Awards and Events in association withCreative Circle

Judging the Future: Where Next for Awards Shows?

New York, USA
Amidst a difficult year for awards shows, Accenture Interactive global managing director Jon Wilkins and former RBS CMO David Wheldon reflect on how best to recognise great work in a changing industry

When it comes to envisioning a post-pandemic creative industry, it appears the only certainty is radical change. The chaos of the past few months has upended much of what we thought we knew, and old certainties are being questioned. 

One such certainty has been the role of awards shows. In 2020, some have become online-only affairs, whilst others had to face outright cancellation. The result has been an industry learning to live without the annual rhythm of these glittering affairs - a new habit which many hope will be easy to break.

So, what does the future hold for the model of a global awards programme as we know it? Will there be radical changes in a post-lockdown world, or has the time apart made us realise what we’re truly missing? 

To reflect on an uncertain future, we spoke to Wilkins and Wheldon for their thoughts.

Q > From your perspectives, why is it important for the creative industries to celebrate the best work? 

David > I think all human beings need recognition. That’s at our very core, and there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s a way of celebrating great effort and work. It’s an important currency – sometimes literally – when a Cannes Lion leads to greater wages and a promotion for the winner. And so, I think it’s been a great shame that this year the fundamental human desire to be recognised, seen, and celebrated has been missing. 

Jon > And of course it’s an incredible motivator, professionally speaking. Both intrinsic and extrinsic, because naturally an award is a nice thing to have but also, you’re measuring against the best in the world. I’ve been going to awards shows for thirty years, and each time I come away excited and frustrated in equal measure because I've seen stuff I wish we’d done. We’re all magpies at heart and the shows are an opportunity to see what’s really out there, beyond your own bubble. 

Q > You were both recently involved with the Accenture Interactive internal ‘Spotlights’ awards. How did you find that experience?

David > The Spotlights reminded me of what a great awards show looks like. There was smart judging criteria, around the intersection of purpose and innovation. Some of the work that has been awarded is work which will lead to interest in the business purpose of Accenture Interactive. I was really impressed with how joined-up and useful the whole thing felt, and there’s something to learn for other shows in the future. 

Jon > It feels like we’re on a journey in Accenture Interactive, like a start-up within a behemoth. We’re finding our flavour, as all the big agencies have. I don't want us to be control freaks, but it's nice to celebrate something that's unique to the skills we’re championing at Accenture, those being tech and purpose. And that feels different to what everyone else is doing and it's important to have a sort of ‘north star’ as the destination for the kind of work we want to make. And one other thing to say is that all of the judges were from outside the company, so we were still able to generate that sense of our work being part of a wider picture. 

Q > How do you see the benefits of small, internal or non-profit awards shows vs the big global showpiece events?

Jon > Yeah, they do very different things, but both play important roles. I think internal awards are firstly about getting everyone together and celebrating your own culture, helping to define yourselves. With the smaller shows, as well, perhaps they’re part of a cycle in the calendar that builds up. If you ask a seasoned creative here, they would say it's all about gathering momentum through the awards circuit, building up a head of steam around your work which is kind of intangible and priceless. 

David > As for the bigger shows, they’re an unmissable opportunity to play a role in something that’s bigger and more inclusive than anything else out there. They speak far beyond the walls of our own industry. I remember about five years ago looking at what was on the beach at Cannes, and it was the likes of Google and Microsoft and these tech giants who want to connect with and understand the creative industries. And by the way, there's nothing wrong with the fun aspect of those events, either. So, the opportunity to let your hair down and have a party is missed, as well. 

It must be said, however, these larger shows are getting more expensive. And even pre-Covid you would find yourself asking every year whether you can afford to go and how you might come across to other people if you did. I know my boss would have in the back of his mind that he was essentially sending me off for a booze-up by the beach. Meetings in the morning, wine in the afternoon, party in the evening. I am a massive fan of awards, but the money-making bit is going to be interesting going forward, because there's not a lot of it around wherever you care to look.

Q > Speaking of the financial side, do you think the spending power of the big players puts creativity off an even keel at the global award shows? 

Jon > I know that’s an argument a few people make, but I’m not sure it necessarily rings true. Back in my old agency days, I was at a small agency and we would enter maybe five things in a year and win awards for two. So, it is possible. You then also have the phenomenon of theoretically smaller markets like Australia and New Zealand, who have always smashed it and done disproportionately better than their market size suggests. If you look at the work that wins, regardless of the names involved, I think quality is the biggest factor.  

Q > What value do you feel awards shows bring brand-side? 

David > Over time I have really appreciated how hard it is to win recognition. As I say, human recognition is important and inside a client organisation, and there are so many benefits - for example at the RBS group we were winning lots of awards for internal comms and that was a powerful tool for us. Additionally, we’ve seen in previously dull categories, perhaps the mobile phone sector, awards can lift up the quality of the overall work. So human recognition, efficacy, and category recognition makes them all really important. 

Jon > Efficacy is the one you hear all the time. The IPA Effectiveness Award, for example, shows that your communications have led to outcomes. And that is gold dust. If you look at the Cannes database there is absolutely a link between those campaigns and those which have performed best. I mean look at Fernando at Burger King! Originally he was the maven on the scene because he was only focused on awards, but if you look at his commitment to creativity and bringing success to the business now… well, he wouldn't have kept that job so long if he wasn't delivering outcomes. 

Q > What value do you feel the industry has lost from the lack of awards shows this year, and what would be the impact of shows skipping another year?

Jon > I appreciate that some have gone digital for this year with some success, but of course then you lose the whole kind of atmosphere you had with a live show. The events are about progress in the industry, and they’re milestones in the creative calendar. Not to mention simply an opportunity for everyone to get together. They’re a fundamental part of the progress of our industry and it's a shame that hasn't happened.

Generally, if you speak to senior creatives they are frustrated because it's an annual opportunity to benchmark themselves and how much they’re pushing the envelope. And the idea of rolling two years into one doesn't really compute, for that reason. That’s the creative frustration. For me personally, I’ve missed out on the opportunity to compare myself to the competition and inspire myself.

David > Outside of awards, most clients tend to focus too much on their own business and navel-gaze. Awards have always been an opportunity to open up, and now everyone is back navel-gazing again. So that’s a shame, and I think having the same thing play out next year would compound the problem.

Q > Have you watched any of the virtual shows?

Jon > Never mind watching them, I’ve got to deliver one this evening! To be honest, I watched one or two and it wasn't much fun. That being said, I have still taken note of the stuff that wins as I still believe in the judging criteria. 

David > I’m of the same mind as Jon, I watched to see the winners but it's a bit like going to the cinema on your own, in that what you miss is the ability to talk about the awards afterwards. And that often ends up being the most enjoyable part! In fairness, I am told those who incorporated chat rooms off the side have worked well. 

Q > And to what extent do you feel that this year is going to fundamentally change the way awards shows operate?

Jon > I think that David hit the nail on the head, earlier. People are going to want to save money and that's very understandable, but there is also a human need to come together, celebrate, and compare. The future of these shows lies in finding the right compromise between those two things.

David > For me, the future is going to be a combination of high tech and high touch. One thing that I absolutely think we have seen throughout this horrible period is how much we miss connecting with people. I think awards shows will flourish again, but yes, they will need to be more cost effective in order to do so.

Jon > Just on that, when it comes to the expense of Cannes why not use this idea that seems to be doing the rounds of regional heats? It would still be fun and there wouldn't be quite so much cost in terms of everyone flying to one far-flung location. 

David > One consideration to include here is that Cannes as a city depends on the income, of course. 

Jon > That’s true. The advertising forum is second only to the porn festival in terms of the income it brings, I hear...  It's hard to beat the decadence of the creativity festival but they've managed it! It must be mind-blowing.

Q > Finally, if you were to design an ideal award show for the industry moving forward, what would it look like?  

David > One thing you can do right off the bat is cut out the twaddle. And one thing that's irritated me along the way is watching work that's quite clearly been made just to win awards. I think a solution to both of those problems is to have fewer awards, and making the show three days max, not across a whole week. Less is more! Oh, and make sure you can film the whole thing so that you can make content out of it which is shareable. We’ve been watching a lot lately which is drivel!

Jon > Making it global is really important. Less awards, yes, but more prestigious and global. One criticism of Cannes when you compare it to SXSW is that the latter is sprawling with more opportunities to learn. When you think about the main stage at Cannes, it's a bit rock and roll. Like Omnicom coming out and saying, ‘we’ve got Bob Dylan’. Whereas SXSW is much more varied. If you want to learn about AI and creativity then there’s twenty or so events. I like that diversity of platforms, and I think there’s a bright future to be had for the shows which want to cater to that. 

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