Tom Roach, VP Brand Strategy at Jellyfish, Industry Judge at the 2024 IPA Effectiveness Awards and multiple gold winner, shares a personal view on the huge value of the awards but says to maintain relevance they must explore new frontiers and not just reward the usual suspects.

In my view, no advertising awards scheme has been of greater value to the ad industry than the IPA Effectiveness Awards. 

Founded in 1980 to help prove beyond doubt that advertising works, the IPA Effectiveness Awards have done that and then some. The IPA databank, the database recording the impact of its 1500 entries, is the foundation stone of Les Binet and Peter Field’s groundbreaking work, which helped establish not just that advertising works, but the fundamental principles of how. It’s an immutable law of marketing that a CMO pitching for marketing investment must reference Binet & Field’s analysis.

So if your perception of ad industry awards is that they’re just self-satisfied, frivolous backslapping, you’ll have to put your prejudices to one side for the IPA awards. They’re the gold standard and easily the most rigorous effectiveness awards. I saw up close how a case study that won a Grand Prix at a rival awards only just scraped a bronze at the IPA even after a major data overhaul. More people have climbed Everest (under 7000) than have authored a paper. They’re tough.

The awards have been very kind to me personally. I got an early taste for them that I’ve never lost, having been lucky enough to win a gold at my first attempt with Sainsbury’s ‘Try Something New Today’ and then again two years later with Sainsbury’s Feed your family for a fiver’. That helped get me my next job which led to a third gold award, for McDonald’s Getting Britain Lovin’ It Once Again. BBH later hired me to help them get their effectiveness mojo back, which worked out well, with BBH winning the IPA’s ‘Effectiveness company of the year’ in 2018. My stint at Adam&EveDDB was part of an attempt by them to help return the title to its natural home, although despite contributing to another Gold for John Lewis in 2020 we sadly failed to achieve that feat. Adam&EveDDB later managed to win ‘Effectiveness company of the year’ without any help from me in 2022.

You may have picked up that I’m something of an IPA nerd.

But I’m not blind to some perceived problems with the IPA awards: that the tremendous effort they take can distract from the more important task of creating effective communications in the first place; that they can be overly academic; that effectiveness awards can seem ‘backward-looking’ these days when most brands barely look a month ahead let alone five or even ten years back; the idea that they don’t reward creativity (a misperception given the well-proven link between creativity and effectiveness that gives more ‘creative’ work an in-built advantage anyway); a fear that those perfectly crafted 4,000 words will sit in a folder somewhere, never to be looked at again; a sense that they’re only for the big, established brands following the well-trodden path laid out by Byron Sharp and Binet & Field.

All of these charges have some truth, but they’re not the whole truth, and they pale into insignificance when set against the true value that IPA Effectiveness cases generate for authors, agencies, clients and the industry. The true value of an IPA Effectiveness awards entry is something like this:

  • Recognition and career progression for authors. The legendary BBHer Jim Carroll’s philosophy on a strategist’s career progression is that to progress you need the three A’s: Achievements, Assets, Advocacy. The IPA awards have helped me with all three.
  • Client satisfaction and team pride. Apart from perhaps the positive reception of new creative work in the real world, there’s no better way to get client and agency teams to feel such a degree of pride in the work they create together.
  • Demonstrating the commercial value of an agency’s work inside the client organisation. An IPA case is the fullest, most rigorous and independently verified record of the value generated by an agency for a client. The rigour of the process gives the data (whether you win or not) a credibility and currency like nothing else out there with CMOs, some CEOs and even CFOs. Importantly, this value doesn’t lie in the 4000 words of the paper, but in the headlines and charts about the revenue & profit generated that papers include.
  • The value of the new learning they represent for the industry. Advertising budgets are under threat from more different directions than ever before. They’re an invaluable body of evidence that can help our industry defend its corner.

So the IPA Effectiveness Awards aren’t just about proving the value of advertising. They’re also about proving your own personal value, your agency’s value, our industry’s continued value.

But like all brands, the IPA Effectiveness Awards needs to constantly recruit new users to grow. And there is a characteristic of them that I’ve benefited from in my career, but which, from my current vantage point at a new breed of marketing services company, Jellyfish, part of the Brandtech Group, I can see could be an issue for the awards in the future.

It’s their tendency to skew towards awards for the big brands, with big budgets, spent on big channels. It’s the IPA Effectiveness Awards’ own version of ‘double jeopardy’. Big brands have greater resources, more experienced agencies, more research, more data, more long-running campaigns, larger advertising returns (size of category and brand being a major driver of advertising profitability), more of the muscle memory on how to win. And sometimes even budgets to bring in consultants just to write the entries. My own success with big brands like Sainsbury’s, McDonald’s, Barclays, Weetabix and John Lewis reflects this effect. The odds are stacked in favour of the big brands.

This may be partly why Jo Arden, Ogilvy UK CSO and Convenor of Judges for the 2024 IPA Effectiveness Awards, has said she wants 2024 to be about New Frontiers. New challenges, new strategies, new kinds of work, new kinds of measurement, new ways of proving the case.

New Frontiers is an exciting theme. But living up to this ambition will necessarily mean rewarding more experimental, more challenging work and cases, possibly from newer, smaller brands. It can’t just mean rewarding the usual suspects for the usual tactics. It has to be about cases that are writing and proving new principles, not just deploying the established ones. The challenge for the judges will be to do this without lowering the bar that’s been set so high over four decades and is the reason why the awards are so highly prized.

So as a judge at this year’s awards, I look forward to being able to play a small part in rewarding cases that really push the boundaries of what’s possible today and what’s happening at the leading edge of the industry.

New Frontiers is a theme that could actually help the awards maintain their relevance for the next four decades. A theme to inspire new generations of agency and client teams to share their learning about what works today.

If that sounds like you, you’ll have to work doubly hard to overcome the IPA double jeopardy effect. And your only real weapon in this will be to study what it takes to win, specifically what it takes to construct a bullet-proof case that proves beyond doubt that the commercial impact claimed was the result of the activity in question.

And with that in mind here are the Top 20 most popular IPA cases on WARC, since 2021: 

1. Cadbury: “There’s a glass & a half in everyone” – how intrinsic purpose can transform a brand’s fortunes
2. From running shops to serving customers: The Tesco turnaround story
3. Baileys: From forgotten icon to global treat
4. John Lewis: An amazing decade
5. Diageo portfolio: Marketing Catalyst – Creating a culture of marketing effectiveness
6. McDonald's: How we got customers Lovin' It and kept them Lovin' It, no matter what
7. Lloyds Bank: The power of Pure Brand
8. Gordon's Gin: Legacy brand turned challenger – Doubling the size of a legacy brand by thinking like a challenger
9. Audi: The value of Vorsprung durch Technik over four decades
10. KFC: ‘The Right Way’ to rebuild a brand
11. Guinness Made of More 2012-2019: Consistency x creativity
12. Direct Line Group: They went short. We went long
13. Tesco: From serving shoppers to serving the nation
14. Baileys: The pleasure dividend
15. Aldi 2010-2019: How taking an alternative path took Aldi from shame to pride
16. Taking Heineken 0.0 to the parts other beers cannot reach
17. How Heinz [Seriously] Good Mayonnaise overcame the 'difficult second stage of launch' syndrome
18. Rescuing Tango from a Sticky Situation
19. The AA: From spark-plugs to singalongs
20. McDonald's: Famous orders – how McDonald’s created a new generation of fans

Read these, learn from them, be inspired by them. Then tear up the rule book and write your way onto the list of the future.