As the end of the year approaches, for those of us that work in the creative industries, it is inevitable that our thoughts turn inwards. We begin to reflect on our achievements of the year; have we produced work that will stand the test of time or has our output been largely ephemeral?
One way of finding out which it is to be is by entering awards and, luckily, this time of year is full of many schemes all begging for our entries. But such events are a hotly debated topic, for some the chance to measure ones output by direct competition with that of peers is the best way to judge the merits of a project, others feel that it's all just a lot of self-congratulatory back slapping and we'd all be better off just getting on with the job in hand.
Whatever your opinion for our industry there is one award scheme that stands tall, the D&AD (Design & Art Directors Association) Awards. To win one of their much coveted pencil shaped trophies is a formal declaration that you have elevated yourself to the ranks of the best of the best, most likely it won't do your creative career any harm either.
But just how does an organisation maintain such a reputation, what are the motivations for doing so and, indeed, why do they think we should all bother entering their awards in the first place? In order to find answers we posed a long series of questions to Marketing Director of the organisation Matthew Parker.
Ego: Firstly, many thanks for taking part in this interview, it's pleasure to be able to talk to you. To start us off, could you describe your route to D&AD? Are you a trained designer, a journalist, have a background in not for profit or similar?
MP: My path to D&AD was through brand and creative roles. However, I’m not a trained designer: I can use the tools but I never learned the theory. My degree is in Semiotics, so my theory training is more in terms of symbols and signs and how people make meaning out of that.
What does your role at D&AD entail?
I have responsibility for making sure people care about D&AD. That means ensuring people know who we are and understand what we do. Getting people to take part and enter our awards, join our Membership, attend our events, read our articles and share them – and make sure we’re really tuned into what people think and do so we can adapt and evolve quickly.
What is a typical day for you like?
It’s usually a combination of big, ambitious ideas for the future and the minutiae of a very long list of immediate projects. I get involved in lots of these first-hand and still write, design and code every day. The Marketing team at D&AD all sit together so we have plenty of conversations, some meetings and the inevitable sea of emails. As often as possible though, I make sure to talk to people who work or study in the industry.
What has been the best/worst experience for you personally in your role?
There are a lot of bests: I love Judging and seeing all the work on display and soaking all that greatness up. It’s inspiring hearing the judges discuss the work and watching everything get whittled down to the very best of the best. The ceremonies (both Professional and New Blood) where you see people learning that they’ve won and you can see what that means when you look at their faces. The worst experience? When things don’t work the way you hoped they would. It happens if you want to take risks and not play everything safe, but it’s still disappointing when it happens.
Moving on to the organisation as a whole, could you describe the work of the D&AD and how you see its role in the design industry today?
D&AD is a non-profit that stimulates people towards creative excellence. It’s best known for its awards, which recognise the best of the best in design and advertising. But what I love about D&AD is the fact that it has a much bigger mission than simply recognising great work: It tasks itself with guiding students and recent graduates into the industry, giving people who are in the early stages of their careers a number of opportunities through training, events and resources for Members. And it campaigns on topics like creative education, diversity in the industry and the ethical consequences of advertising and design (and how to use those talents for good).
How do you build credibility and standout for awards/publications into such a strong and iconic brand?
It’s entirely down to the people and the work. One of the reasons it’s endured so long as an iconic brand - and not faded into obscurity - is that there’s an enormous amount of integrity within the organisation. Everything from judging and the selection of judges, to the way we run our events right down to our tone of voice in our written articles is based on a set of values which honour that integrity.
Has this changed in recent years? (new bodies, awards, sources of knowledge etc) how does D&AD attempt to keep relevant?
We stay relevant by evolving at the pace of the industry. Everyone who works here is very connected to the industry, so staying informed about what’s happening is something that seems like second nature. We review our categories each year, we interview our judges and winners to get their feedback, we stay on top of who the emerging stars are and we’ll get them in to speak at our events to hear what makes them tick. I’ve seen incredibly time-honoured, institutional things get challenged frequently; such as our awards levels or the format of the ceremony. Everything is always up for consideration and that means we never keep doing things for the sake of it.
What is the organisational structure, how many departments, what kind of roles, how many staff etc?
D&AD is run by its Member board, all of whom are voted in annually by fellow Members and stay on the board for three years. Each year, a new President is elected and all that change and turnover means there’s an ever-evolving leadership force at D&AD which helps keep it very sharp. That board is complemented at the leadership level by our Chairman, CEO and COO. Then there are Directors like me who run the various teams within the organisation, such as our charitable Foundation, Awards, Professional Development, Partnerships, Marketing and Technology.
D&AD is a charity, could you describe how you are funded?
The majority of our funds come from our Awards entries. In addition to this, we have enlightened partners like Unilever, YouTube and WPP (to name a few) who put money towards specific good causes. We also generate funds through Membership and Training sessions, which go towards running our programmes.
D&AD has a huge recognition factor amongst the design industry but a popular criticism often levelled is that its value today is largely symbolic as opposed to a real benchmark of success. Could you explain what you believe D&AD offers above other bodies, beyond perhaps an historical reputation?
There’s no shortage of places to be inspired nowadays, but the D&AD standard is simply higher. It remains, objectively speaking, the toughest global award to win across the advertising, design and digital industries. For those who win, it’s an astonishing achievement. For the industry, it’s an eternally intriguing thing to watch and comment about. And when controversial pieces of work win, the debate alone is worth it. And the fact that D&AD is around 365 days a year, supporting the industry, gives us a unique position. Whereas some festivals exist for a week, D&AD is giving back all the time
Your awards/publications used to break the best work to the public but now there is the potential for a piece of work to have had massive exposure before it gets to you. Has that changed your approach to selecting work i.e. a piece thats popular on the Internet means that it has already been judged as good before it is submitted to you and therefore possibly D&AD might feel obliged to select it?
There’s absolutely no direct link between stuff that’s popular online and what gets recognised at D&AD. We hear plenty of critiques each year from people who expect to see that year’s big, popular piece get awarded. That’s all down to the fact that work is only judged by the best people within that particular field and they know what they’re looking for. If something is ground-breaking, perfectly executed and uses its context well then it gets recognised whether it’s popular online or not.
Have changes/developments in digital media impacted on the work created and indeed how work is now dispersed to a wider audience beyond its designated end user?
Definitely. YouTube is a great example of the increasingly foggy nature of having a campaign “run”. In the past, an ad would need to have had a media buy whereas now, if something gets 100 million views on YouTube, it’s safe to say it was released to the public whether it ran on traditional media or not. Digital campaigns constantly push these definitions: branded content is designed to pull people towards it instead of being pushed by the brand. Social means that the message gets passed along from person to person and people are no longer hearing directly from the brand, they’re hearing it through the filter of a friend. This year I’m positive there will be all kinds of design projects that challenge boundaries and create confusion.
Its a trueism that many agencies don't enter D&AD schemes as fees can be prohibitive and the process is sometimes seen as a lot of unnecessary glamour and self-congratulation rather than a serious assessment of design work. How do you counter that argument?
Truthfully, it’s both. It’s just about the most serious assessment of design work there could ever be – the debates and selectiveness of the judges is astonishing. And then later, it does get rather glamourous and some people really love that while others feel it’s a bit alienating. Having a healthy cynicism to the self-congratulation is a good thing. We’re not interested in that side of it. From our perspective, we’re here to help inspire people towards creative excellence and that’s partly done through recognition of amazing design. All that recognition can be life-changing for the winners and that’s the side of things that makes me excited.
And what about these people who don't feel a need for D&AD recognition but who have produced quality work? Do you feel a need to cover this work, for example if it is proven to be 'better' than the official entries?
Within D&AD, we know about a lot of ground-breaking work because we live and breathe it all year long so we have an internal list of work we personally love and want to see entered and we get in touch with everyone on that list but if they choose not to enter, it won’t get considered.
Another popular criticism is that winning work often seems quite similar to the point that it could be argued that there is a D&AD Winners aesthetic? Are you aware of this view and is this something that worries you?
I’ve never heard that criticism. I’m not sure what a winner’s aesthetic might look like but doubt there could ever be a common denominator based on the diversity of the judges and the fact that the judges change every year. Going through the past Annuals or through the online archive, it is very intriguing to see how the winners catch the zeitgeist.
Similarly your cycle of activities follows a fairly consistent blueprint every year. How do you ensure that your output appears fresh within that cycle?
It’s a perplexing riddle: how can you award the year’s best work without waiting until the end of the year? When the winners first get announced, there are plenty of predictable pieces. Dumb Ways to Die and the Epic Split weren’t exactly upsets, but each year I’d guess that 75% of the winners are pieces I’ve never seen before. Tamabi and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta were nice examples of design discoveries for me this year. It’s a bit like discovering a favourite new band because they get included in a critic’s best-of-year list.
Could you describe the judging/assessment process?
Judging takes place every year over the course of a week, usually in March or April. We fly over 200 judges from around the world, all of whom put their schedules on hold to be part of judging which is incredibly generous of them. They’re selected and invited by us because we know them to be at the top of their field or because other trusted sources have recommended them to us as an essential new voice. All the work is divided into 25 categories and each category has a specialised jury against it comprised of judges who know that discipline inside-out. They spend anywhere from 1-3 days deliberating all the work and voting anonymously, constantly paring down their selections until they have a final collection which they collectively agree is worthy of their selection as Wood Pencil winners (formerly In Book). Once this has been agreed, they re-evaluate this smaller collection and pare it down again to what they agree are their Graphite Pencil winners (formerly Nomination). Again, they reset themselves and look at the Graphite winners to see if there are any Yellow Pencil winners.
On the final day of judging, a Black Pencil jury is formed featuring the foreman of each previous jury. This ensures the panel is interdisciplinary and as broad as possible. All the yellow pencils then get fiercely debated until an agreement is made which pieces gets the Black pencil. There have been a few years when no Black pencils were ever selected.
Juries usually measure the work in three criteria: 1) Is the work ground-breaking and original? 2) Is it exceptionally crafted? 3) Does it suit its context? In craft categories, the criteria is weighted almost exclusively on the finish of the craft.
Is there any area you think should be recognised and hasn’t been?
We change our categories every year. It makes for near-impossible decade-on-decade comparisons but if we didn’t, we’d never stay up to date and relevant. In terms of what’s currently missing, I’d love to see some recognition for brave clients: not just clients who sign-off award winning work, but clients who make deliberately brave, bold decisions or clients who trust their agency’s advice and thus reward great client/agency relationships which is a conversation we’re not really that vocal about at the moment.
We've talked a lot about awards etc but what of your other activities (e.g. professional training etc) Do you see these as extra to the awards etc or a key part of your offer?
The thing that unifies everything that D&AD does (Membership, Creative Training, New Blood, Lectures, etc.) is that we’re here to help people reach their creative potential. If an opportunity arises and it doesn’t fit with that mission, we don’t do it. This makes us much more relevant for a broad range of people…not just those senior enough to get credit for award winning work.
Have you noticed any recurring trends (rather than just fads) over the years that D&AD has been operating?
Absolutely! Beyond the obvious mobile and personal tech shifts there’s a definite trend towards interactive pieces that involve people, force them into action or interaction with others and play upon people’s scepticism or pre-conceived expectations. We’re certainly seeing how people represent themselves online and the truths and fallacies around that as a driving force behind some really interesting work. And work that responds to this tendency for people to get more and more extreme and temporary in their habits (e.g. 5:2 diets, sleephacking, etc.)
If you could do anything (unlimited budget/resources) to promote design to the UK and the World what would you do?
I’d campaign to fundamentally change the education curriculum so design, writing, craft skills and coding were valued to the same degree as maths, history and English literature. Creativity & Design is what drives innovation forward, and is what holds the key to unlocking the world’s biggest social and environmental challenges. The UK, in particular, is happy to reap the benefits of our thriving creative industries at present, but isn't doing nearly enough to ensure that it's being fuelled/sustained at the other end. We're doing our best to help foster, nurture, support and inspire creative talent but that emphasis needs to come from the top.