Pins, Pencils and Pinnacles — the good, the bad and the ugly of awards

Andy Wright
Nov 22, 2016 · 6 min read

Anyone around me will know that I have a healthy cynicism when it comes to awards. As with so many things in our industry, I feel that what was once, well intended recognition has become wrought with ego and gamification.

So it feels slightly hypocritical to look at the IKEA shelves (no ego’s here!), to see them laden with the pins, pencils and pinnacles of recent hauls and feel pretty good.

I’ve had to question a lot of things over the last couple of years. Starting a business with 2 other highly opinionated and smart people demands that. One subject that we’ve hotly contested on many occasions is the investment in, and value of, awards.

The case against:

Let’s start with the bad and the ugly. We introduced many things into our business to remove the prospective damage of being torn apart by ego. No hierarchy, no titles, no unnecessary bureaucracy. We agreed that we’d only enter awards when we felt assured about the effectiveness of our work — and therefore that it was worthy.

But, it seems awards these days are in a spot of bother. What was meant to be shiny, well deserved recognition has become (in some cases), spin, lies, and somewhat tarnished by a contest of ‘mine is bigger than yours’. So it makes you feel uneasy about participating in them, yet alone winning them.

Then there’s the investment. The preparation of materials (you still have to send in boards?), postage, and entry fees. The hours set aside from paid work to make it all happen. In our case, over $30k of time writing and producing entries, time out of the office for events, gala dinners and ceremonies. A question of resources that leads to the big fish/small fish gap between the larger trawlers casting their net much wider and farther than the smaller ones who can’t compare in the perfectly polished video case study stakes.

All of this in order to gather and give ourselves an indulgent pat on the back.

But then, if we don’t, who will?

The case for:

Who doesn’t need a pat on the back now and again. All throughout my career, I’ve sought recognition. From winning global internal company awards, to industry awards, to emails from past team members or clients saying thanks — it’s difficult to replicate that feeling in any other way.

As I wrote above, at For The People, we’ve removed most forms of hierarchy in order to remove bureaucracy, and focus on building culture, a sense of team and great work. But, there is a danger in that approach. We’re potentially removing some essential pillars of recognition.

Now, in a perfect world, maybe ego’s shouldn’t matter. But as we’ve identified more and more over the past 2 years, we’ve built a highly competitive team. Be it treasure hunts, Pictionary, Dungeons and Dragons, Laser Tag, Halo or King of Tokyo — there has to be a winner. Someone recognised for their talent in obliterating the rest of the team. So, to remove this from work-related projects, probably isn’t a good idea.

It gets built back in when we heavily invest in the success of our clients. For example, continuing to track and proactively help raise funds for the new shelter for Sydney Dogs and Cats Home, or continuing to monitor new sign-ups and opportunities for Streamtime. And while we’re building such a collaborative culture, it’s human nature for highly motivated, creative people to also want to thrive individually. Because they won’t be with us forever.

Therefore, it’s important that we allow other forms of recognition to exist. Awards being one of them.

On Saturday night (19/11/16) in Adelaide, I witnessed first hand what it meant to the team. I don’t think anyone expected what we would walk away with. In fact, you should never expect to win awards. But secretly, and naturally, we all would have hoped to be recognised in a large hall of our peers — very talented designers and friends from across Australia and New Zealand, at the annual Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA) awards. A name that is a little out of date in all honesty (given the breadth of skills and disciplines it now encompasses). It’s just human nature. With 7 distinctions, and 2 pinnacles, we also were very surprised, and to be honest, humbled to receive agency of the year.

AGDA Awards

For some of the team, those that have been around for a year or more, I’d imagine that it was not only recognition for some significant skill and talent, but also affirmation, for keeping faith in a business that has experimented with them for just over 2 years. It may also have been a great pick-me-up for those that — from time-to-time — suffer from insecurities in a highly competitive environment. Stepping up on stage to receive recognition for your work is a great way to achieve that.

Is there a risk of our star players being identified and getting poached? Maybe, but I honestly don’t mind. We’ve got great people and they make their own decisions. We built a culture of transparency, we don’t and shouldn’t hide our talent. They should have every opportunity to succeed for themselves — be it with us or without us.

For those that have only recently joined, it was probably affirmation of making the right decision, especially when there were so many other good options and offers in front of them.

image courtesy of AGDA/GettyImages

Then, there are the clients. Of course it’s nice to know that your brand has been recognised as one of the best. But, in one case for us, it was actually part of the brief.

Aaron, the founder of Streamtime is a pretty humble bloke. He’d much rather see others looked after and succeed, than crow about his own accomplishments. But his quest for awards wasn’t ego related at all. It was business related. When you make software for the creative industry, where’s the best possible place that you could showcase it to make that industry stand up and take notice of it? Answer, the industry awards. So our brief from Aaron was simple.

For many agencies you couldn’t ask for a better brief. And at the same time, you couldn’t ask for a more trusting client. Having fulfilled one objective (Streamtime powers our business), we’ve now hit the second objective. Streamtime has won recognition at Sydney Design Awards, The Best Awards and achieved a Pinnacle at the AGDA awards. It’s getting noticed, trialled and paid for by many new agencies each day. The perfect storm of business success and a pat on the back for all involved.

They’re not so bad — if you’re comfortable with entering them for the right reasons

If you’d asked me 2 years ago if we’d be entering many awards at For The People, I’d have probably sneered and said, “If we have to, to keep people happy”.

But that’s before I better understood the people, and myself. Founding and owning a business with others is a totally unselfish exercise. I’ve learnt that over the last couple of years. If you keep your eyes open and focus on what makes people happy, you’ll find that a healthy dose of reward and recognition will come your way.

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