The truth about industry awards: the good, the bad and the ugly

At a conservative estimate, there are over 75 different awards schemes open to the digital marketing sector. Let’s say that there’s an average of twenty-five categories per awards scheme and that works out at 1875 different opportunities to win every year.

Everyone loves an awards ceremony right?

Well not everybody. This piece was prompted by a client very vociferously telling me that nobody trusts awards, nobody cares about them and that they’re a massive waste of time. That’s not an uncommon opinion and many people talk about cutting spend in this area to focus on activities where they are more in control of the outcomes.

On the other hand, we have clients who have a constant stream of awards entries on the go and indeed many have reported incoming business off the back of a win.

Full disclosure, I’ve been involved in a lot of awards. From the legendary NMA awards in front of 2000 people on Park Lane to having a song sung about me by the London Gay Choir at the inaugural British Media Awards at the Emirates Stadium.

I was behind The Drum launching the Digital Trading Awards, now renamed the Digital Advertising Awards and one of its biggest awards programs. I’ve hosted, judged and attended more awards than I can remember. And trust me, there are many of those nights where my memories are hazy at best.

But let’s address some of the biggest criticisms of awards head on.

1.All these awards are rigged.

I never heard or saw anything credible to that effect.  I cannot remember how many judging sessions I’ve attended for The Drum, Media Briefing or NMA and I never saw or heard anything which got me worried.

Where issues arise it’s normally because of information being omitted from entries, often about partner agencies or vendors’ involvement. I’ve been offered bribes to ‘influence’ an award on more than one occasion and I’ve also been told that certain companies would pull ads from my title if they didn’t win. On every occasion I’ve reported this to whoever was chairing the judging panel.

The problem is that most people don’t understand how the process works and to be fair, those holding the awards don’t always help themselves. Rob Weatherhead of Fast Web, an awards veteran of entering, winning and judging told me:

The main issue the awards industry has is transparency. There is rarely transparency on the winning entries, or the losing entries for that matter. So, nobody gets visibility on why something won. This is the primary reason that people make the assumption that winning comes down to who knows who, or who sponsors, or who takes the most tables.”

The Drum is never shy of launching an awards. It had twenty-three at the last count across London, Glasgow, New York and Singapore so they should know a thing or two. I spoke to Head of Events Lynn Lester about how she viewed the transparency issue:

“This is the most important part of any awards programme.  Firstly, you need an experienced and diverse judging panel who all sign NDAs.  I’ve heard about events where people can pay to be on a jury, but a judge should never ever pay to appear on a panel.

“Conflicts of interests must be nipped in the bud right away and anyone who has an interest in an entry should not be allowed to go anywhere near the discussion or indeed the category. Many times I’ve had to politely ask very senior people to leave a room and they certainly won’t be the last.  I do tend to offer them a glass of wine as they exit though!”.

2. Media Owners hold awards to showcase the best of the industry

Well maybe that’s a by-product but let’s be honest, every awards scheme is there to make money for the organiser. Back in the days of the NMA Awards, they could generate revenues of up to £500k in entries, sponsorship and table sales.

I very much doubt that many awards in this sector (with the exception of Cannes Lions) come close to that now. Sponsorship sales are tough, and people will only really attend if they have been shortlisted. This can sadly lead some less-scrupulous organisers to have very long shortlists.

There are simply too many awards for people to attend socially any more. I remember back in 2006 meeting a very well-known industry figure who told me he was booking just one seat as he was using the NMA Awards as a networking opportunity to find a job. I’m not sure that would be a great plan these days.

3. Winning an award is great for PR and new business.

Well, yes and no. Sure, you will get a great write up in which ever mag held the awards, but nobody ever covers another media owner’s awards (again, Cannes Lions are the exception here).

That being said, it’s a great message to communicate to clients, prospects and your staff. Rob Wetherall told me “After the night itself, the award can just be a slide in a pitch deck, or it can be the collateral you use to fuel your new business efforts.  By taking the award win, writing it up promoting it, sending it to relevant businesses, using it to secure meetings etc then you can turn that award win into revenue and income.  If you don’t put in the hard work following the win it was just a good night out and a bit of client hospitality.”

Awards can undoubtedly generate both new business and good PR but you need to go into the process with your eyes wide open,  understand that neither is guaranteed, and that unless you put a proper amount of effort into the submission process itself, you’re simply wasting your money.

In the second part of this article, I’ll look at what are probably two of the biggest misconceptions about awards.

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