Ad festivals in the time of Corona

We had Petr Vlasák, Co-Creative Director at Comtech_CAN (CZ) and Veljko Golubovic, Executive Creative Director at New Moment (RS) as guests in our July weCAN Webinar, where we discussed how COVID influenced ad festivals. At first, online events were unimaginable but when they proved to be the only solution, they required a completely different mindset – both from the panel of jury and the viewers too. The judging process was also heavily affected, probably not for the better, but we also found some fall-outs, which we would gladly keep in the future.

First reaction after the lockdown

Petr said that the very first reaction was to stay safe and saves lives, agencies were worried about how to keep their business going and how to reassure clients about the continuous work, no one was really thinking about ad festivals. Right after Cannes Lions was cancelled at the beginning of April, advertising experts started to realize that this pandemic might have a long-term effect on this event segment too. Veljko, member of the Grand Jury in New York Ad Festival remembered that as the pandemic was a global situation, accompanied with fear and confusion, the communication from the beginning was based much more on understanding, filled with more empathy and warm emotions.

According to Petr, ad experts started to see the break in routines: the deadline for the entries at Art Directors’ Club (CZ) was March, and when big brands and leading agencies didn’t send their entries and it became evident that the event budget would also be cut, the organizers had to decide whether to cancel or postpone the event.

Initial waiting turning into online action

Both Petr and Veljko shared the experience that ad festivals originally planned for 2020 spring were postponed, not just once but multiple times in the hopes of being able to host them in the summer, in the autumn, in the winter… Besides as the physical aspects of live events are very important, such as networking, celebrating the winners at the closing party etc., at first holding a similar event online was unimaginable.

Right after organizers saw that lockdown measures would be in effect for months and the hopes for holding an in-person event slowly faded, they realized that online events can be the only solution to keep everything going. But it turned out that online events require different attitudes and actions then the regular “offline” festivals.

“Digital energy doesn’t exist”

Veljko summarized the most important aspects of attending ad festivals: “It’s about sharing thoughts, expanding your knowledge, getting to know people, and seeing the dimensions where you would want to improve. Ad festivals are equally important for young professionals and senior experts, on an individual level and for the whole agency.”

But when putting this in an online setting, the dynamics change, and some important aspects are inevitably lost. Although organizers have tried to recreate the atmosphere at online events, it could not feel the same. Petr shared an example: for the award ceremony of Art Directors’ Club, the event was “moved” into an online studio with two hosts and an external venue, and when the winners were announced, motorcyclists were sent out in the city to be able to physically hand out the awards – but missing the celebration at the closing party is also something that a Zoom call cannot substitute.

Online judging is different than offline judging

Both our experts agreed that the online judging heavily influenced the way entry works were evaluated. Petr claimed that jury members had to be more prepared for online judging, because in person one can “cheat” by having further discussion with other members of the jury, but this time they “had to do their homework”, watch an entry multiple times to not hold back colleagues by the lack of preparedness – this also applies to the president of the jury, who had to manage 10-15 people in the online space.

Veljko added that online judging, meaning sitting at home, alone in a room completely changes the perspective thus the results then when people are able to discuss their ideas in person. Petr even believes that this way approximately a third of the entry works is misjudged. Veljko had an interesting addition to this: when years ago the New York Ad Festival introduced online judging, it was said to divert the judging process to a more objective stance.

But online presence affects the audience too: according to Veljko, the audience also had to be more prepared, because when someone is physically present at a presentation, they have that timeslot reserved for that and they can devote their full attention to the speaker, but when listening from at home, anything can distract a viewer.

Category: COVID

Of course, COVID-19 not only affected the judging process and the event atmosphere, but the entry works too. Some categories took a direct hit, as Petr mentioned in the craft category, where entries are often physical works, and have to be touched, interacted with, the pandemic proved to be fatal.

At most festivals, COVID categories were introduced, but as the pandemic influenced so many of the entry works, there is only a fine line between those, that make it to the COVID category, and those that do not. Having a COVID category in itself is also controversial: Veljko doubts, that these entries should have their own category. According to him, these works should be judged in the main categories to be able to determine if they are just as good as “unaffected” works, and they shouldn’t have a separate category, as an occasion like this only appears once in a lifetime. In Veljko’s opinion this slightly erodes the quality of the works presented, and also the fact that sometimes the COVID category allows lower budget limits.

Positive take-aways

Our experts agree that they wish to return to the well-known, offline ad festivals as soon as possible, but there were some positive outgrowths of this situation. One if these is that many live events became free: this way they became available to much more people, an agency could participate with more colleagues than before. Also with the lowered costs, more exclusive key-not speakers were available at these events, and their participation was also made easier with having to travel.

Even with the online events, organizers tried to cater to many needs and give something unique with offering simultaneous programs, presentations – Petr however found this solution to be less appealing, as he finds it’s harder to devote attention to two or more concurrent programs, but personalization can be achieved, only through other solutions. In Veljko’s suggestion, events could work together with agencies, and offer personalized programs, workshops to a certain group, who then can benefit from it together.

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