The McCann Time Capsule: Bill Backer’s Memo on Our 1973 Clio Awards Breakthrough and What It Meant

The McCann Time Capsule: Bill Backer’s Memo on Our 1973 Clio Awards Breakthrough and What It Meant

McCann New York’s performance this week in being named Agency of the Year at the 2019 Clio Awards was a real triumph, with the agency winning 35 Clio awards as part of McCann Worldgroup taking a total of 47 Clios worldwide. Given our recent creative awards leadership, including being named the 2019 Cannes Lion Agency Network of the Year, industry-leading creative honors, while certainly welcome, are not as surprising as they once were for McCann.

In 1973, McCann experienced probably its first major creative awards breakthrough, taking first place at the Clio awards by winning seven TV Clios, including three for Coca-Cola’s “Country Sunshine” campaign which was also named “Best Overall Campaign.”  McCann won almost a fifth of all the 46 Clio awards presented that year. It wasn’t the first time McCann had won at the Clio awards, but it was seemingly the first time it emerged as the major agency winner.

And it led McCann’s legendary Creative Director Bill Backer (most famously remembered recently for Coca-Cola’s 1971 “Hilltop” commercial) to write a long memo to management explaining the significance of creative awards, and specifically what it meant for McCann. 

Some of the perspectives are still resonant today—that McCann won “the hard way” for large clients, and that we won across multiple offices suggesting that “no agency can approach McCann as a worldwide creative/production service” [these sections are highlighted below].  Other comments are specific to the times, referring to the competitors that were dominating the creative awards in that era, such as Doyle Dane Bernbach and Wells, Rich, Greene.

 Some of the points and language made it into the [attached] promotional ad that the agency ran. But the memo is a long one covering many points, and describes what Backer saw as apparently a major shift at the time in the agency’s creative reputation and views about creativity. 

From Bill Backer (June 1973):

“As far as I can remember I have never written a memo praising or criticizing McCann’s Creative Product.

“This memo breaks a twenty-year silence. For a reason.

“Night before last McCann-Erickson, Inc. swept the Clio awards. The agency, worldwide, won eight of the 46 awards given. Nearly 20% of the total. I’d like to put this in perspective for some of you.

“First some old saws:

“Awards Don’t Mean a Thing.”True, except when Pepsi wins them. Or Mary Wells.

“The Judges Just Vote for Their Own Stuff.”  Not true in the case of this biggest and most prestigious of advertising competitions. The sheer number of judges (250) and entries (over 3,000) makes any one agency’s representation too small to influence a result. Besides, McCann had no representation.

“TheJudges Are All Flaky Creeps.”  Not true. The judges are a genuine cross section of this business’s middle management level and of America. Production and Creative tend to have more representation than Account Service. And suppliers are given a voice, as well.

“Award-Winning Commercials Don’t Necessarily Sell.” True. The judges are not culled to fit categories. They don’t have beer experts judging beer, or car experts judging cars. So a relatively small number of the judges in any category are qualified to judge strategy, positioning, targeting, etc. They can only judge on the basis of “Does it communicate what it tries to communicate?” and, “Will people in general relate to it?”

“In light of the above, what do Clio awards mean in general and McCann’s awards in particular? When Wells, Rich and Doyle Dane were dominating the action, awards meant new business. They didn’t help you keep it, but they sure helped you get it. Award-winning commercials communicate. That means the agency that can do them has a quantity (limited or otherwise) of superb writers and art directors. They probably have some very single-minded account service people as well.

“Award-winning commercials are usually examples of top grade production. So the agency that does them has a quantity (limited or otherwise) of top grade production talent.

“Award-winning commercials tend to come from smaller clients (who have to reach harder to make their dollars go further) and from clients with one-of-one products. McCann has few such clients. We have to win our awards the hard way. Our awards were for such clients as Del Monte, Sears and Coca-Cola.

“Moreover, our awards were not concentrated in any one office. New York, three; London, two; San Francisco, one; Chicago, one.

“Domestic and overseas, McCann was very strong as a finalist in many areas. What I draw from this is that no agency can approach McCann as a worldwide creative/production service.

“Given the right selling strategy, there is no outfit that can show the depth in writing, music, art direction and production that our worldwide awards of the evening before last can show. 

“I think you people should merchandise this with fife and drum.To our present clients, and to future ones. It doesn’t cost anything and you don’t have to rehearse for a week.

“The largest panel that exists in our industry, some 250 people who daily turn the wheels of this business, has just voted us better than Bernbach, or Y and R, or Burnett, or Grey, or BBDO, or Ogilvy, in the area of creating and producing TV that communicates and relates.

“Let’s definitely see to it that our present clients agree with the judges.

“Let’s try and see to it that some future clients agree with the judges.

“Let’s start by agreeing with the judges themselves.”



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