The Business of Awards
Last week, my wife, Peggy, and I schlepped into New York for an awards luncheon.
Peggy and I were each honorees at different times, and feel that attending is something that we should do to support the organization. The VIP reception started at 10:30 a.m., and the Grey Goose vodka was free. And even though it blows my tight writing schedule sky high, we see a bevy of chums from the good old days.
That said, I will never again attend this event and will be very choosy about future awards ceremonies, even though I thoroughly enjoyed the early a.m. white eye-openers on the rocks.
That Mortality Thing
In the middle of consuming chicken and broccoli during what was billed as a happy occasion, all of us were called to order, whereupon four speakers trudged to the microphone to remind us of four colleagues who had died during the year, and then proceeded to deliverer eulogies. One even touted a scholarship fund and asked for money.
I needed a drink badly, but the bar was closed.
The Awards Thing
When I was (relatively) young and on the make in terms of getting ahead in my career, I was thrilled to be invited to judge entries sent for consideration to the John Caples Awards and the ECHO Awards, which are sponsored by the Direct Marketing Association.
Somewhere along the line, my mentor, the great Axel Andersson—who has forgotten more about direct mail than I will ever know—analyzed the winners of these two prestigious awards. Andersson discovered that only a tiny fraction of these direct marketing efforts were ever mailed a second time.
What started off as genuine attempts to acknowledge excellence had disintegrated into a bunch of rich agencies submitting their flashiest work, lying outrageously about the results, and giving each other awards to decorate their waiting rooms and impress prospective clients.
From Lisa Sanders’s story in the June 5, 2006 AdAge.com, titled “Are Advertising Creative Awards Really Worth the Cost?”:
NEW YORK (AdAge.com)—This year the kings of Madison Avenue will spend an incredible $37 million entering ad award shows, a number that looks like vanity gone wild, given that the pencils and lions are often denigrated as little more than ego- (and salary-) inflating devices for the creatives that crave them.
As the publisher of the newsletter, WHO’S MAILING WHAT!, I was persuaded by Axel to rethink the business of awards. In direct marketing, the only true winners are those that bring in orders, donations or inquiries at a profitable cost-per-response and are mailed over and over again—making the marketer obscenely rich.
Often, these winners are plain-Jane, ugly ducklings containing brilliant and persuasive copy, such as Martin Conroy’s classic “Two Young Men …” effort for The Wall Street Journal, that was a control for 25 years and brought in over $1 billion in subscription income.
They’re never entered in anything and wouldn’t win if they were.
I came up with a new credo: “I can’t judge good direct marketing; it judges me.” I became intensely interested only in marketing efforts that worked and were provably profitable. So I refocused the editorial mission of the newsletter to analyze these controls and made the information available to my readers, so that they could (in the words of U.S. News & World Report circulation director Dorothy Kerr) “steal smart.”
The Axel Andersson Awards
At some point in our tenure at WHO’S MAILING WHAT!, Peggy and I came up with the concept of the Axel Andersson Awards—recognition of “Grand Controls.” These were (and are) mailings that have been mailed for three or more consecutive years—the great loot generators.
Nobody entered the Axels for the award. Their work was entered into the mail stream and automatically became candidates for a faux papyrus certificate suitable for framing.
When we sold out to North American Publishing Company in 1992 and moved to Philadelphia, we brought our incredible archive of direct mail samples with us—several hundred thousand pieces in more than 200 categories, consumer, business and nonprofit.
Today, the Archive contains 140,000 packages (catalogs excluded). When a new mailing comes in from one of the correspondents around the country, and it matches an existing mailing, the history is transcribed and updated onto the new envelope and the old version discarded. As a result, those 140,000 packages represent mailing information and history of probably 250,000 or more efforts.
I haven’t counted the number of Grand Controls, but they number in the hundreds, and are pure marketing gold. Many are available as PDF files.
We gave up on awarding Axels because it was too time consuming. I feel guilty. They were the only direct marketing creative awards that made sense.
The Ig Nobel Awards
This column was triggered by seeing the note that Stacey Burling of the Inquirer won the American Association for the Advancement of Science award for her stunning piece on Alzheimer’s.
However, my favorite awards in the field of science aren’t the Nobels, but the Ig Nobels (as in “ignoble”), named for Ignatius Nobel, co-inventor of soda pop, and possibly a distant relative of Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite. Founded in 1991, the 2006 “Igs” were presented on Thursday evening, Oct. 5, at Harvard’s Sanders Theater.
“The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative and spur people’s interest in science, medicine and technology,” said Marc Abrahams, editor of Annals of Improbable Research, co-sponsor of the event.
Many of the awardees were serious scientists, who paid their own way to pick up their prizes. According to the BBC News, “The winners are given a one-minute acceptance speech, the time policed by a loud eight-year-old girl.”
If you go to the Web site, you can download the dense scientific papers that are summarized below. Highlights from recent years as formally listed by the judging committee:
ORNITHOLOGY: Ivan R. Schwab, of the University of California, Davis, and the late Philip R.A. May of the University of California, Los Angeles, for exploring and explaining why woodpeckers don’t get headaches.
NUTRITION: Wasmia Al-Houty of Kuwait University and Faten Al-Mussalam of the Kuwait Environment Public Authority, for showing that dung beetles are finicky eaters.
MATHEMATICS: Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, for calculating the number of photographs you must take to (almost) ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed.
MEDICINE: Francis M. Fesmire of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, for his medical case report “Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage” ; and Majed Odeh, Harry Bassan, and Arie Oliven of Bnai Zion Medical Center, Haifa, Israel, for their subsequent medical case report, also titled “Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage.”
BIOLOGY: Bart Knols (of Wageningen Agricultural University, in Wageningen, the Netherlands; and of the National Institute for Medical Research, in Ifakara Centre, Tanzania, and of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna Austria) and Ruurd de Jong (of Wageningen Agricultural University and of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Italy) for showing that the female malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae is attracted equally to the smell of limburger cheese and to the smell of human feet.
MEDICINE: Gregg A. Miller of Oak Grove, Missouri, for inventing Neuticles—artificial replacement testicles for dogs, which are available in three sizes, and three degrees of firmness.
PEACE: Claire Rind and Peter Simmons of Newcastle University, in the U.K., for electrically monitoring the activity of a brain cell in a locust while that locust was watching selected highlights from the movie, “Star Wars.”
BIOLOGY: Benjamin Smith of the University of Adelaide, Australia and the University of Toronto, Canada and the Firmenich perfume company, Geneva, Switzerland, and ChemComm Enterprises, Archamps, France; Craig Williams of James Cook University and the University of South Australia; Michael Tyler of the University of Adelaide; Brian Williams of the University of Adelaide; and Yoji Hayasaka of the Australian Wine Research Institute; for painstakingly smelling and cataloging the peculiar odors produced by 131 different species of frogs when the frogs were feeling stressed.
FLUID DYNAMICS: Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow of International University Bremen, Germany and the University of Oulu, Finland; and Jozsef Gal of Loránd Eötvös University, Hungary, for using basic principles of physics to calculate the pressure that builds up inside a penguin, as detailed in their report.” (The BBC headline on this story was, “Penguin poo wins Ig Nobel prize.”)
PSYCHOLOGY: Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Christopher Chabris of Harvard University, for demonstrating that when people pay close attention to something, it’s all too easy to overlook anything else—even a woman in a gorilla suit.
BIOLOGY: Ben Wilson of the University of British Columbia, Lawrence Dill of Simon Fraser University [Canada], Robert Batty of the Scottish Association for Marine Science, Magnus Whalberg of the University of Aarhus [Denmark], and Hakan Westerberg of Sweden’s National Board of Fisheries, for showing that herrings apparently communicate by farting.
LITERATURE: John Trinkaus of the Zicklin School of Business, New York City, for meticulously collecting data and publishing more than 80 detailed academic reports about things that annoyed him (such as: What percentage of young people wear baseball caps with the peak facing to the rear rather than to the front; What percentage of pedestrians wear sport shoes that are white rather than some other color; What percentage of swimmers swim laps in the shallow end of a pool rather than the deep end; What percentage of automobile drivers almost, but not completely, come to a stop at one particular stop-sign; What percentage of commuters carry attaché cases; What percentage of shoppers exceed the number of items permitted in a supermarket’s express checkout lane; and What percentage of students dislike the taste of Brussels sprouts.)
PEACE: Lal Bihari of Uttar Pradesh, India, for a triple accomplishment: First, for leading an active life even though he has been declared legally dead; Second, for waging a lively posthumous campaign against bureaucratic inertia and greedy relatives; and Third, for creating the Association of Dead People.
BIOLOGY: C.W. Moeliker, of Natuurhistorisch Museum Rotterdam, the Netherlands, for documenting the first scientifically recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck.
You get the idea.