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Interview: Alisun Armstrong, Executive Director, AME Awards

“I would love to see more representation from India; there are great ideas that deserve to be seen by an international audience”

August 6, 2012

With the call for entries for 2013 AME Awards® the World’s Best Award for Advertising & Marketing Effectiveness™, its recently appointed executive director Alisun Armstrong has announced several strategic initiatives designed to enhance the 2013 competition and expand AME’s global footprint.

The new initiatives include a streamlined entry process, sleek new website design, revised entry fee structure, and a roster of new competition categories that mirror trends in the constantly evolving advertising and marketing industry. In an interview with, Armstrong speaks in detail about the new initiatives and Indian participation:

What makes the AME Awards unique from other awards show?

We’re not the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and oddly enough I think that’s how we stand out—we’re not mired in bureaucracy. Our size lends us flexibility, lets us make big changes really quickly, and allows us to pay attention to the details and deal with people on a personal level. We’ve also got a team who’s very passionate about advertising and marketing, and with more than 100 years experience in the awards industry between us, we’ve got some unbeatable institutional knowledge.

What’s new for AME this year and what strategy do you have planned to guide AME into the future?

The most obvious change is a new look—the new skin is more dynamic, more versatile, and has a lot more personality. The old website was a bit bland, I thought; and since we’re such a dynamic competition, concentrating on not only ideas but results, I thought it was important for the brand to reflect that right from the starting gate.

We’ve also restructured the entry process. In order for our judges to get a clear understanding of our entrants’ campaigns and results, we require a great deal of information, and it can seem overwhelming. I felt it was important to organize the entry form in a way that made sense to whoever was filling it out—whether it was an experienced awards coordinator or an intern. A campaign shouldn’t suffer in the scoring rounds for obfuscation in the entry process.

Another big change is a new entry fee structure. Awards season is a busy time, with a lot of information to be gathered and a lot of forms to fill out. Based on some feedback we got through an entrant survey, we thought we’d give our entrants a little incentive to get their information to us earlier rather than later, when time is tight: We’ve instituted a tiered fee system. Basically, the earlier you get us your materials, the less you pay. For example, if you enter by August 27, about four weeks after the competition opens, you’ll pay the 2012 entry fee. But if you wait longer than that, the fees increase up until the deadline, October 22.

We’ve also got some new categories, including Sports Promotion, Branded Entertainment, Ebooks, Games, Pop-up Stores, Tablets, Low-budget, Collateral, and Print, and a new category group, Social Benefit.

The Social Benefit categories concentrate on campaigns that benefit a charity’s brand or initiatives and contribute to the greater good, showcasing advertising and marketing campaigns that promote peace, human rights, and social consciousness as well as a commitment to planetary stewardship. Categories include Civic/Social Education, Environmental Issues, Philanthropic Appeals, Promotion of Peace/Human Rights, and Promotion of Health & Human services. There’s a lot of great work being done in this area, and I can’t wait to see what comes in.

As far as the future goes, I strongly believe that if we’re going to present ourselves as the arbiters of what constitutes creative, effective marketing, we better know what we’re talking about and demonstrate it through our website, entry process, communications, and the caliber of our judges. We understand and empathize with the work our entrants do because it’s part of our lives, too. My plan is to re-evaluate and adapt, adopt, and improve every year based on what we learn every day as a part of this exciting industry so we can continue to be an expert in recognizing the world’s most effective advertising and marketing.

Is there a trend towards advertising that has a social conscience and why did you add a roster of Social Benefit categories?

I added the Social Benefit categories specifically because, yes: I do think there’s a growing trend towards marketing for good. I also added it because I think there needs to be as much incentive as possible for agencies and individuals to promote a cause or an idea rather than a thing that can be put in a box and shipped to you. And there’s already a lot of great work being done in this area, as can be evidenced by the work we saw in last year’s competition—even beyond the big winners like “Operation Christmas” and “Save As WWF”—and the people doing it should be recognized.

How important is it for the AME Awards to select regional jurors to review the competition’s entries? What are qualities are you looking for when assembling the 2012 AME Jury?

Because we’ve set effectiveness as the higher bar in the competition, it’s important that the entry is reviewed in context. Social, economic, and cultural factors contribute so much to every part of a campaign, from planning to execution to success (or failure); a judge who possesses a base knowledge of where these campaigns are coming from and the people who experienced them can offer more nuanced feedback and a more accurate score.

That being said, it’s not enough to have been born in a particular place to judge entries from there. Deciding what work earns the World's Best Award for Advertising & Marketing Effectiveness requires the world's best judges. Every year we build a team of top international interactive and multidisciplinary marketers, media planners, strategy directors, social media experts, and creative directors to score the entries. Our judges also act as advisors, helping us to keep the AME Awards relevant. We leverage their expertise as we look to future competitions.

What are the criteria for evaluating entries? Can you elaborate on the importance of the enhanced scoring process?

Judges evaluate each entry according to a four-tiered matrix, assigning each component a score between 1 and 10: results and effectiveness, 30%; idea, 25%; execution, 25%; and challenge, strategy, and objectives, 20%. It’s basically a formula that breaks down what makes a creative, effective campaign: a good idea with a good execution, of course, but more importantly, effective; and if it also met the clients expectations, bonus.

What makes an award-winning campaign trophy-worthy, and why is so important to be recognized in this competition?

A winning AME entry demonstrates a ground-breaking solution to a challenging marketing problem. It exhibits the accomplishment of specific marketing goals and objectives through creative execution and strategic planning.

Winning an AME Award is a virtual stamp of approval from advertising and marketing industry leaders all over the globe. Winners also receive an invaluable amount of PR and exposure as we promote them internationally through press releases, our Winner Showcases, university media centers, the AME website and our international network of media partners. It’s an incredible ROI!

What qualities does a campaign need to earn an AME Platinum Award and why is the AME Platinum Award such a prestigious honor?

To decide the Platinum winners, the full complement of judges reviews all Gold-winning work, regardless of region. The entries that make it to this round are already exemplary; those that are chosen to represent their regions as Platinum winners were able to prove to an international panel of judges that their campaign truly represented the most creative and effective thing happening out there.

What, if any, cultural trends have you seen when reviewing 2012’s award-winning entries?

The trend I see right now is community-building—social media marketing engagement strategies were a huge trend amongst the 2012 AME Award-winning entries, and companies using engaged participation dominated the winner’s circle. And that was long before Pinterest caught fire. My prediction: It will only get bigger. I expect the bulk of the 2013 entries to involve some sort of community-building or social media engagement campaign. It will be a tough competition in this area, as there is so much great work being done in service to what I’m starting to think of as the Cult of Social.

How will digital and technology continue to affect the future of advertising and marketing effectiveness and AME’s categories?

Our industry evolves at a mind-blowing pace. Just about every leap in technology represents an opportunity for our clients—almost every step forward provides marketers with a new opportunity to reach their target audience. Our challenge is staying relevant, paying attention to trends, keeping abreast of how messages are going out… all of that is key to recognizing who’s doing it most effectively.

What is the most important point or idea about the AME Awards you would like potential entrants to be aware of?

The AME Awards belongs to the marketing and advertising industry. We’re here to serve them. My big boss, Jim Smyth, has told me and my colleagues to see ourselves as custodians; the competition is not about us, it’s about curating and maintaining the best of what’s out there. We respect the work our clients create, and we work hard to make sure they get the recognition they deserve.

Which regions around the globe would you like to expand the AME global footprint and why?

We have seen disappointingly little work from the Latin America and Middle East/Africa regions, and we know good work is happening there. The AME Awards prides itself in honoring the world’s best—but if we’re not seeing campaigns from all over the globe, we’re not fulfilling our mission. And because we aim to recognize campaigns that are working on a regional and cultural basis, I feel it’s important to represent people everywhere.

How about the response from India? Please elaborate the growth in number of entries over the recent years and what are your expectations from Indian agencies?

We actually haven’t seen a lot of growth in entries from India—in fact, it’s unfortunately been the opposite. And there are some fantastic things going on, like the SapientNitro India Absolut installation at the India Art Fair last year, the widely divergent Zomato ads, all of the work happening in mobile… I would love to see more representation from India; there are great ideas that deserve to be seen by an international audience.

In your views, what is Indian advertising better known for – Creativity or Effectiveness and why?

Well, if we base it on what has won awards in past AME competitions, it’s both. There are great ideas, both funny and serious, and so many of the themes are universal. The executions are lush but still approachable. And the results are fantastic—for example, the last Indian entry to win an AME was for Teach India, a campaign by the Times of India. Their goal was to inspire people to devote two hours of their time per week helping children in the underserved population get an educational boost. They used a media mix of TV, online, print, ambient, celebrity endorsement, and on-the-ground activism to such an astonishingly successful degree that they had a waitlist of participants and the program robustly continues today.

Do you know/remember any Indian campaign which makes great case study for effectiveness and hence has the high chances of winning?

I love the ZooZoos! Especially the super hero ad—he’s more powerful than a locomotive and he can solve a complex math equation in a single bound. I know it got a lot of buzz, and I would love to see the case brief detailing the actual effectiveness of the campaign. Another that caught my eye is the Docomo “No getting away” series. Simple and clever… and universally relevant. I heard a few of the spots caused some controversy, too, which can be good for effectiveness.

But generally, a winning campaign is one that first and foremost demonstrates ground-breaking solutions to challenging marketing problems with that special blend of creative execution and strategic planning. In the end, though, I can’t outthink my judges, and they’re the ultimate authority on what would have the highest chances of winning an AME Award.

What’s your view on effectiveness and creativity?

I think they should be considered inseparable when it comes to advertising, because that’s where a campaign hits the sweet spot: Serve your audience by giving them something good, something that makes them laugh or that they can connect to or that informs them, something that doesn’t insult their intelligence or waste their time; serve your client by translating that creativity into a customer behavior that exceeds the marketing goals.

How do you as an executive director stay on top of all the evolving changes in the industry?

I read. A lot. Thank god for the internet, because I don’t know how else a body could keep up with everything going on out there. I also depend on my jury—we’ve got a lot of smart, savvy people on board, and their feedback and input is invaluable.

How will you on behalf of AME engage future generations of advertising creatives and why is it important to invest in the next generation of advertising stars?

The audience as a whole is approaching a marketing and advertising saturation point, I think. Branding, messaging, advertising is everywhere the average citizen looks—online, on their mobile devices, on television, on the street. Some even feel like they’re assaulted by advertising. The challenge today’s marketers and advertisers face is, quite frankly, getting their message in front of their target audience without pissing them off. That, in my opinion, is why rewarding effectiveness is so important; if you’ve come up with an ad that not only gets attention but doesn’t make people angry with you and even motivates them to participate or purchase, you’re doing something right. Hopefully, by promoting AME Award winners and getting them exposure, we’ll inspire future creative to do meaningful work that respects the viewer while meeting the objectives of the creative brief.

What inspires you about you being an executive director for the AME Awards and what is the most rewarding part of your job?

As an unrepentant ad fan, getting to see the amazing work done around the world is a huge reward—I might never get to see it otherwise. I love smart, funny, commercials. I also like random weird ones. I love that my job lets me read up on and look at marketing campaigns that are happening all over the world. I love that I’m tasked with keeping up with these brilliant creatives, keeping tabs on what they’re doing in order to make sure we’re offering a competition that honors their work.

The AME Awards is a business like any other business—we need to keep our clients happy and provide a beneficial service. And we understand and empathize with the work our entrants do because it’s part of our lives, too. If we’re going to present ourselves as the arbiters of what constitutes creative, effective marketing, we better know what we’re talking about and demonstrate it through our website, entry process, and communications.

And as far as support goes, I’ll come right out and say it: We have a pretty involved entry process. But all the information we ask for is really critical to the judges’ understanding of a campaign and its effectiveness. That doesn’t mean, though, that it has to be difficult to tell the story. That’s why we make sure that the office staff is well versed in the competition rules and entry forms, why we improved and streamlined the online entry process, and why we hold customer satisfaction at such a premium. We want nothing more than to have so much great work we don’t know what to do with it all. We thrive on the inspiration we get from our entrants.

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