What's the future for awards?

Award shows: what future?
Award shows: what future?

Let's start with an assertion we can all agree on: 2017 was a strange and disturbing year, politically, socially, culturally, environmentally and for our business.

As the advertising and design sector’s canary-in-the-cage (along with other glamorous indicators, like advance packaging orders and KFC family-size bucket sales), the awards business saw some worrying signs.

There’s been a palpable sense of dissatisfaction gathering around awards for a while now; mostly, but not solely, focused on the excesses of Cannes, and exacerbated by Publicis Groupe’s well documented decision to stay away from awards and other apparently discretionary industry events for a year. This has both hurt the numbers and underscored some of the questions that were already being asked.

These are familiar and valid. Are awards still relevant? Is the work real? Do clients care? What’s the return on a considerable investment? Is it just a numbers game that favours the big agencies and studios? Where’s the correlation between creatively awarded work and effectiveness? How do awards shows keep up with our rapidly evolving business? What, in today’s environment, is creativity anyway? Why are there so many shows? Which ones really matter? Do any?

The answers are also familiar, and they’re valid too.  Awards set a standard and inspire the industry.  They promote excellence which in turn creates better outcomes all round.  They record great work for posterity and are a powerful recruiting agent.  They are a vital spur to innovation and experimentation, encouraging individuals and companies to try harder and reach further. They help people and businesses to make their mark, become famous and prosper. The best are, in D&AD’s vocabulary, much more about stimulation than congratulation.

Also, not unimportantly, the industry in general and creative people in particular love them. It’s not an accident that every industry has them. We all seek the approval of our peers and we are, for the most part, intensely competitive. Awards keep the score.

But they, and we, have to change.  The basic formats are pretty much unaltered over the last 60 years. Work is entered; a group of senior, awarded creative people sit in judgement; votes are taken, glittering trophies are handed out to happy winners at an expensive-to-attend ceremony; PR machines grind into action; the disappointed think, "next year it’ll be different".

This isn’t really good enough. The industry faces major, existential issues. We are under unremitting remuneration pressure – being paid half as much to work twice as hard. AI, programmatic and automation are lessening the value we put on creativity and craft, in favour of a blinkered and ill-advised concentration on cost and efficiencies which are actually no such thing, to the detriment of our relevance and effectiveness. We have big diversity and gender balance problems that have to be addressed because they also threaten relevance and effectiveness. We are insufficiently well equipped – in terms of knowledge, experience, tools, skills and capabilities – to capture the high ground when it comes to purpose, sustainability and social enterprise. A growing number of clients are looking elsewhere for business solutions, or bringing the necessary skills in-house.

Some of this is inevitable. Industries are disrupted and forced to change or die.  And hard though this can sometimes be to keep in view, it’s also true that there has never been a more exciting time to be in our creative communication and commercial creativity sector. Of course it’s difficult to discern exactly where we are headed through the fog that is day-to-day life in advertising and design. But change and uncertainty always create opportunity for those fast, smart or lucky enough to grasp it.

None of us has the complete roadmap that will guide us into a prosperous future. But for sure, awards – new kinds of systems and schemes  have to help define that future and bring it about, if we are to maintain a value to the business we serve.

To this laudable end, the best shows (and obviously this includes D&AD) will continue to innovate and in doing so encourage innovation. They will reach out beyond the conventional community to new creative people in new sectors, embracing creative thinking of all kinds. They will stimulate, encourage and enable better, more sustainable, more ethical ways of doing business. They will continue to uphold the value of creativity, craft, innovation and disruption and help the industry, however defined, deliver in a way that is crucial and irreplaceable to the client community. They will become less expensive and more accessible, perhaps providing continuous feedback to the community. They will embrace contemporary culture and celebrate it as business messaging permeates our society. They will partner with other organisations with similar goals and values, in other sectors.

And some of them will do what we at D&AD have always done, which is to channel our surpluses back into the industry we serve, to provide the inspiration, learning, recruitment and year-round service that we believe is necessary for a healthy, vibrant sector. 

Awards are certainly part of the future for our business. But, longer term, perhaps not as we know them.

Tim Lindsay is the chief executive of D&AD and non-executive chairman of the Gate Worldwide.

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