Awards: handle with care

Murray Streets explains how an obsession with awards risks eclipsing our care for people, and why a focus on the intrinsic worth of what we do as an industry matters more than ever.


In June each year the Cannes Festival of Creativity usually takes place. In light of the global Covid-19 pandemic this year’s event has been cancelled and replaced by Lions Live offering perspectives and discussion on our industry and its future.

Cannes has always been seen as the pinnacle of creative award shows, however the number of awards shows now available to enter has mushroomed over the years. Every month it seems there’s another request for entries to another awards show.

But why is it that ourindustry has such a high volume of award shows? By contrast, other professional services like architecture, design, accountancy, consulting and law seem far less preoccupied with entering multiple local, regional and global awards.

Is there something unique to our industry that accounts for this?

It may well be the case. I was attending a leadership course at The London Business School in 2013 and during a session on resilience as leaders our course Professor unexpectedly singled me out as working in a field “where, Murray, you hear ‘no’ to your ideas on a daily or weekly basis, far more often than in other fields”. 

The development and pitching of ideas does bring with it a heightened vulnerability when your ideas are constantly being judged and mostly, turned down. The psychological attrition it produces may well see us seek out alternative sources of validation. The kind of validation that winning awards readily provide.

For many, awards shows are just part and parcel of our industry. A necessary and healthy way to reward and celebrate the best of our craft. As humans this kind of validation can urge us to greater heights.  Nothing wrong with a healthy carrot or two. For our creatives, they have been long defined as the currency of success to progress in the industry, get the raise, the next title and juiciest projects.

Rewards can be addictive but demotivating

But these carrots are deeply problematic.

There a growing body of research that suggests rewards in sport, education and, by extension, business may well achieve opposite and detrimental effects.

In 1993 Alfie Kohn, an educational and behavioural researcher, published Punished by Rewards. From a meta-analysis of the research on rewards and motivation, he drew conclusions that were surprising for many in education.

For children, certificates are a form of extrinsic motivation, that is a reward is derived from factors outside ourselves as opposed to intrinsic motivation.

Kohn argued that they are harmful for a number of reasons:

Firstly, they detract attention from the opportunity to be intrinsically motivated. The sense of satisfaction that learners can feel in the moment of achievement acknowledged by immediate feedback is devalued by the hope of a certificate which might not be forthcoming.

Secondly, because awards are given subjectively, there is no clear criteria to the award, so it doesn’t serve as an effective tool for motivation, only raising hope and delivering disappointment for those that don’t attain them.

Thirdly, there is no learning opportunity afforded by them. Recipients and non-recipients alike don’t learn how to improve.

Ultimately, Kohn describes an obsession with rewards as undermining interest:

“The more we reward someone for doing something, the less interest they have in that thing.”

Grow through learning not laurels

There is a cost to focusing on awards for our ideas and outputs at the expense of developing the people who are responsible for coming up with them or implementing them. 

If we operate a culture where people are vulnerable and lack psychological safety because the narrow goal is always to win awards, then we’re neglecting one of the prime responsibilities of leadership: to nurture and grow talent that is equipped and confident to produce effective work.

In our own engagement surveys, team members repeatedly ask for more training, feedback, opportunities, and clarity on their career paths ahead. They want to work on projects of which they can be intrinsically proud. Projects that make a tangible difference for brands and businesses.  The majority don’t ask for the opportunity to enter more awards shows.

As we grapple with the current economic disruption, we should be focused on developing cultures and strengthening professional skills. This would be achieved more effectively by using real-time, micro-rewards that build a sense of intrinsic worth, healthier self-esteem and professional confidence. We should rely less on subjective ‘certificates’ and focus more on giving our time and perspective via regular specific feedback, positive reinforcement close to the moment and candid conversations to foster reflection and growth.

Invest in the cup of coffee, the shared sandwich and regular coaching. In my opinion it’s these, not trophies, that build intrinsic rewards and more sustainable businesses.

Award on the basis of evidence not opinion

So, where does that leave awards shows? Creative shows are notorious for their subjectivity and this is the characteristic we should strive to reduce as much as we can.

There is a case for staging the right quantity and quality of awards if they have the following characteristics:

  • They reduce subjectivity by asking for evidence
  • They prioritise effectiveness over novelty
  • They provide a genuine learning opportunity for others through detailed case studies

We will ultimately strengthen our industry’s reputation by strengthening the talents of those working in it. Our lack of influence at the Executive and Board tables will be addressed by developing more agency talent that have the credibility to take their places there.

As we continue to battle to survive and thrive through the current economic challenges, let’s commit to enter awards so much more selectively and dedicate the lion’s share of our focus to growing more effective advertising practitioners.

Evidence based awards have their place. But for more subjective award shows, the jury is surely still out.

Murray Streets is MD of BC&F Dentsu

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