Ego vs. COVID: Is creative work without awards enough?

—Creatives may be unsure about entering award shows right now, but once the crisis passes that hesitation will disappear and awards will be as coveted as ever, says BRIAN HOWLETT—

Agency inboxes are piling up with news of award shows postponements, deadline extensions and moves to virtual celebrations. With every notification, we suffer a pang of conscience: health care workers are putting their lives at risk, Governor Cuomo hasn’t slept in days, and I’m worried about the entry criteria for a TV ad?

A couple of weeks ago, we also saw a petition to ban COVID-19 ads from any awards shows that do go off. That pang of conscience turned to full-blown nausea. Creatives were already thinking about the pandemic in terms of award-winning work? It brought to mind what remains my favourite industry tweet to date on the ongoing crisis: “It isn’t a brief. It’s a pandemic.”

So, when the London International Awards announced that they were canceling their show outright and then Cannes did the same, a large part of my brain cheered. But of course, there was also that little part that chirped, “Shit, we had a really cool radio spot this year that had a chance at both those shows.”

Come hell or high water, the ego is a persistent little bugger. Creatives, being perhaps the most insecure people on the planet today outside of politicians, are in constant need of affirmation. So, in a new world where there will be no high-fives on awards stages in the months ahead, replaced by far less satisfying “virtual” celebrations, do we share news of a win with gusto? Or with mock humility?

Will an agency decide, out of either moral or—more likely—financial concerns, to sit out the endless parade of shows altogether? Will another choose to send those precious entry fees to an NGO, or health care support group?

Post-pandemic, how should we view something as insignificant as a creative achievement? It isn’t only advertising that has to consider this. My flirtations with publishing offer witness to the same dilemma, and I’m sure it applies to all the arts.

The literary world is as awards crazy as advertising, with publishers and authors being as quick—if not quicker—to bring out the social media trumpet as is any ad agency. When I recently learned some of my own writing has been shortlisted for publication honours, my Twitter finger itched. I knew what the promiscuous little digit wanted to do. But I held it back. “Not so fast, trigger.” (Although I think I just found a way to insert a brag about it here. There goes that ego again.)

So, going forward, if we do decide to enter a show, should we then seek penance? Entering an A-list program like the One Show would only require five Hail Mary’s. But entering others, where the hardware gets handed out like candy, may call for doing the entire rosary. (On that subject, why do the trophies get bigger as the show’s credibility gets smaller?)

There is already copious LinkedIn white paper chatter about this pandemic exacting permanent change on our behaviours, as we become warier of crowds in general, question material pursuits, rediscover the joys of the simpler things in home and life and grow more attuned to the needs of others.

But when it comes to ego gratification for creative types, I’ll bet against any significant behaviour change. The awards shows are likely safe, because my money remains solidly on the ego.

Brian Howlett is the chief creative officer of Agency59 in Toronto.