Younger Creatives Are Increasingly Dismayed With Awards Shows

Many feel they're working toward making something that feels empty

Blue trophies in the foreground; marketers shaded in pink looking at paper, writing in notebooks and typing on computers; yellow spotted background.
Many awards ceremonies don't hold such a special place for younger creatives. Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Sources: Unsplash
Headshot of Erik Oster

While older executives sipped rosé on yachts, younger creatives are asking, “Cannes U Not?”

The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity recently wrapped up awards show season to much fanfare. But a younger generation of creatives remains cynical of the awards process.

Some view such awards as a necessary evil for career advancement, others a flawed execution of a noble idea and some are simply apathetic. There’s a sense among many that the work receiving these accolades is often manufactured specifically for the process, overhyped by case study videos to appeal to the same predictable juries.

David Felton, a 31-year-old copywriter for London agency Kindred, explained that he’s cynical about awards while also aware that they are “the best way to catapult your career forward.”

Felton said the awards show process favors larger agencies who can afford to submit across dozens of categories while the cost of submissions is a higher barrier for entry for smaller shops.

“If we want an equal playing field, then we should stop agencies pursuing this pay-to-play model where they enter hundreds of pieces of work and generally walk away with trophies,” he said.

“The problem arises when advertising creatives start creating ads for awards juries,” he explained. “It’s a dangerous path to be on—as an industry—when almost every ad creative is motivated by winning an award and not actually doing their jobs.”

While awards shows have cracked down on fake work solely created for awards juries, co-founder of BBH and TBWA John Hegarty said last year that the problem isn’t going away. For instance, a controversy arose this year when an artist claimed a bronze Lion-winning print campaign used stock images that copied his style.

“Our bullshit detector is higher,” M/H VCCP copywriter Amanda Burger, 29, said. “I want to know it’s real and actually ran in the world,” she added.

"Awards play to our vanity when so many creatives believe they're immune to advertising. But we're being played. Awards sell recognition."
—David Felton, copywriter, Kindred

Burger and M/H VCCP art director Colleen Horne, 30, created a card game called “Cannes U Not” to parody over-the-top, transparent award show pandering campaigns. Players draw brands to match with a social issue and take turns pitching ideas to solve or promote the issue.

“The award shows create this sausage factory for creative work that gets pushed through and comes out the other side winning Lions,” Horne said.

Horne and Burger blame the preponderance of repeated jury members in part for the type of formulaic work they parody with Cannes U Not. Horne suggested a rule where one-third of members on a given jury haven’t served as jury members in the past.

The perception of many award-winning campaigns as hollow leads some creatives to feel apathetic about awards.

“I think most people my age and younger just don’t really care,” freelance creative and Denver Ad School founder Jesse Alkire, who graduated from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in 2008, said. Alkire recalls working at a large agency where his team was tapped to pitch 10 ideas to submit to Cannes, with an emphasis on speed and cost-efficiency.

While many agencies tout the concept that “a good idea is a good idea,” Burger said, “it doesn’t always see the light of day unless you have the power within the agency to really push it forward.” It’s usually those who have already “cracked the code” for awards submissions.

The industry’s emphasis on awards recognition as a barometer for success may help entrench existing barriers for those who don’t have the kind of connections that help land award recognition.

“It’s a weird crutch,” Horne said. “A lot of people in the industry hold onto money and power and say, ‘You don’t have an award’ as a means to not promote you.”

The divide is exacerbated as shrinking budgets mean some agencies are sending fewer creatives to awards shows, with spots mostly reserved for senior-level creatives.

“I see a lot of agencies sending only leadership [to awards shows]. I think that’s a mistake. I think we should be selective in sending the right people,” Arnold ecd Fred Saldanha said, adding that agencies should send a diverse group of people so junior employees can benefit from the cultural and networking benefits.

Horne said she believes agencies should allot money for younger creatives to attend award shows, even if they don’t have work submitted, instead of sending the same executives every year.

“That would be great to inspire young talent,” she said. “There are so many people who never get to go into that rotation [to] be a part of it.”

The industry’s over-emphasis on awards isn’t only a problem for younger creatives. It can also lead to agencies overlooking effective ideas for clients at a time when the agency-client relationship is at an all-time low.

Ultimately, these issues may be holding advertising back from the type of progress desired by creatives and clients alike.

“Awards play to our vanity when so many creatives believe they’re immune to advertising. But we’re being played. Awards sell recognition. And everyone is buying, regardless of the price,” Felton said.

@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.