CANNES, France—Before Publicis CEO Arthur Sadoun rattled the ad industry by putting a one-year ban on his staff entering award shows, one of the world’s most iconic agencies considered doing the same thing.
But when Wieden + Kennedy was considering the move 18 months ago, the independent agency’s leadership did something Sadoun seemingly did not: They asked their staff for feedback. And they got an earful.
“What it felt like was that a bunch of senior people had climbed a ladder that they were then pulling up behind themselves,” W+K CCO Colleen DeCourcy told Adweek today in Cannes. “Because it is true these creatives get promoted, get raises, get known by winning awards. It would be stealing part of their career path from them.”
While the Publicis decision was largely a financial one, W+K’s motivation was to find a better way to reward employees’ work, DeCourcy said. The W+K leadership team had been exploring new ways to celebrate creative accomplishments, such as running paid ads to celebrate the creators of work they were proud of.
While award shows can build careers and help the industry evolve, agencies find the competitions also have their share of negatives, such as fueling internal politics, engendering bitterness among non-winners and exposing emerging talents to a high level of global scrutiny.
“We wanted to make a statement that says, ‘We’re not like those mothers putting you in a beauty pageant,'” DeCourcy said. “We believe in you. Let’s find a way to reward your creativity that isn’t about throwing you into the shark tank.”
The plan was to take a year off from award show entries and spend the money creating a new system for employee recognition. But when the leadership floated the plan internally, it landed with a thud.
“We talked to the creative leaders of each office, and they talked to their creative directors,” DeCourcy said. “People were disappointed. We were moving the ladder, and we didn’t feel like what we had in its place was as robust yet as the ladder.”
W+K execs suspect that Publicis would have heard similar feedback if the agency network had asked its teams for feedback before announcing the news to the outside world.
“The thing [Publicis] did wrong was making a public statement before they talked to their own people,” said W+K Global COO Neil Christie. “They had something that had a big impact on their own internal creative culture, and they hadn’t told people internally before announcing it publicly.”
DeCourcy admits that the potential for PR backlash—similar to the high-profile critics coming out against Publicis’ award ban—played a part in W+K’s decision to scrap its plan for an award hiatus.
“We didn’t want it to be a press factor. What’s to be gained by it? Are we going to be heroes because we pulled out of Cannes?” she said. “There was more negative than positive.”
Since backing off the idea more than a year ago, W+K has continued looking for internal ways to supplement the role that award shows play in the industry. Doing so also helps the agency stay focused on finding new ways to keep its staffers loyal and engaged.
“There’s a lot of talk about millennial employee retention: ‘Do you want to take your dog to work?’ ‘Do you want a skate park and yoga?’,” DeCourcy said. “These people want to be known. They want to be famous. They work hard enough, so they deserve it. So we were trying to figure that out, and quite frankly, we still are.”