Here's a fun fact. What may win a gold at Cannes may win nothing, absolutely nothing, at AdFest. Examine the exact opposite and sure enough, what may win a gold at AdFest may never win a Cannes, One Show or anything else at all. So, when the invitation to be on the jury arrived in my mailbox this year, I was more than curious. And, sure enough, in 'Press', the category that I was judging, two pieces of work that had won gold at Cannes passed by like a ship in the dark. Such is AdFest - I had always suspected - a fiercely independent festival with a mind and voice of its own.
On Day 1 at the Welcome Dinner for the jury, I gathered that the jury was quite an eclectic mix. There were chief creative officers and regional ECDs, along with creative directors and senior copywriters. The size of the jury - seven to a category - jury president included. Not twelve or fifteen. Chit chat was about the weather, food and Pattaya. I didn't hear anybody talk shop. Shop was for the next morning.
The next morning, Tor Myhren, president and worldwide chief creative officer, Grey briefed us on how to go about judging, along with the always-smiling, avuncular Jimmy Lam, president, AdFest. We were asked to be transparent, honest and really think hard on why something deserves an AdFest Lotus. The first and foremost question was to ask "Is it new?" Bronze, by definition at AdFest, was for the 'exceptional', silver was for 'what makes you jealous'; gold was for something that 'has never been thought like this before'.
Tor also urged us to listen to others' point of view because 'so very often you may miss a perspective that somebody else may have about the same piece of work'. A fine point that, I thought.
The seven of us then proceeded to look at 302 pieces of work entered in Press, along with our jury president Yang Yeo, China chairman and North Asia ECD, JWT, Shanghai. After the first round, we had only 72 pieces in what we called a shortlist. These were the pieces that deserved a second look. We laboriously went over each and every piece of this first shortlist again to vote for what may be considered for a metal, hence arriving at 'Finalists'. Down to 51!
At this stage, any of the jury members were allowed to 'call in' the jury on any piece of work they thought should be left out or brought in. Little changed though! I wondered if we all just happened to think alike or was it just the festival definitions that made it so clear. I reckon it was the latter. It was only 4 pm and we could have gone on to start awarding metals but collectively, the jury decided to sleep on it and think over it really well. The spirit in the room was so pure. The juries of at least two categories were still at work while the rest of us had dinner.
Next day Yang Yeo, our jury president, held up all the 51 pieces one by one as we discussed what it deserved. We started by discussing if it deserved gold, and if not gold, a silver? If not a silver, a bronze? If not a bronze, a finalist? Voting was by a clear show of hands. Anybody could speak for or against a piece of work and the votes would be called again. A work needed four out of seven votes to move up or down. We were mostly unanimous. Not one argument stretched beyond an exchange of point of view. All done, we had three golds, seven silvers and 12 bronzes.
Now came something called a 'sanity check', again a festival standard. We went over each piece again to see if it needed to be revised up or down. Were the winners really worthy of the AdFest gold, silver, bronze or finalist? Had we been too harsh or too liberal? This was to check and re-check that all was fair and in keeping with the spirit of AdFest. It all finally came down to three golds, five silvers and 10 bronzes. Out of the three golds, one could not be voted for Grande (the AdFest Grand Prix, as it is called) since it was public service work and AdFest doesn't let public service work compete for a Grande with all the other work. Very fair again, right? The Grande for Public Service is chosen from amongst gold winning entries in all other categories entered under Public Service - outdoor, interactive, activation, media, film, etc.
Quite an interesting debate happened while choosing the Grande and once again after the debate, the choice was unanimous: 'Separate Them' by Lowe Bangkok for its work on 'Sunlight' was to win the Grande. The winning difference - the Grande leapt at you from the page.
After it was all done, I no longer wondered how some pieces can win a Cannes and not an AdFest. The AdFest is about AdFest. What a certain piece had already won was never discussed. What the piece was worthy of under the guiding principles of AdFest was what mattered. I also understood why the jury was such a mix. Young and old. From Australia to Dubai, Korea to Shanghai and Jakarta to New York. From stalwarts to the up and coming!
One might say every festival is different, and so is AdFest but I reckon it is not just that. AdFest has a very strong point of view about how to go about it and what must be awarded and celebrated.
Judging over, I sat through most of the sessions over the next three days and once again, I was pleasantly surprised! No network honchos here with the standard show reel saying 'look how good we are, join us!' No blatant 'I know where the future lies, follow me' talks. The sessions weren't even strictly about advertising but about other things that surround our little bubble of a world. What makes music stick, for example! Or, why an ad agency shouldn't launch its own brands! Or why the world really hates us advertising and marketing folks and why the world at large is going to hate us even more! Or, what is the method to crowd sourcing!
Even the parties were not DJ affairs where people get sloshed and wasted, but meaningful dinners where music remained in the background and conversations flowed. Over one such conversation Vinit Suraphongchai, chairman, working committee, told me, "We want more people to come here and we want to make it a really meaningful experience for them" and that "for the price you send one person to Cannes, you can send five to AdFest!"
And, as I write this piece, I receive a mail from Jimmy Lam asking for my feedback on the 'judging process' and if I think the categories are well-defined and well-divided.
Last but not the least - AdFest is a non-profit making affair. That explains a lot.
(The author is executive creative director, McCann Erickson, New Delhi)