The business of creativity — Award show season is upon us

The 2024 Cannes Lions begin today. What can we learn?

Tim Brunelle
6 min readJun 17, 2024

“Awards mean nothing until you are the winner,” Mr. Wolff said. “Then they become richly deserved and full of meaning.”

This timeless quote refers to the National Magazine Awards circa 2002. But it could just as easily point to the emotional characteristics of any creative competition in any era. We aspire to be acknowledged, to see our endeavors separated and lifted above all the rest. It’s very human. Occasionally motivating. Sometimes useful. And it’s definitely a business.

Late May and the month of June generally mark what is referred to, within marketing, as “award show season.” It began with the ANA’s Reggie Awards, then Creative Week (including the Art Directors Club, Type Directors Club and One Show award ceremonies, as well as the Webby Awards and Shorty Awards), followed by the U.S. Effie gala, the American Ad Federation’s ADDYs, and the D&AD Ceremony in London, then segues today into the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. Heads up — your Communication Arts Advertising Annual competition entries are due June 28. And there are the ongoing entries in Lürzer’s Archive or the FWA. Never mind the competitions offered by trade pubs Digiday, Adweekand AdAge. Come fall, we welcome the Emmys, and Clios. This isn’t even counting all of the local, or B2B competitions.

There is a huge business in recognition.

I’ve worked in over a dozen ad agencies. If headcount exceeds 100 it is very common for a single full-time equivalent to devote almost an entire year coordinating award show entries. If you work for an agency network, there might be an awards entry team and bespoke process. Those patient individuals help determine the careful investment of many millions each year towards the aspiration that their agency’s work might be elevated. For reference: In 1984, a not-yet-three year old Fallon McElligott Rice invested “about $20,000” in advertising award entrance fees. For 2024, Cannes Lions reported26,753 submissions with per-entry fees from $696 to $2,869 — depending on the type of entry and deadline. The One Show reported “over 20,000” entries for 2024 with fees ranging from $400 to $1,300 per entry. You did indeed read that right — agencies around the world invested a combined low end $26 million in one year entering just two competitions.

The calculation goes like this: You select and enter your agency’s best work. You hope some of it will catch the judging zeitgeist — because winning might change fortunes — i.e. raise your agency and individual profiles, attracting more and better clients and talent. In the best case scenario, entry fees paid pale in comparison to revenues and reputations generated. Is this connection clear cut and obvious? No. The business of creativity awards is entirely subjective.

When I worked on the Volkswagen “Drivers wanted” campaign at Arnold Worldwide we won the top awards at Cannes, One Show, Clios, et al over several years. Those accolades got us into new biz pitches, helped us hire admirable talent, and nurture the fly wheel. Awards were absolutely a fuel for growth. But. The winning was never consistent — i.e. what won Gold or Best of Show in one competition might only garner a Merit in another, or not place at all in some. Discerning why any idea stands apart during any awards season is perhaps the greatest challenge of all — never mind translating and leveraging such learning into the next batch of work.

It is a business of strategic hopefulness. I spent $1500 this spring entering a campaign into several shows. I was convinced there were enough worthy elements to inspire at least a merit or mention in at least one competition. Nothing came of it. “C’est la vie,” as they mutter on the Boulevard de la Croisette. This is the nature of judges and judging, of the collective body of work entered in a given competition, of culture. Michael Wolff understood things very well.

The Agency Perspective

Assume you will lose, then ask — how can we still win? Competitions are a calculated risk. Paying fees to enter work is profit deliberately not invested in salaries, benefits, equipment, or training. What can you extract from the process that adds value, regardless of outcome? The calculation requires discernment:

1️⃣ How do we know the ideas we plan to submit are our best? This type of question raises questions about how your agency culture operates, how creative vision is validated, and how leadership communicates. Pointing in a clear direction will result in a more transparent, motivated agency. The One Club’s inaugural 2024 Insights Report is a useful place to begin this type of conversation.

2️⃣ What evidence, if any, do we have that our agency’s best work measures up to current global creative excellence? Award season suggests, at the very least, a time for conversation about insight, ideas, craft, cultural fit. It is a classroom opportunity free to all — you are a click away from viewing every single idea that won literally every creative competition ever.

Prior to investing, an agency should evaluate the quality of global creative over several recent years to gauge the worthiness of their own work in that context. It’s not about being accurate, it’s about suggesting and evaluating opinions around taste, experience and skill.

3️⃣ How can we make the 11th ad? In the year and half I spent building the portfolio which got me my first ad gig, a kind person recommended the following — an exercise any creative person should try:

  • Review five awards annuals with a packet of Post-It Notes. (In this day and age you could bookmark or screengrab work.) If you see an idea you admire, mark it with a Note, i.e. It’s your turn to judge the competition
  • Scan, photograph or screengrab all the work you marked with a Note
  • Ask yourself, what is consistent across this body of work you’ve curated? In other words, what elements of creativity matter most to you? Give your curation, what denotes your style?
  • Now narrow the pile down to just ten ideas. Your ten favorites. Put them up on the wall so you can see them every day
  • The next time you’re coming up with ideas, ask yourself — are they on par with your ten favorites and the elements you admire? Have you created the 11th ad?

The Marketer Perspective

If you’re a marketer who cares about more effective persuasion, is curious how brands achieve distinction and preference, and seeks greater efficacy from your agency partners then this time of year can serve you well.

There is, of course, the age old pessimism: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, and the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Thank goodness, then, for Donald Gunn and the WARC Rankings, the Effie Index, and the IPA’s continued research into creative effectiveness. The folks at Better Briefs also have several reports you should read in the context of asking, “how can we inspire better performing creativity?” Or check out Ipsos’ 2023 report which suggests, “Award-winning ads are 29% more effective on short term sales lift potential and 11% more impactful at long-term brand building.”

Award Show season is nothing if not a direct result of this type of inquiry. But you have to talk about it, you have to engage. The useful insights don’t merely rub off and infect organizational culture all on their own.

What if you’ve got an in-house agency?

Even better.

Gather the team and evaluate the One Show’s Brand-Side/In-House category for 2023 and 2024. And enter next year. Maybe attend their Brand-Side conference in October. Then evaluate the In-House Agency Forum’s Creativity Awards. Or the ANA’s In-House Excellence Awards. Look into D&AD’s creative team training programs.

Creativity awards have this odd patina of beaches, pomp and glitz which do a profound disservice to the keen insights available from examining, debating, and celebrating effective ideas.

It is a choice to take advantage.

This piece was originally published via my free Substack newsletter Curiosity+Courage.



Tim Brunelle

I'm a creative enterprise leader, teacher, and entrepreneur living in Minneapolis.