Maybe awards shows aren’t obsessed with not-for-profits. Maybe not-for-profits are just more courageous marketers

—A lot of not-for-profit work is great, and its marketing leaders risk a great deal by being bold with their advertising, says David Pullara—

Last week, a special newsletter from The Message featured a column by Angus Tucker entitled Props to the Real Risk-Takers.

I’ve never met Angus, but his reputation precedes him, and I’ve personally been impressed by much of John St’s excellent work over the years. I enjoyed the campaigns he highlighted in his column, and wholeheartedly agree when he writes, “agencies and clients who are taking real risks with the brands they’re running” deserve real praise.

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All of that said, I spent five full days over the past several weeks judging for two major Canadian awards shows, and I simply can’t agree with his premise that the industry is obsessed with giving awards to not-for-profits at the expense of “brave, creative work” for brands.

First, I believe pro bono and not-for-profit clients are simply doing some really great work, and great work deserves to be awarded. Let’s use Sick Kids as an example, since I don’t need to refer to any recent work to make my point. The hospital and its agency, Cossette, has consistently been exceptional since the Undeniable spot launched three years ago.

So is Sick Kids not a “real risk taker” because they’re a not-for-profit? I’d argue the exact opposite: the risk for NFP organizations is much greater than it is for brands.

Think about it: when a big consumer brand takes a creative risk on a campaign that falls flat, what happens? The company might be derided in traditional and social media, like Pepsi was with its Kendall Jenner spot. The brand’s image and reputation might be harmed, but usually only until the next campaign begins. The agencies responsible for the campaign might be replaced (although, curiously, the clients who approve the work somehow avoid the same fate). The company might not achieve its sales quota and executives might not get their annual bonuses. None of this is good. But also, none of this is life-threatening.

Now think about what an organization like Sick Kids risks when it approves brave creative. Should a not-for-profit initiative fall flat, the organization risks not raising the money needed to accomplish its mission, which could impact the lives of thousands of people. If Sick Kids “VS” didn’t work, it would have delayed the construction of a much-needed new children’s hospital.

As part of my judging this year, I reviewed campaigns designed to raise awareness about (and funding to prevent) domestic violence, child pornography, medical discrimination, and other such causes. In all these cases, the risk of failure is absolutely real.

Second, I don’t believe for a second that brands (as Angus wrote) “can’t pluck so hard on our heartstrings” so as to compete for awards against not-for-profit campaigns. One of my all-time favourite ads made me feel emotionally distraught over the fate of a lamp. This simple story about finding love in Paris puts a lump in my throat every time I watch it. Heck, this recent ad for tissues, paper towels, and toilet-paper nearly made me cry.

Budweiser’s Brotherhood spot. Extra Gum’s Origami ad. P&G’s entire “Thank You Mom” multi-year campaign. The list goes on.

Brands absolutely have the ability to pluck on your heartstrings, it’s just that doing so is hard work. It requires a true consumer insight, a willingness to put the emotion before the product, and significant courage from leadership (both agency and client-side) to risk failure by approving a truly innovative campaign. It’s easier and (in the short-term) safer to produce a functional, offer-driven ad… so that’s what too many marketing teams choose to do.

Finally, I don’t think judges discount, “much of the brave, creative work we do for brands.” Rather, to be blunt, a lot of the work submitted for consideration is simply not award-worthy. For every stellar brand campaign I saw over the past month, there were likely five mediocre campaigns and five that should have never been entered.

The reason for the sheer number of entries shouldn’t surprise anyone reading this: as an industry, we’re obsessed with awards. Recruiters seek marketing leaders who’ve led award-winning initiatives. Clients choose agencies with the most hardware. And agencies want creatives with an ability to bring award-winning work to life. Where we should all be focused exclusively on the business results, we get distracted by the prospect of shiny trophies and plaques.

And so we chase statuettes by submitting every campaign to every award show we can find. After all, if there’s even the slightest chance it could win in a category—any category!—and add something to our trophy cases, then the time to prepare the case and the cost of entry is worthwhile, right?


Too many of the cases submitted have a poorly defined (or poorly articulated) strategy. Too many have goals and objectives that were very obviously defined after the campaign had ended and the results collected. And too many entries have results that are either unimpressive or unimportant to the business. (Case-writers, please take note: “impressions achieved” is not an accomplishment when it comes to paid media.)

The industry isn’t obsessed with giving awards to not-for-profits at the expense of “brave, creative work” developed for brands: courageous brand teams who produce strategic, creative campaigns that drive results can and will be recognized.

But whether you’re a not-for-profit organization or a brand, there’s one thing we should collectively keep in mind: awards are the byproduct, not the goal. Do great work that inspires consumers to buy. Use consistently great marketing to build great brands and great businesses over time.

Do that, and you’ll need to buy more trophy cases for all the awards you’ll win.

David Pullara is an independent management consultant, university marketing instructor, and senior marketer who’s worked with Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Coca-Cola, and Google. You can sign up for his free newsletter at

David Pullara

David Pullara is a senior business leader who has worked with renowned, consumer-centric organizations like Starbucks, Yum! Brands (Pizza Hut), Coca-Cola, and Google. David is currently the Principal of dp Ventures, focused on consulting, teaching and facilitating, speaking, and writing engagements. He also serves as a part-time marketing instructor for the Schulich School of Business at York University. Subscribe to his blog at