Surekha Ragavan
Feb 23, 2021

Asia is highly creative, so why is it behind on the global awards stage?

SPIKES ASIA X CAMPAIGN: Creative leaders talk about the implications of culture, language and the way creativity is perceived next to widely accepted Eurocentric ideals

Asia is highly creative, so why is it behind on the global awards stage?

With the way the APAC region swiftly handled Covid and leveraged its existing implementation of tech—whether in mobile penetration or smart payment systems—the past year has made it clear that this region has proven to be highly capable compared to the West. And while this might not be new information, it’s certainly also true of APAC’s creative prowess. 

At a panel for Spikes Asia x Campaign Monday, moderator Philip Thomas, president and chairman for Ascential Marketing and Lions, said that while there’s been a “very interesting shift” towards Asia over the last few years, the data still shows that global awards like Cannes Lions still lean heavily towards work from the West.

“The simple facts tell the tale," he said. "If you look at the percentage of Lions won by Asian countries, it’s not as big as it should be when you consider the size of these countries, their population, their GDP. In 2019, 16% of winners came from Asia. If you add in ANZ, 4% was from Australia and 3% from New Zealand.”

Why should language be a barrier?

Creative work, rightfully, should be judged on, well, creativity. But because global awards tend to have (only or primarily) English-speaking jury members, some things are bound to get lost in translation.

Yasuharu Sasaki, ECD for Dentsu Japan, said language at international awards shows continues to be an issue for the agency’s Japanese work. “Maybe Japanese people are not good at speaking English, and we cannot [explain] our true insights or culture to Western people. So this is a problem for us,” said Sasaki.

Malcolm Poynton, global chief creative officer and president creative for Cheil Worldwide, said that tech can play a role at judging sessions. “Google has successfully developed a prototype for earbuds that automatically translates [content] for you,” said Poynton.

“I’m sure there are lots of flaws to be ironed out with tech but it’s got to be more helpful than trying to work through translators which ends up putting brakes on the conversation in the entire room.”

Rajdeepak Das, managing director India and CCO Leo Burnett, said that culture is just as imperative when it comes to accessing creativity. “Brands are owning cultures and sub-cultures. When I’m explaining to the world what my sub-culture is, they might not understand what it stands for,” said Das. “By the time I try and tell my story and my sub-culture, the two minutes is over.”

Watch this session:

Tara Ford, CCO for DDB Sydney, said that when judging creative work, cultural context can sometimes be a ‘make-or-break’ for whether a piece of work is shortlisted.

“When you have two minutes, you have to be very eloquent with how you talk about ideas and the context,” said Ford. “How is it relevant? Where is society at? Sometimes you get that really clearly and sometimes you don’t. Because of that, it can be hard to be on a level playing field.”

Poynton added that it’s “hard to explain a culture of a thousand years in 10 seconds”.

ANZ, a region that is geographically associated with Asia, but is culturally closer to the West, seems to fare better than Asia (if not equal to the US or UK) on the international awards stage, despite both Australia and New Zealand being marginally smaller economic markets compared to many in Asia.

Ford said this could be because there’s “some license with some brands to take [creativity] quite far”. She added that culturally, it isn’t as difficult for ANZ to explain its nuances to an international panel of judges.

The definition of ‘creativity’ in and of itself

Where purpose could be a boon in an awards submission elsewhere, Sasaki explained that Japanese brands prefer to be more low-profile when it comes to “standing out” or “promising people too much”. This is, as mentioned earlier, a product of culture.

“This is one of the reasons Japanese brands cannot do brave things. They are worried about negative reactions, and Japanese companies [prioritise] harmony,” said Sasaki. His challenge, then, is to balance his agency’s creative output with how brands want to be perceived.

In Asia, many markets—such as India and Myanmar—have skipped the desktop phase and jumped straight to smartphones. Pair that with the revolutionary ways China has adopted retail and live-streaming, and we get a region that is changing the way creativity is traditionally perceived on an international awards stage.

Shows like Cannes Lions and D&AD primarily focus on ATL and BTL work which angle creativity as being associated with writing, design or production. But would it be remiss to not consider creativity from the lens of a retail live-stream campaign or a brand experience that uses facial recognition, for instance?

Sasaki said that more categories around interactive, digital experiences could mean a better chance for Japanese brands to feature on the global stage. “It’s not just a change from TV to mobile phones. It’s about a change in people’s behaviour,” he said.

Poynton said that when he was on the judging panel of a global awards show some years back, a Japanese entry popped up where audiences could interact with their TV screens using their mobile phones. “I remember the Western judges there couldn’t understand why anyone would want to do that. It’s only for the first time now where we’re seeing people in the West understand what a QR code is. But the QR code culture has existed for 15 or more years in Asia,” he said.

Because of the region’s scale and pace, Poynton added that Asia is also a region that breeds ephemeral work. “Everything moves super-fast and it’s in the moment. And you don't tend to see such long brand-building approaches. There’s a very different behaviour in Asia, and it’s to be celebrated, not dismissed,” he said.

Thomas surmised that there seems to be two issues at play: the level of creativity in Asia, and the ability to win awards with that creativity. Those may to be two separate skills, and in Asia, there's a massive disconnect between the two.

As to what advice she has for awards entrants, Ford said that entries shouldn’t make an assumption that judges will understand cultural nuances. “Always make sure you clearly state why it is relevant and why it’s significant. If you’re part of a network, maybe check with another office that isn’t part of your culture. Send them the case study—and ask them whether they get it,” she said.

Ideally, in the coming years, we’re not still having conversations about the ‘rise of APAC’ as a creative power. Because that’s a given, and we should instead be discussing how to build an equitable creative share on the global awards stage.

(This article first appeared on

Campaign India

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