So it’s award season again. Well — least it is at the D&AD — the one we all know about and keep tabs on.
At some point as a hungry ‘n’ thirsty new design agency eager to succeed, you mention the word ‘AWARDS’ amongst yourselves. You only need chat for less than a minute though as straight away reality kicks in when you consider the entry fees and who you’re up against. You soon realise you’re punching above your weight and think to yourselves ‘…what’s the point of wasting the money?…’ and back to work you toddle.
Mat Dolphin is coming up for its second year in business soon so awards are definitely something we’ve discussed (and dismissed) in our small studio on more than one occasion. With a heavy dose of risk involved entering into the fray, we wanted to explore some of the merits, pitfalls and woes of being a small agency in a big award pond.
Why are we even talking about awards?
Well, as a start-up you want exposure and bigger clients. You want the world to see your work and you want more money coming in. Maybe like us you just want to be financially secure so you can continue doing what you love. There’s plenty of ways I could earn more money than I do now, but they probably wouldn’t make me happy, and who wants to wear a suit everyday anyway? Our creative talents, expertise and experience are the commodity by which we earn, so why not promote those skills and get recognition for them?
So, winning an award is a about recognition. It’s a back-slap of approval. It’s the industry’s way of saying your work and creativity stands out and deserves appreciation. But getting ‘in’ isn’t easy. Let’s try and weigh this up rationally though before we get caught up on just the financial issue with some for and against arguments for entering in the first place:
Pros for entering:
-Morale boost for being nominated
—Everyone likes a pat on the back
-Cost of entry might be negligible compared to the confidence boost if you get nominated / win
—What would you pay to feel like that?
-You get to be involved in the awards
—The opportunity to schmooze with the ‘in crowd’
-Press coverage and PR Exposure
—You get to tout the phrase AWARD WINNING AGENCY on your site and to prospective clients
-Acknowledgment from your peers and the world
—You’ve made the big time and your thinking and creativity is respected
Cons for entering:
—You’ve not done this before so do you want or need your confidence knocked?
—You’ve got bills to pay rather and it feels like a low odds gamble
-It doesn’t change anything
—You still have to shop at Tesco’s
-There are no guarantees
—There aren’t many in life anyway, but why entertain not even getting nominated?
-The Competition is amazing
—They’ve been there and done it before, but more than that — you’re aware of who they are and that intimidates you
It’s fairly obvious from a start-up’s point of view what you’ll do then when considering entering into a award series based on these arguments: Nothing.
And to date that’s exactly what we’ve done too.
The problem at hand
The stumbling block here is that the CONS kick in way before you’ve even entered, and the PROS only kick in IF and when you get nominated. And even then you’re up against some pretty stiff competition. It’s the no guarantees thing that scares everyone off. And have you seen??? Michael Beirut is on the fucking panel!
When you haven’t won an award you focus on the entry fee first, and then competition as obstacles. I’ll come back to this but I think a big issue here is your own confidence, and confidence in the work itself.
We all know that awards can feel elitist and seem incredibly incestuous. The same people, same agencies, year on year. (You might want to read our previous post on Apple.com winning a coveted D&AD Black Pencil). And yes they cost a lot of money to enter. John Dowling of Dowling | Duncan knows this all to well and has recently written a piece for the Design Assembly entitled ‘No Contest — The less you enter the more you win‘. He highlights the varying and expensive entry fees for design awards and makes some interesting points about how fees could/should be relative to an agency’s size.
John makes some good points but ultimately he doesn’t answer his own statement that you win more by entering less. For him its a just a money issue: Why is it so expensive and what else could be done with that loot? Fair enough, but where does that leave us? Is our work better than yours then if neither of us enter?
The money issue is obviously more pertinent and relevant to us small folk with our teeny-weeny agencies, with as much to lose as we have to gain. But, like life, without risks there’s no reward. I’m more than happy to admit we’re daunted and bewildered by the whole idea of entering an award, and took this up on Friday 15th April with the D&AD on Twitter:
It’s very easy to be cynical and state it’s naturally within the D&AD’s interest to encourage entry into their not for profit awards (don’t mean to pick on the D&AD, but they do have the most current awards competition), but maybe they and Simon Bradley have a point — what about the work itself? And this brings me back to my above point about confidence.
Moving on up
At Mat Dolphin we’ve always said that great work will lead to more great work. If you put everything you can into your creativity surely the rewards will come. We’ve also long held to the idea of creating a ‘career defining’ piece of work that would put us on the map. A project whereby the fee is secondary to what you’re trying to achieve for the brief. Johnson Banks suggests this too in their post about whether it’s possible for a graphic designer to actually make any money. (It would be interesting to see whether Michael Johnson believes a career defining piece would necessarily be award worthy too — and does it matter if it’s not?) But with all this comes confidence in your work and self belief. Self belief that what you’re doing is actually pretty good.
As designers we should all want to challenge ourselves and convention. Yes it can be brief / budget dependent, but the most challenging aspect of work can also be convincing clients that conventions need to be challenged in order to create truly powerful and meaningful work. With new ideas comes inspiration for you and others and it could be this very same work that is potentially award winning. Like with most things in life though you shouldn’t go looking for them though — you should let them find you. Bit profound, but you can’t and shouldn’t start a new project and think ‘…right, let’s win an award with this one!’ — it defeats the purpose of what we as designers set out to do — create. Either way, winning an award is definitely an aim we all aspire to.
Screengrab below from D&AD Branding 2011 entry — regardless of the design agency size, the fee to enter a branding project for a small business with up to 10 employees is the same fee as that to enter work created for a firm with 250 employees — is that right though? Why can’t the fee be relative to the business / budget being worked on? There’s very few branding projects at MD where we work with businesses with more than 8 employees:
Moving on out
Going forward it should be the aim of award organisations to make themselves less elitist and more accessible for everyone. It shouldn’t be about those that are big enough to absorb the cost or those that have been in business for 10+ years. It should after all just be about the work. There needs to be a bit more relativity of agency size to entry fee, so here are some thoughts for award organistations to consider making it less daunting:
1. If fee really is the main reason less people enter, why not have award categories split dependent on agency size? -Should a two man creative team be up against a large global agency, let alone pay the same entry fee?
2. Why couldn’t there be a series of award categories based on agency age, so a 1, 2 or 5 year old agency only competes with agencies on the same size and scale? -We’re more likely to enter a branding campaign of our own if we know we’re not up against Wolff Olins and the AOL re-brand.
3. Why can’t there be a full or half entry fee refund if you don’t get nominated? -It would be very interesting to see the figures of how much money is injected in award schemes by people who don’t even get through the first round.
4. If refunds don’t work, what about half price entry for the next year? -We need incentives to get involved, let alone come back again.
Obviously this will take some working out to resolve, but if award organisations want the likes of Mat Dolphin to enter their award schemes then they need to make them more accessible, less financially straining and certainly less daunting by pitching us up against the big boys. Naturally this is a big incentive for us to push our work and keep trying harder to push creativity, but there’s more against’s than for’s before we’ve even started.
“We’ve won most of the world’s most valued bits of wood and metal, but only one actually got us another project.”
-Quote from Johnson Banks website
We all want and need recognition. When it comes to awards it’s like constructive feedback in a shiny gold plated box. We’re so used to recognition on a smaller scale everyday where we’re encouraged to LIKE a Facebook page, HEART a Vimeo video. A design award is just the pinnacle of that LIKE pile.
We need merit systems and awards. Everyday design work is critiqued on the internet (Brand New, QBN) for better or worse. We need industry defining measures of what’s good, and what is truly incredible and worth seeing by everyone. Separate the wheat from the chaff and all that. We need to see boundaries being pushed and challenged so that our own work and creativity is inspired. But above and beyond that we also need self belief in our work and ability. If we stay true to that then everything should fall into place.
I’m fairly sure in years to come we’ll enter our work into something. You can’t win unless you enter, but don’t enter just because you want to win. The biggest reason we won’t enter for some time is based on a financial decision — and yes we’re aware of the Catch-22 idea of what could happen if we did enter. For the time being though we’re doing fine without an award, but yes, it would be great to be recognised and put something on the shelf.
Thank you reading. Did we miss anything? Are we forgetting a major factor? We encourage debate.