The judging panel at this year's industry awards gives low marks for creativity as wary clients tighten their purse-strings A cut in marketing budgets triggered by the Sars outbreak and the economic downturn has stifled creativity in advertising, with agencies preferring safe campaigns to making bold statements. At this year's Association of Accredited Advertising Agents of Hong Kong (HK4As), just seven advertising campaigns were given gold awards compared with 16 last year. The number of silver awards dropped to 23 from 25, while bronze awards fell to 47 from 53. 'Most of the judges said they were not pleased,' said Tan Khiang, an HK4As creative committee member and M&C Saatchi executive creative director. 'Their ideas are not as brave [as in the past]. They tend to be a bit safer.' HK4As has held the annual industry awards - one of Asia's largest advertising events - since 1984. It covers 53 categories spanning print, television, radio, outdoor, direct marketing and interactive advertising. Ogilvy & Mather Hong Kong dominated this year's awards, picking up three golds, nine silvers, 17 bronzes and 13 merits. The total number of awards increased to 173 from 169 last year but Mr Tan said this was because HK4As handed out 21 more merits this year compared with last year. 'The quality did not improve ... People have been very cautious in spending money,' he said. Media monitoring house Carat Media Services said advertising spending in Hong Kong was expected to drop 4 per cent from last year to US$4.28 billion but rise 5 per cent to $4.5 billion next year with the improving global economy. 'It has not been a good year. Because of Sars, there were three to four months in which we lost advertising,' Mr Tan said. HK4As found the dearth of creativity so pronounced it did not bestow any awards in 11 of its 52 categories, such as cinematography and ads for alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages. 'Obviously, people have gone into a safety mode,' said Rob Sherlock, Asia-Pacific executive director at advertising agent FCB. 'As safe is better, advertising became less creative ... Some of my peers in the industry told me it is possibly the lowest standard in a number of years, if not ever.' Advertisers this year tended to use animation or puppets to pitch products instead of hiring expensive well-known directors and actors. Food maker Nestle created a series of television animations which HK4As judges found remarkable. 'They are very cheap to produce [and well-remembered by viewers],' Mr Tan said, adding that if clients were not willing to spend much on advertising then agencies had to come up with new ideas. HK4As judges also found television advertisements from City Telecom, which won a silver award, notable. The advertisements used puppet pigs to poke fun at Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa while promoting the firm's phone services. 'That one got a lot of attention because you never see that in advertising in Hong Kong: using politics to sell something,' Mr Tan said. The domestic and global economies are expected to strengthen next year but this might not lead to bigger advertising budgets and hence improved creativity. 'When you can do something for $500 this year, why do you need to pay $1,000 next year?' Mr Tan said. 'An economic recovery doesn't help us but it means [clients] have more money that could be spent on media. 'Although advertising firms might start employing again after downsizing this year, they might not employ the best people. The industry might not get better.'