Winning awards in the time of Covid

Last night, it really did come home. And not just England reaching the final of Euro 2020(1) by seeing off Denmark in extra time.

481 days after taking my last train – back from a great ‘lunch and learn’ with an agency in central London on Friday 13 March 2020 – I boarded the largely-empty, London-bound 16.57 from Lewes. At Haywards Heath, I met my long-term collaborator and friend, Belinda Gannaway of Fathom XP, whom I’d last seen for a lockdown 2.0 walkshop over the Downs back in November.

Slightly giddy with the novelty of it all, we chatted about the pros and cons of different online collaboration tools, from Miro to Jamboard. But we couldn’t long disguise our excitement at quite how “2019” we were being: travelling, together, IRL, on a train, to Central London, headed to an awards dinner in a hotel, where our work was up for three Internal Communications and Engagement (ICE) Awards from Communicate magazine.

After a bus to Cambridge Circus, we strolled through the bustling streets of Covent Garden, an atmosphere of palpable excitement in the air. The pubs and bars and pop-up venues were filled with Euros fever, while the planning gods calmly directed us away from screens and booze and towards the Grand Connaught Rooms.

On the steps of the hotel, masked up, we met one of our clients from global logistics business Crown Worldwide, with whom we’d jointly entered three awards for our 2020 work around establishing and landing a new sense of purpose for the business. We took our socially-distanced table – just four to a roundel that pre-pandemic might have held eight or even ten, cheek-by-jowl – and were soon joined by our second client.

As the prosecco started to flow, it became clear that tonight would be no ordinary night. Just after half-seven, Communicatemagazine’s publisher, Andrew Thomas, mapped out the evening ahead. A few awards before kick-off, the first half of ENGvDEN on the giant, on-stage screen, more awards during half-time, and the rest at the end of the match. No commentary, no cheering, and no jumping up and down. At least that was the plan.

Those pesky planning gods truly do have a sense of humour. With last year’s ICE Awards inevitably Covid-cancelled, Thomas and his team were determined to celebrate great work in internal communications and engagement combined with a properly three-dimensional experience that also accommodated the nation’s love affair with Southgate’s young and dynamic team. It paid off.

None of the categories we’d entered featured in the four, pre-match awards. At half-time, we won a very fine, highly commended in the “Best innovation” category. By that time, Denmark’s skipper, Simon Kjaer, had restored the party mood somewhat by putting through his own net. The equaliser came from a devastating cross from Bukayo Saka that Raheem Sterling would otherwise have netted for sure. This rather made up for the stunning free-kick – against the script if not the early run of play – from Mikkel Damsgaard. It was 1-1 at half-time, and we, too, felt happy to be on the scoresheet.

Scripts and narrative conventions are there to be ripped up, and Kane and co were in no mood to let the 2021 ICEs end early. Extra time and – noooooo! – penalties loomed, and it looked like it could be well into tomorrow before we knew our respective fates. Fortunately, Sterling’s sterling endeavours won England a single extra-time penalty. Denmark’s chippie, chirpie ‘keeper – Kasper “the unfriendly ghost” Schmeichel – had made himself a rest-of-career boo-boy by pouring cold water on the “coming home” theme in a press conference earlier in the week, suggesting that the Euros had never been “home” in England in the first place. True to form and genetic ability, he saved Kane’s spot kick, only parrying it out into the England skipper’s path. This allowed ‘Arry to taste heaven and set up Sunday’s final against Italy with a second bite of the cliché.

As England fans celebrated deliriously at the final whistle – in Covent Garden, at Wembley, across the streets of London, all over the country – the ICEs got back on track. Two awards after the restart, the Crown-Fathom-Insight Agents midfield trio were lauded with a gold for “Best evaluation process of internal communications”. Not long after, we were garlanded with the data storyteller’s dream award – “Best use of data”. And with a final twist of fate on this glorious night, we only went and scooped the Grand Prix as well.

What a night! On the muted journey home – with trains lulled clickety-clack to the strains of “It’s coming home …” – I reflected on what a tremendous evening it had been. Getting back together in person with excellent collaborators and clients. Attending an awards dinner empathetic enough to show the semi-final wrapped around its business of the evening – thanks Andrew, and team. And walking off with a perfect hattrick of ICE Awards. Who needs “left foot, right foot, header” when you’ve got two Golds and a Grand Prix. Not to mention the recognition of our half-time highly commended – a bit like a shot that rattled the bar and maybe – just maybe – went over the line.

“Winning awards in the time of Covid” popped into my head as a title for a blog in the early hours of the morning after, a distant echo of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, Love in the Time of Cholera. But thanks to Communicate, Fathom, Crown – not to mention Kane, Southgate, and Kjaer – the sheer 2019 normality of last night, topped off with the over-generous dollop of recognition for great partnership with real impact, will live long, long, long in the memory as we emerge blinking into light of the post-Covid business world.

It’s at moments like these that we can all see emerging threads of how to make it simpler to live, work, and do business anywhere in the world. Which incidentally was the purpose statement we co-created with Crown pre-Covid, was the basis for amazing activation by our client during the past crazy pandemic year within the business, and that Communicate magazine saw fit to honour at last night’s awards. Thanks so much to all involved.

Full details of the winners in the 2021 ICE Award winners are here. I still have to pinch myself to believe it’s true. In every sense and every direction, it really did come home last night, whatever Schmeichel may have wanted. Roll on the next time …

The author honed his football cliché skills writing weekly match reports for his son’s football team. Several glorious seasons are recorded at