What is AAF?
According to the website: “The American Advertising Awards, formerly the ADDYs, is the advertising industry's largest and most representative competition, attracting over 40,000 entries every year in local AAF Club (Ad Club) competitions. The mission of the American Advertising Awards competition is to recognize and reward the creative spirit of excellence in the art of advertising.” —AAF
I had heard of AAF a lot when I was in college. My teacher always encouraged us to submit work to the Addy awards, but I never fully understood what it was until my friends started submitting their work (and getting awards)—which made me realize what a prestigious competition that it was. It’s something that I probably should have submitted work for, but I was always too embarrassed to admit work for it, so I never did.
Even so, I don’t regret that I never submitted my own work back in those days because I know that I can submit better work now.
How did you become a judge?
I actually asked Jennifer, who was the organizer for AAF Spokane this year, that same question. She said they had a list of designers that they went through and asked to participate—they basically wanted people who were completely out of region and who wouldn’t have any idea who the people submitting the work were.
She also wanted us to all have different backgrounds: I was chosen as a web designer, Alan is a copywriter, Holly is a teacher and creative partner, and Scott is the founder and creative director of his company.
Do you have any ideas as to what made you stand out in the web design community?
I don’t know if it was my design work or if it was the fact that I was from Denver, far away from the Spokane design community.
I do think that the work I’ve done since I’ve started at Ascend has been very strong, though, so perhaps that was what caught their attention when they sought me out.
How many judges were there?
We had a team of four judges from all across the US. I had the pleasure of meeting and working with Holly Robbins, from Minneapolis, Minnesota; Scott Creamer, from Austin, Texas; and Alan Macfarlane from Salt Lake City, Utah.
How was it working with these judges? What was the journey from strangers to your final dinner together?
Before we arrived in Spokane, we were all part of an email chain, we had already exchanged numbers, and were all very eager to meet each other. Holly and I were picked up together at the airport around 1, so I got to know her pretty immediately. Scott arrived around 2:30, and we all met up at the hotel bar around 3.
The three of us were getting a drink when Angela, our host for the evening, just came right up to the bar and said, “hey, are you guys the judges for Spokane? I’m Angela.”
We had no idea who this tiny person was, but she had Alan with her, who she had picked up from the airport. She asked if we were all hungry—we all happened to be starving, so we walked down to a couple local restaurants.
First was the Gilded Unicorn, then Ruins, and all the while, we got to know each other at dinner, by discussing what our backgrounds and creative journeys were. Essentially, we had a quick rundown along the lines of, “who are you, and what are you doing here as a judge?”
How did it feel being on a team?
I was a little intimidated when we first met because I felt less experienced than the other judges, and I was younger than the rest, too. However, being around them made me feel like I was one of the “big dogs,” which was great.
Two of us had never been judges before, so for Alan and I, it was a totally new experience, but Holly and Scott have both judged before, so they had a better idea of what to expect and what to do.
That was definitely helpful when it came time for us to officially begin the judging.
At first, all of us went around together, going through piece by piece, but eventually, we all started to go at our own pace. Before we left each room, we’d go back to look at certain submissions that were on the cusp of being a gold or silver, and we’d chat about what stood out about it (both good and bad).
We all got along swimmingly. It was kind of amazing how, throughout the whole day, we didn’t have any issues or tension. We had the mentality of “majority rules” when it came to voting on the winners, so the whole process was very democratic and easygoing.
What type of work did you have to judge?
We had two formats to judge. The first were digital entries, both student and professional. There were about 150 submissions that we had to judge the week before we were flown out to Spokane.
The second format was print: once we got to the actual competition, we had about 300 print materials to judge on Saturday, also both student and professional.
There were a bunch of different categories, and each category has subcategories. We had about 142 professional digital entries, but those would be broken down into film, which was then broken down into cinematography, sound and editing, animation, and so on.
All of those elements came into play, so we couldn’t judge every piece the same way. We had to objectively look at the category and decide if the digital entry suited that category rather than another one.
For example, you could have an amazing interview story for your video, which would have excelled in the campaign category, but if the designer submitted for sound and editing instead, it might have gotten a lower score if the sound was hard to hear or if it didn’t show a lot of editing.
Sometimes, unfortunately, people shot themselves in the foot just by selecting the wrong category to compete in.
You can also submit the same thing for different categories, which is wise to do. I remember seeing a poster submitted twice: it stood out to me the first time in the marketing category because I really liked the illustration, but the text was hard to read from afar, so it didn’t hold up very well.
However, they submitted the same poster again for illustration, so I was able to give it a higher score in that category because it was better off there.
Did you notice a big difference between student and professional submissions?
I was surprised by the student work, actually. It’s very easy to tell who will make waves in the industry based off of their submissions. I had a few peers in college who set the bar so high that the rest of us would get B’s, and those are the types of students submitting work to this particular competition.
That being said, students have a lot of liberty; they don’t have the same client feedback and (sometimes strict) creative direction given to them that professionals do. I think some of the professional work wasn’t as fun because they had more limitations, but they still had stunning work due to experience and practice.
Either way, submitting work to the American Advertising Awards can be fun. I think that whatever you submit should be something that you feel has your own creative mark on it. If you have a client who gave you total creative freedom, and you made something that speaks about your and your personal style as a result, then that’s the type of work I would want to submit and also to judge. However, if you are a professional, and the client fought you every step of the way, and the end result is not something that you had envisioned or wanted, I wouldn’t submit something like that. After all, it’s not really your design at that point—it’s what someone else wanted you to create for them.
Did you get to enjoy Spokane itself?
YES! The food was amazing. It was really awesome because Angela (@come.eat.with.me) was our host, and the first place that we went to was literally 2 blocks from our hotel. Even in the short walk over, she ran into several people that she knew.
I quickly caught on that Angela knew pretty much everyone in the city, including the hosts and waiters at the restaurants that we visited. That alone made the experience feel like we were on a private, non-touristy crash tour of Spokane.
One of the judges was gluten free, so we always had to have some sort of gluten free options (which I’m used to), but we didn’t really have our own entrees. Angela would have us look at the menu and each say something that we thought looked good or wanted to try, and then we would share lots of small plates—it was a new and unique way to sample the local cuisine for sure. We tried tons of different things even though we were only in Spokane for 2 nights.
I’m not normally a small plate person, so getting to experience that was a lot of fun for me. I would go back and eat everything I tried again and again.
If you were to do it again, what would you do differently?
I wish I had time to judge more digital entries before I got to Spokane. I knew that I was going to be getting to Spokane earlier than the rest of the judges, so I left myself some homework for Friday afternoon.
Because everyone met up at the bar shortly after my arrival, I ended up having to judge those entries after we had all gotten together and gone out to dinner. I wish I had left myself that evening to go back and look through my scores for the digital entries, for on Friday, I had a much better idea of where the bar was set and how to rank the submissions. I could have used that time to adjust some of my scores had I planned ahead a little more.
Being a first-time judge, I was a little overwhelmed by how many submissions I had to get through before we even got to Washington. I think they could have been better about letting the judges know they would have about 8 hours of digital submissions to judge along with the full day of print judging. That way, we could have spaced out the digital entries across more time and avoided any kind of burnout with the steadier pace.
Would you change anything about the process?
The biggest critique (that was unanimous between the judges) was that we all wish we could have seen all of the digital entries per category all at once. With the way the system is set up, it has you individually click on each submission, which can be a little tedious and time-consuming.
What was nice about judging the print is that it’s all laid out in a single place, and we could walk around the room and get an idea of where the bar should be set. Meanwhile, for the digital entries, the judges can only see them one at a time, which leaves no point of reference for all of the work.
In my opinion, looking at past winners would not be a good solution to helping the process be more organized. I think it’s irrelevant because our tech is constantly changing, and design trends change every year, too.
Would you be a judge for AAF again if chosen?
Absolutely! I think that judging was a lot of fun.
It felt great to give back to such a wonderful organization and to see the exciting and talented work from so many designers.
Besides, I’ve never been wined, dined and asked to be a judge before, so that’s something that I can now check off my bucket list.