What we learned from our ‘no awards’ policy

When we launched The Garden nearly five years ago, my partner Shari Walczak and I made the conscious choice not to enter awards shows.

It wasn’t an easy decision, and we were definitely nervous about the impact it might have on the growth and reputation of our new shop. But as we set out to experiment with a new model and challenge some industry conventions, we felt it was the right place to start.

It hasn’t always been easy, and there have definitely been times when a piece of creative would hit my desk and my inner awards show junkie would scream “Enter it!” But I knew that if I allowed myself that taste, I’d have a hard time going back. Thankfully, more often than not, it’s proven to be a surprisingly positive experience. Here are five things we’ve learned:

1. We’re still motivated to do great work. A common misconception I hear is that because we don’t enter award shows, we must not care about doing great work. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I find that we actually have to push harder, because without a trophy case full of awards to lean on, our work needs to stand on its own. Now, instead of working to get the award show judges buzzing, we focus on getting mainstream media (and your niece) to share it. They’re not mutually exclusive, but they often require the same level of breakthrough thinking and can be equally difficult to pull off.

2. Clients seem more willing to take risks. It comes down to trust. When we’re pushing a client towards buying a piece of work, they know we have their best interests at heart, not our own. There are no hidden motives or agendas. There’s no us versus them— everyone in the room is working towards the same goal. Plus, when work is created in the spirit of solving the client’s problem (rather than in the hopes of winning an award) the solution naturally tends to make more sense against that problem—which makes it infinitely easier to buy, even when it’s scary.

3. Great talent still wants to work here. Early on, when I would tell people about our no-awards policy, the first question I would get was “How will you get good talent to work for you?” It was a fair question, and one that I worried about. Turns out, I worried for nothing. I start every meeting with new creative prospects by letting them know about our policy. In almost five years, not one has so much as flinched. None. Universally it has been of no consequence, and as such we have had the privilege of working with some of the most talented people in our business.

4. It’s left us with extra time and money. Awards shows can be a huge time suck and are very expensive, especially when you consider the amount of resources required to do them well. We give both the time and money back to our staff by encouraging and funding creative passion projects within the agency. Another nice by-product of the extra time is the freedom it gives our teams to spend more time with friends and family, and fewer hours in the office.

5. There’s a deeper satisfaction in the work. This is a highly personal one, as I can’t speak to other people’s experiences, but back when all of my focus was on winning awards, it sometimes felt a little empty; as though my career lacked substance or that I somehow wasn’t really doing my job. Now I feel like there’s more sense of purpose in the work. Every brief matters, not just the “opportunities,” and I tend to get far more satisfaction by making our client’s success the only measure of our own success.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that award-winning work doesn’t work, and I’m certainly not saying that everyone should stop entering. But if you’ve considered it, I’m happy to tell you there is, in fact, breathable air outside the awards show bubble.

When you start looking beyond the conventions of our business, you can often discover surprising benefits you might not have noticed otherwise. As our industry continues to face unprecedented change, and non-agency competitors multiply, it’s worth it for all us to take an honest look at how we’ve been doing things and challenge even the most sacred of cows. A big one for The Garden was award shows—what will yours be?

Shane Ogilvie is founding partner and creative director at The Garden, one of Canada’s top independent creative and brand strategy agencies, with clients including Capital One, Samsung, Roots Canada, WowTech, TedXToronto, Traderev, and Evoco.