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Jack Daniels and very little else at the US DMA awards

As our 4pm flight left Atlanta, there came the first clue that things were going to be different, writes Rory Sutherland, executive creative director and vice-chairman of OgilvyOne.

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When the stewardess began to take orders for in-flight beverages I was waiting for the usual litany I'd heard often before on US flights further north: people ordering drinks without things -- decaffeinated coffee, decarbonated cola, low-hydrogen Pepsi -- that kind of thing.

Here it was different. Every one of my fellow passengers asked for "Jack". "Jack on the rocks", "Neat Jack", "Jack and Coke". In the South, Mr Daniels' customers are all on first-name terms.

That was the first surprise: there were a few more to come.

1) The discovery that cajun food is not (as I had suspected) a tourist gimmick -- it is very, very good;

2) That St Charles Street is perhaps the handsomest four miles of road anywhere in the world;

3) That 90% of the capacity crowd attending a Saints-Vikings Game at the Louisiana Superdome reach the stadium by way of the sports bar at our hotel and;

4) That Bourbon Street on Saturday is the most drunken place I have ever seen.

But in a town of surprises, nothing could prepare us for the surrealism of the US DMA Awards event. It was held in a convention centre so vast it could have hangared a squadron of B52s; begun with a lunch at 11am; compered by a comic who impersonated people entirely unknown to the overseas audience (she was a trouper, but we soon realised why most comedy clubs do not do successful business in the mornings); and climate controlled by air conditioning so powerful we were practically in cryogenic suspension by the end of the show.

The results were unexpected, too. Very few golds were awarded, with whole uber-categories such as IT and Pharmaceuticals awarded only silvers and bronzes, and one (Communications/Utilities) with no more than a paltry pair of bronzes.

It was, as ever, a good year for the Commonwealth (NZ and Australia especially), but a fairly dismal year for the Brits. BA's excess baggage department would not have been much troubled this year (Story with the sole UK gold for Glenmorangie plus a bronze for Velux; TBWA/GGT, Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel, and ourselves with bronzes respectively for Prudential, Orange and IBM). Among the networks, it was a pleasant return to dominance for OgilvyOne with 13 pieces of metal to Proximity's six.

But why was the UK's haul so way down in New Orleans? Is it because the creative work, which the US DMA celebrates, is rather formulaic and outdated, with UK work now too avant-garde for the American judges (and the awards committee this year was exclusively peopled by Americans, with not even a lone Canadian for a bit of diversity). Or is it that we simply aren't as good as we were?

These two explanations are not mutually exclusive, much as we may like to think so. But if we want to be asking for Jack on the flight home from the DMA in Atlanta in 2005, something will have to change -- if only the work we choose to enter.

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