he’s been an English teacher and a classical musician. He lives in Seattle in the USA.

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