It’s no mystery why several of Little Rock’s biggest and best advertising and marketing agencies won absolutely no awards last month at the local American Advertising Awards.
They didn’t enter the contest.
Top firms have skipped the event for “quite a few years,” according to Jon Hodges, president of AdClub Little Rock, which administers the awards for the American Advertising Federation locally. Hodges has been trying to spark new interest in the contest, and in AdClub itself, founded in 1914 as one of Little Rock’s first professional organizations.
Firms absent from the ceremony at the Rail Yard on East Sixth Street included CJRW, Mangan Holcomb Partners and Stone Ward, three of the largest and most decorated agencies in town. Leaders of several of the firms bypassing the event, who mostly spoke with the assurance of anonymity, feel that the contest has been slipping for years, fueled by perceptions of subjective and suspect judging. More than one executive cited costs, noting that the per-entry fee is $80 for AdClub members, $100 for nonmembers.
As agencies began dropping out, the decline became a vicious circle.
Chip Culpepper, principal and creative chief of Mangan Holcomb Partners, said the ADDYs drew “1,800 to 2,000” entries a year when he served as event chairman years ago. This year’s contest had 56 entries.
The night’s big winners were the Sells Agency and Waymack & Crew, the production firm led by filmmaker Dan Waymack. “We came back into the competition this year,” Waymack told Arkansas Business, “and I’m hoping that more people enter next year. We need to be represented by our best at the district level.”
Local gold and silver award winners are eligible for the AAF’s 10th District competition, covering parts of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Winners there can advance to national awards.
Culpepper, MHP principal and chief creative officer, said he misses what the ADDYs once represented, “the very best that the talented professionals in our market produced each year.” But he said “a number of triggers” dampened MHP’s enthusiasm, eventually pushing the firm to drop out.
“We perceived a decline in the criteria used to recruit judges to our market,” he said, describing “unprofessional outcomes and outrageous behaviors” that he didn’t want to discuss in detail. MHP now focuses on competitions relying on objective, measurable results of marketing work and ad campaigns, he said.
“These [outcomes] contributed not only to our exit, but likely weighed in on similar decisions” by rival firms, Culpepper said. “Frankly, some of those decisions came well after our own.”
MHP’s decision followed an agency-wide evaluation of contest participation, including other marketing and communications competitions like the Public Relations Society of America’s Prism Awards and national awards in specific vertical industries MHP represents, like health care and agriculture.
The review’s “difficult conclusion,” Culpepper said, was that MHP should participate only in contests with primarily objective judging.
Culpepper, a frequent judge of other states’ contests, spent 15 years as an ADDY committee volunteer, he said. “The proceeds primarily were used to provide scholarships to area college students in areas of study related to our industry.” Nowadays, the entry fees primarily cover the contest costs and support local chapter activities. One agency leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said “you wouldn’t believe how expensive it became to compete.”
But Hodges, executive creative director at the Sells Agency, said firms can be strategic in their entries, committing fees only to categories where a strong finish is most likely. “You can enter the ADDYs without spending an arm and a leg.” He said that while the judging is necessarily subjective, “we use other industry creatives, writers, art directors and creative directors to honor Arkansas’ work.”
Holdout agencies should reconsider, Hodges said, first by participating again in AdClub. “Our priority would be to get them involved in AdClub first, to engage them with our speaker series, and show what value the club can bring. Once we have that participation, we can get them involved in the ADDYs.”
One big AdClub supporter, Ross Cranford, said Cranford Co. sat out the contest this year, but only because it “had so much client work with pressing deadlines that we didn’t have time to enter.” He said the firm would compete again in the future.
The AdClub also hopes to resume awarding scholarships, Cranford said. “It’s something we discuss at every meeting.”