Rob Alderson: Do indies need awards?

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For his latest Opinion post, Rob Alderson questions the introduction of a seperate categeory for independent magazines at this years D&AD Awards.

Leonardo di Caprio should win. Creed was unfairly overlooked. Will Smith won’t go. This year’s Academy Awards are four weeks away and I have already read reams of news, comment and analysis about the nominations, the backlash and the backlash to the backlash. No matter that I have only seen one of the Best Picture nominations (Mad Max, sorry) – the Oscars has long had a life of its own, a momentum and a mythology that extends far beyond the films it purports to celebrate.

The debate around the relationship between creativity and awards is a hoary one. Last month Amir Kassaei, the chief creative officer of DDB worldwide, articulated a common disillusionment with advertising award schemes in a piece for Campaign titled “The end of false recognitions.”

With a measured bombast, Amir explained why DDB was moving way from judging its success by how many plaques it won. “Too many of us in the industry have bought into the idea that winning awards is proof of creative effectiveness, so much so that we’re willing to sacrifice our integrity to get them,” Amir wrote.

The piece drew a thoughtful response from Tim Lindsay and Andy Sandoz (D&AD’s chief executive and president). While accepting some of Amir’s criticisms, they highlighted what well-organised, properly judged, diverse awards programmes could do – both for individual creatives and the wider industry as a whole.

As full disclosure I have done some freelance work for D&AD and I admire what they try to do, in particular their efforts to widen access to the industry and nurture new talent. But I am puzzled by D&AD’s recent decision to create a new awards category for independent magazines.

“The past few years have witnessed a surge in the quantity and quality of independent magazines,” awards manager Donal Kelly told me in a statement. “Our community are huge supporters of these titles, we’ve had D&AD Members create kickstarters, hold launch events and ask us to partner on a huge range of magazine projects. It’s gotten to the stage that we needed to create a sub-category just to celebrate this diverse and rich seam of creative output.”

“We also wanted to recognise that a publication such as, say, Printed Pages or The Gourmand, has an entirely different agenda, audience and set of challenges than Bloomberg Businessweek or Wired. Both sets of publications are equally worthy of winning awards, but can’t be judged against each other.

“We hope the widening out of our categories enables those independent, cottage industry and small-scale publications a platform to showcase their design credentials,” he says.

Firstly, I think one of the great things about the D&AD magazine category is that it pits The Gourmand against Wired. Yes in some ways they may be poles apart, but fundamentally both magazines are trying to inform, entertain and inspire their readers. Creating this false distinction doesn’t do publishers on either side of the new fence any favours. Secondly, entry to D&AD starts at £105, a hefty amount of money for the “independent, cottage industry and small-scale publications” D&AD hopes to attract.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I am not sure if the independent magazine sector should be rushing to embrace the competition culture that has (seemingly) caused so much consternation among advertising and design folk.

Amir Kassaei is not alone in thinking that award schemes in the ad world have actually stifled creativity, promoting work that plays to the judges and ignores its fundamental role in favour of picking up garlands.

It would be catastrophic to see a similar disease creeping into the indie mag scene, with publishers taking for granted their fundamental responsibility to the readers in favour of impressing a yet-to-be assembled judging panel.

Last year Steve Watson of Stack Magazines launched an indie award scheme and wrote an interesting blog explaining his reasons. Steve was very aware of the issues around these kinds of awards and got a lot of things right – the entry fee was just £30 and he listened to publishers’ concerns and amended certain things according to their feedback.

Steve was also really clear – and honest – about what he hoped to achieve. Firstly he wanted to “introduce more people to fantastic independent magazines.” Secondly, he wanted to attract more Stack subscribers.

The D&AD mission is much less specific – those awards are about “stimulating, celebrating and enabling creative excellence.” Which is all well and good, but I am not sure it’s what the indie mag scene needs right now. As I have written before, the indie world would be crazy to separate itself from the creative/publishing mainstream and pull up a hipster drawbridge to glory in its own self indulgence. But equally the indie mag scene has the freedom to do things differently and I am not sure the creeping awards culture is necessary or desirable. I am keen to see how Steve’s awards develop next year for sure, but I think maybe one such scheme – run by the right people for the right reasons – is enough for now.

robalderson.com

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