Judging Caples: the good, the bad and the indifferent

New York is a fight to the death. Just walk through Midtown on a Wednesday afternoon in summer and you’ll feel the pressure of bodies, the endless stream that takes no prisoners. There is no room for the mediocre, the slow, the weak. Stop for a moment, even to take a breath or a drink of water, and you’ll be pushed out of the way as if you never even existed.

I was here to judge the Caples Awards, and while I was looking forward to a bit of friendly banter with my fellow judges – all direct and digital creative directors from around the world – what I was really hoping for was ideas that stop people in their tracks. Because, like the New York streets, this is getting harder and harder to do.

In the midst of all the emails, the gifs, the memes, the videos, the endless stream of banality distracting our audiences, how do we ensure our stories get heard? None of the judges I spoke to were convinced we had the answer, but we did see one or two examples of campaigns that managed to achieve the elusive holy grail: they stood out. And even better, they moved people enough to get them to respond.

This year, we saw a lot more long-form, immersive content. But while there was some lovely story-telling, what we didn’t see enough of was smart ways of driving people to the content, how to keep them engaged, and the follow-up afterwards. If we’re going to convince clients to spend more money on this kind of stuff, we need to ensure it’s part of a well-crafted sales structure, not just put out there in the ether with the hope that our audience will somehow find it.

Some of the categories that have been inundated with work in the past were thin on the ground this year. Direct mail? Email? Barely a glimmer of anything decent. These are the lifeblood and bread and butter work of direct and digital agencies, so we need to see more originality in these areas. There were also a lot of overly complicated campaigns where it was hard to find the idea under all the layers of technology. And if we can’t find it, heaven help our audiences.

Overall though, there were a few standout ideas that had all the judges talking. I call it the goosebump – green-eyed-monster test. First, you get excited. Then you get jealous. Insanely jealous. And there was surprising unanimity on the best work too. Having looked forward to a few verbal fisticuffs, I was almost disappointed at how civil everyone was.

So where did the winning campaigns come from? Once again, this part of the world punched way above its weight. Australia and New Zealand may not have the big budgets of Europe and the US, but a less hierarchical structure – which means we’re as likely to sell the client on an idea over a beer as we are presenting to a boardroom – sees more stuff getting off the ground.

The old ‘having a crack’ mentality is still standing us in good stead. And we do it with a good dose of humour too, which I see as a vital ingredient. That overly serious, millennial-style worthiness is not for me.

Thanks Caples for proving that the direct and digital space is more challenging than ever to work in – but that it is possible to have those big, breathtaking ideas, even in an environment as fast-moving and cramped as New York. That you can still stop the world for a moment with the power of creativity, using every ounce of your craft to get people to ‘listen, think, feel, and act.’  That alone was worth almost getting pushed into the gutter for.

 Susan Young is a founding partner and creative director at Chemistry Interaction

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