Opinion: Charl Thom on why FoxP2 is taking a break from awards

Why sit out the ad world's most important annual events? FoxP2 Group CEO Charl Thom tells us how the decision germinated from a midnight walk in New York City.
Charl Thom and team collected 14 Loeries last year. FoxP2 has consistently done well at award shows and ended up fifth overall on the most recent Creative Circle rankings.
Charl Thom and team collected 14 Loeries last year. FoxP2 has consistently done well at award shows and ended up fifth overall on the most recent Creative Circle rankings.


I’m staying in downtown New York with one of our business partners Andrew Whitehouse and his family. A healthy dose of jet lag ensures that this question is keeping me awake. Why?

I am a lucky man. I love my job. But this question is one that I ask myself at least once a year. Why do I really love it? Why do we do what we do? Why have we chosen to make a living in our industry? Why do we often work long hours or weekends? Are we still doing it to the best of our ability? Are the answers I gave myself to these questions last year, still valid today? Nothing like being out of your own country, in a different time zone, and on the other side of the world to force some perspective on yourself.

Around 11pm the next night I dress warmly, put on Andrew’s noise-canceling headphones, and head off to explore Gotham to a soundtrack of The Boss.

New York City can be a place full of mystery and wonder at this hour. Up and down the city streets and across the bridges you see everything from mad dog buskers singing about lost love to newly acquainted lovers kissing in dark corners. From Chinese hookers and African drug dealers plying their trade down the dirty alleys, to beautifully lit snow-covered Christmas trees straight out of a fairytale.

Even with all of this around me, the question still plagues me.

It was Henry Ford that said “A business that makes nothing but money, is a poor business.” It was somewhere over Manhattan Bridge that I realised Mr Ford was helping me to answer my question with those wise words.

We keep doing what we do, because deep down, no matter what our job description, we are all creative beings.

We create, or we start dying slowly. We have to make stuff. Whether it’s a cupcake, or a painting, or a photograph that gets some loving on Instagram, we all thrive on that feeling we get when we’ve made something we can feel proud of. Something that didn’t exist before.

That’s why, when FoxP2 was born, we named ourselves after the creativity gene. Because that great feeling you get is 50 000 years of evolution saying, “Good job”. And we really want everyone at FoxP2 to feel that all the time. It’s why we are here day after day, and it is why we enshrined it as a principle on our front door. 

We fight for it every day and everyone here plays their part in creating the work we eventually set free into the world on behalf of our clients. Whether they came up with the strategic insight on which an idea was built, or whether they came up with the creative concept, or whether they made the coffee to keep us going during the late night brainstorms.

This is a principle we promised ourselves we would stay true to, and walking through the streets of New York, I challenged myself on where we stand on this today. How do we make sure we hold on to and honour such a fundamental founding principle? How do we not forsake it in the years to come?

How do we avoid making those little compromises, the ones that go almost undetected, but that add up to a thousand little compromises, if left unchecked, that result in you waking up one morning not knowing where your highest ideals have gone?

It’s a question that challenges not only me on a regular basis, but also my three business partners, a bunch of guys at the top of their game, and in my humble opinion, some of the most brilliant creative minds in the world. Guys that ultimately just want to solve the big problems and sometimes terrifying challenges clients throw our way, and create solutions for them. Guys that want to create great work that delivers exceptional results for the people that have entrusted us with their brands and their business. Guys that would not allow ourselves to be sidetracked and distracted from this original mission.

It was the man in my headphones that once said “More than rich, more than famous, more than happy, I wanted to be great”. And that is where it has to start. With being great. With doing great work. For our clients. For our brands. For the sake of the standards we hold ourselves to.

But here’s the thing with creativity – you have to feed it. You have to feed it in order to inspire the greatness, which I believe resides in all of us.

So between Justin, Grant, Andrew and myself we asked ourselves these questions: What would feed us and inspire us most in 2014? What would most fill our creative tanks? Taking half a million rand, and investing it in award show entries for a year? Or taking half a million rand, and investing it in inspiring our people for a year? The answer, to me, and to my partners, seemed blindingly obvious.

Let me be clear at this point, I believe wholeheartedly in the power, place and importance of creative award shows, much more so than most. I have publicly argued against the detractors of the Loerie Awards, as I believe these award shows inspire and motivate us all to greater heights.  But award success should only ever be a byproduct of being great, truly great. And we should constantly be striving to become that as our first priority, even if we know it’s a never-ending journey.

FoxP2 has also been no stranger to award shows, we have tasted significant success at Cannes, Clio’s, D&AD and the Loeries. We ended up fifth overall on the most recent Creative Circle rankings. We have been top of the Loeries rankings twice, and we have never been outside of the top 10. We are proud of this track record.

But we have decided to experiment with feeding ourselves in a different way this year. We are going to take a year off award shows, and we are going to send our people to see and do inspirational things all around the world. From New York to Cape Town, from Rio to Lagos. We want them to experience what it feels like to walk across Brooklyn Bridge late at night, because they are in New York for the 99u conference to listen to Seth Godin impart years of wisdom. Or chat to locals over morning Americanos at Starbucks in Austin, Texas because they are there for SXSW. Or watch a confined Julian Assange speaking about Internet surveillance from the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

We sent our entire agency team to Design Indaba, an event that attracts people from all over the world. We are going to find ways to have inspirational minds spend time inside FoxP2. We are going to give every staff member three extra leave days to explore their inner shadow artist. And we are going to stop thinking about award shows in any shape or form, for a year, and see what happens.

So yes, we are lucky, we get to create for a living. We get to solve and create answers to business problems for our clients. It’s our responsibility to do whatever it takes to be great at that, because as Abraham Lincoln once said “Whatever you are, be a good one”.

Follow our adventure on foxp2.com/foxflame and @FoxP2flame

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