Like a lot of companies, McDonald’s will send a contingent to Cannes next week for the largest advertising awards show on the planet. But when it comes to judging marketing that actually sells hamburgers, its executives in many ways put greater stock in a competition that wrapped more than a month ago at a banquet hall in Chicago’s
That is where McDonald’s conducted its first annual “Feel-Good Marketing Awards” ceremony, an internal program meant to incentivize and recognize marketing that works. With categories like “Best Idea Shamelessly Stolen”—which honors work successfully shifted from one McDonald’s international market to another—the program has a practical bent that is missing at Cannes.
The internal award winners have to show “some basic business results. It can’t be completely ineffective or completely trivial, which a lot of the Cannes work is in our view,” says Colin Mitchell, McDonald’s global brand VP. The creativity often celebrated in France involves “stunts and apps that go nowhere, that play to the Cannes industry insiders rather than real people,” Mitchell says, noting that the burger behemoth places an emphasis on stuff that works at scale.
McDonald’s is not alone. Several major advertisers are putting more energy and resources into internal awards, including Anheuser-Busch InBev and Mondelez. While similar programs have been around for year—Procter & Gamble has run one for decades—the internal initiatives are taking on greater relevance of late as marketers face more pressure to boost return on investment by leaning into what works and ditching what does not. And when it comes to fueling best practices, a little recognition can go a long way.
Internal vs. external
Internal marketing awards are a “great way to reinforce messages that upper management thinks are important: That small brands are also valued, that not every great marketing program is a TV ad, that great marketing comes in all shapes and sizes and that creativity doesn’t require a multimillion-dollar budget,” says Deb Giampoli, a marketing consultant and former global director of agency relations at Mondelez, where she created and oversaw the food company’s Marketing Excellence Awards program.
Internal programs can and should coexist with external awards, says Giampoli, adding that it’s “great to get external/industry recognition.” That said, she notes that “nothing beats being recognized within your own organization by those who can make a difference in your success on your home turf.”
This year, Mondelez gave out awards across nine categories, including “Best Small Budget Campaign” for a Cadbury effort in Malaysia in which the brand partnered with a local artist. Mondelez' awards program is “bigger than ever in terms of internal participation and engagement,” says Jon Halvorson, the company’s VP of global media, who now oversees the effort. This year, 250 entries were submitted, up 30 percent from last year. “We use it as an opportunity to identify our best work [and] benchmark it,” Halvorson says.
Entries and judging
Of course, when you are competing with yourself, it’s hard to see how you stack up against the competition. That is why several marketers interviewed by Ad Age say they still see value in Cannes and other external programs. McDonald’s closely monitors how it does annually at Cannes as well as at the Effie Awards, where the fast-feeder recently placed first for brand effectiveness. The company also keeps an eye on Interbrand’s annual best global brands rankings, where it placed 10th last year. The three programs are “important to use because they provide an external point of view,” Mitchell says.
Some internal programs try to get an external perspective by using outside judges alongside in-house people. (McDonald’s called on Jeff Goodby, a partner at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, and Ann-Christine Diaz, Ad Age’s Creativity editor.)
The programs are often modeled after Cannes, involving several rounds of judging and formal entry guidelines.
There are even trophies: McDonald’s hardware design takes inspiration from its Golden Arches. Anhesuer-Busch InBev, which calls its program Creative X (for excellence), gives out a trophy with a ‘C’ and ‘X’ that is meant to resemble a beer tap. The brewer culminated last year’s program with a party at a venue in Harlem that featured a performance by Montell Jordan, best known for “This Is How We Do It,” which is a rallying cry adopted by AB Chief Marketing Officer Marcel Marcondes.
The brewer showcases the winning work all year long in a gallery at its Manhattan office, “just like Cannes Lions does at the Palais,” says Jodi Harris, the brewer’s VP of marketing culture and learning, referring to the main Cannes venue.
AB’s categories include the “Creative Behavior Award,” which is “open to anyone in the marketing department who ... knocked down barriers to creativity,” says Harris, who oversees the program. There is also a “Social Impact” category, which last year went to Budweiser’s “Stand by You” Super Bowl campaign that touted the brewer’s philanthropic water giveaway program. AB InBev also gives out a best-in-class award modeled after the Cannes Grand Prix. Bud Light’s “Dilly Dilly” campaign from Wieden & Kennedy won last year.
Defining the criteria
Procter & Gamble has been running some version of an internal awards program since the 1980s, when they were called the “Copy Awards.” The current version, overseen by Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard, is called “Best of Brand.”
P&G employees do not have to enter, and P&G does not use a jury. Instead, the company takes a
data-driven approach, assembling the list of winners based on how brands score on five key business metrics: growing the category, growing market share, household penetration, and sales and profit.
“We try to be as simple as we can be. We literally run reports, because we have the data,” says P&G spokeswoman Andrea Schoff. Winning teams get a trophy, and their work is recognized at an annual awards show and at other company events like Pritchard’s quarterly “Brand Power Hour” internal webcasts, where they are often used as case studies.
While the criteria is more business-oriented than Cannes judging, Schoff points out that the internal award winners often do well in the south of France, citing work such as the “Like a Girl” campaign for Always that won a 2015 Grand Prix. The company gave out seven Best of Brand awards last year, including for a Charmin campaign in Canada that used the brand’s bear spokescritters to reassert its premium positioning. Also honored was work for Pampers in India that included media outreach, doctor-led seminars and product demos that P&G said led to the brand’s first profitable year in the market.
The top award is named for Robert V. Goldstein, a former P&G advertising VP who died in a rafting accident in 1987. Last year the Goldstein award—which goes to brands that sustain three years of business success across multiple markets—went to skincare brand SK-II, whose work included the “Bare Skin Project,” which challenged the notion that women must wear makeup to feel confident.
Most company-run programs incorporate agency recognition as part of the broader brand team when giving out awards. In its internal announcement listing its 2019 winners, McDonald’s credits the agency involved in each one. The marketer’s top prize, which it calls the Grand Prix, went to an out-of-home campaign by Canadian creative agency Cossette called “Follow the Arches,” which used McDonald's Golden Arches logo as a design element for directional signage for its restaurants.
AB InBev gives out a special “Agency of the Year” award. Last year’s winner was Weber Shandwick’s dedicated AB InBev PR agency called 3PM. The shop was behind Bud Light’s wildly successful “Victory Fridges” campaign that involved stocking the brew in refrigerators at Cleveland bars that remained locked until the city's long-suffering NFL team, the Browns, got their first win of the season.
Grabbing the gold
For agencies, being recognized at a private client awards ceremony might not come with the same glory, external attention and rosé-drenched partying of a Cannes win. But in an age of fleeting agency loyalties marked by a rise of project work, it might be more important.
Individual creative executives “would prefer to win an award in Cannes because it will increase their stature,” says Avi Dan, CEO of agency search consultancy Avidan Strategies. But agency management execs “would always prefer to win a client award, because that would mean the relationship is very strong.”
AB InBev allowed 3PM to publicize its win, which it did with posts on Twitter and LinkedIn. The shop has also touted the recognition when talking to prospective clients and creative hires. It’s a big recruitment selling point, says 3PM Account Lead
Brian Williams. “People in agencies and beyond want to know that they are going to come in and work on things that matter and things that are recognized by the client,” he says.