It's soul-searching time for Los Angeles ad agencies.
For the first time, the Los Angeles ad community has been denied the top prize for the region's best advertising campaign. The newly merged San Diego agency Franklin Stoorza--formerly Franklin & Associates--walked off Saturday with the coveted "sweepstakes" prize at the 26th Annual Belding Awards.
The award went to a series of humorous print ads the agency created for the San Diego Union Tribune. The ads give readers funny tips on how to write their own automotive classified ads.
For Los Angeles agencies, it was a humbling decision by a panel of independent judges from across the country. Last year, many ad executives were equally miffed when the prize didn't go to an agency but to a promotional unit of ABC Television.
The latest award gives credence to critics who say the quality of advertising in Los Angeles has eroded during the two-year recession. As companies have embraced no-nonsense marketing during the economic downturn, ad creativity has suffered nationwide, the critics say. It may be more noticeable in Los Angeles, they say, because the area has long been considered an advertising beacon.
"Los Angeles used to be out in front," said Mel Newhoff, general manager at the agency Bozell, who a co-chairman of the judging committee. "There used to be a lot more cutting-edge work from here. But the economy is affecting the quality of advertising everywhere, not just in Los Angeles."
Bob Cerasoli, chairman of Franklin, said the award sends a message to the Los Angeles ad community: "This says that San Diego is more than just a backwater town." His firm's print campaign--produced for less than $20,000 per ad--competed against splashy TV spots whose production costs exceeded $500,000.
The ceremony, which the Advertising Club of Los Angeles held on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, was not a total loss for Los Angeles agencies. Local ad firms walked away with the majority of the prizes--although many major agencies went home with none. Agencies that win prestigious contests like this are often able to attract top talent.
Although the Venice agency Chiat/Day/Mojo didn't win the big prize this year, it won eight Belding Bowl awards--more than any other ad firm. El Segundo-based Team One Advertising took three of the bowls--two for Lexus car ads.
The Los Angeles office of the agency J. Walter Thompson, which came within a whisker of closing last year, won two creative awards for public service ads for the Union Rescue Mission. And the minority-owned Los Angeles ad firm Muse Cordero Chen won a key prize for promotional material.
But the evening belonged to Franklin. For the 23-year-old agency, which is tiny compared to many Los Angeles firms it competed against, the win marks a prelude to its expected entrance into the Los Angeles market.
"Clearly, our aim is to find Los Angeles companies that respect good work," said Cerasoli, whose agency merged earlier this month with another San Diego ad firm, ABC Stoorza. Ironically, 1991 was a tough year for Franklin. It lost its marquee client, the San Diego Zoo, to rival Phillips-Ramsey. Cutbacks and layoffs followed. The recession led to other belt-tightening. The 60-person ad shop posts annual billings of just $36 million.
For years, Franklin had a difficult time getting respect in the ad community because it was considered a house agency to Great American First Savings Bank, which owned it until 1990. But the Belding win has placed the agency in the limelight. While Cerasoli said Franklin has no immediate plans to open a Los Angeles office, he did not rule out the future possibility.
Just as surprising as the agency that won was the medium it won with. Big winners are usually TV campaigns, but this was a print promotion for the San Diego Union Tribune's automotive classified ads. Even during the recession, the ads helped nearly double the amount of space sold for the section in 1991 compared to 1990. The ads appeared only in the San Diego market.
Perhaps no one was more surprised about the results than the two men who created the campaign. When informed of the win, "we thought it was some sort of clerical error," joked John Robertson, 34, the copywriter who wrote the ads.
"We know this will create a stir (among Los Angeles ad executives)," added the art director for the ads, John Vitro. "We just hope it isn't directed personally at us."