Beware the trap inherent in trophy culture

We should not mistake recognition for mastery. I'm afraid I know a few people whose careers peaked at a gold Lion as a result.

There are a number of parallels between Cannes and school prize-givings. They happen at roughly the same time of year. They tend to be hot and moderately bothersome. They drag on. There are slightly awkward encounters with people you vaguely know and who want to tell you about Ucas or GDPR. Management consultants now lurk along the promenades rather like teachers in corridors, stifling the rising sense of giddiness with bracing conversations about next year’s curriculum and discounted cashflow methodology.

But the greatest similarity of all is the pervasive sense of inadequacy. 

There is something uniquely dispiriting about awards ceremonies. First, most people have lost. So why have we gone? 

Even if you win, the victory can feel hollow. Perhaps it was for a product that never really made the open market, or an ad that only awards juries have seen. 

Perhaps there were voting blocs or favouritism involved. Or the clout of a big network on whose finances the whole jamboree depends. Perhaps it was none of these, and the prize was won utterly on merit. That’s good, but a lot of people will still find a reason to quibble and dissent. Inadequacy and resentment often go hand-in-hand.

As you may have guessed, I am not the greatest devotee of awards ceremonies. But I will grudgingly concede that, divorced from the ceremonials, awards do have an important role to play. 

A good awards process provides a valuable precis of creative excellence. The Cannes juries do the hard work of editing thousands of entries into 28 Grands Prix. 

The resultant list of winners tends to be a brilliant shortcut to the best of the previous year’s creativity (yes, even if the ad never really ran). You learn much about new thinking, creative leaps, craft skills and commercial innovation. 

Awards, of course, also act as a benchmarking exercise. They give the industry a target to aim for in the year ahead by telling us what is most admired by the creative community and also, sometimes, by the consumer. They can therefore help everyone raise their game. 

In a curious way, the Super Bowl break has become a kind of awards ceremony in its own right. Every advertiser knows how rigorously its ad will be judged and therefore strives for excellence. 

Perhaps we should see every break as a Super Bowl break, and every creative brief as a brief for an awards entry. It would keep us on our toes.

Arguably the most important function of awards, though, is recognition. Awards are an objective(ish) way of acknowledging talent and creativity. Careers can be made thanks to an awards win, and a gold Lion (of which about 230 are awarded each year) can have a big impact on salary. But we should not mistake recognition for mastery. I’m afraid I know a few people whose careers peaked at a gold Lion as a result. 

It’s a trap that’s inherent in trophy culture. In his book entitled Mastery, George Leonard makes an astute observation: "We’ll never know how much a human being can truly achieve, until we realise that the ultimate reward is not a gold medal but the path itself."

I was reminded of this the other day when I was lucky enough to hear a leading sportsman, still in his pomp with the World Cup beckoning, talk about his experience of being a professional athlete. 

He talked of injuries, disciplinaries and defeats, but he never once mentioned a trophy he’d won – although there are plenty to his name. His point, of course, is that victory doesn’t define you; it’s how you react to setbacks that makes you a winner. 

Mastery can never be measured in trophies. At best, they’re a way of keeping score.

So, at the risk of sounding like a headteacher at a prize-giving, we should applaud those who have won this year’s garlands. But the real prize is next year, and the years after.* Which is why a prize won, in my view, is always tinged with melancholy. 

There is something rather poignant about a trophy cabinet. Unless it’s empty, waiting to be filled. Then it’s all upside. 

*On which note, hats off to Steve Vranakis and his plan to transform the D&AD Annual into a Manual for the next generation of creatives. Let’s hope this, and the "Win one, teach one" concept, will move awards away from being a legacy in the bank and towards being a down payment on the future.

Charles Vallance is the founder and chairman of VCCP


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