Lifting the lid on industry awards

I’ve found this a bit of a tough one to write.

On the one hand, I don’t want to come across as bitter. I’m occasionally bitter about a few things, but this genuinely isn’t one of them.

I also don’t want to upset some of the excellent relationships I’ve got with journalists at various trade publications. This one isn’t on you guys, I promise.

The topic that’s making me appear bitter today is industry awards. More precisely, it’s the way some of these have started to morph into incredibly commercial sponsorship contests only really open to winners who are willing and able to part with wedges of dinero.

I’m prompted to write about this not only because we failed to win a prestigious award recently (these things happen) but because I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the whole industry that has built up around awards. Allow me to explain.

We’ve been winning big awards as a firm and as individuals for nearly a decade. Entering industry awards became a part of our marketing mix when we realised a) clients often search for ‘award-winning financial adviser’ on Google, b) the awards entry process is a great way to externally validate the progress you have made with your business, and c) we like taking home shiny trophies on the train late at night. Shiny things are good.

So we started entering the big industry awards. We learnt from feedback on the unsuccessful entries and started to crack the code to actually winning them. That feels pretty good by the way, beating competition which is usually much larger than our eight, soon to be ten, person practice here on the sleepy Surrey/Sussex border.

During this time, we were always selective about the awards we entered. We would only participate in those awards which, in our opinion, selected winners based on merit. Some industry awards operate on the tacit understanding you sponsor one category to win another. The quality of the required entry process is a good indication of this.

So, on the basis that not all industry awards are created equal, what has happened to jade my opinion of the awards industry more widely?

It all started when I became aware of the existence of a specialist awards marketing consultancy. Yes, there is a company out there which specialises in entering and winning awards on your behalf. They keep their involvement in the process confidential, naturally, but rest assured that they boast a large and consistent stable of winners at each awards ceremony. I’ve seen the stats and these firms are damn good at what they do.

Suddenly, entering and winning awards becomes less about merit and more about paying hefty consultancy fees to craft a winning entry. It’s about pay to play, rather than play to win. Personally, I don’t like that. More importantly, neither do consumers. Speaking to prospective clients about industry awards, I often hear suspicion around how meaningful they really are.

And then I started witnessing other previously merit-based awards becoming far more commercial. The second an entry is submitted, they start hounding you to buy a table. Only finalists see these prices, but when I shared the details with another Financial Planner this morning, it made his jaw drop and eyes bulge. Dinner for ten at an awards ceremony or dinner for seventy at a quality restaurant? The price is about the same.

They don’t only want your money for dinner. There’s an expectation you will also stump up for use of a finalist logo or participation in a marketing package. A few years ago, an events team for an industry award wanted several thousand pounds off us for a marketing package consisting of logo use and some branded chocolate bars.

I’m aware that someone has to pay for industry awards; the process of reviewing entries, interviewing finalists, hiring the venue, hosting the dinner, paying the celebrity speaker and promoting the awards – it must all cost a pretty penny. Sponsorship from product providers isn’t what it once was. The cash has to come from somewhere.

And in an environment where publishers are under the cosh because their readership has moved online and print advertising is evaporating rapidly, their events arms need to bring in the dough.

But then you have instances like Roger Edwards telling me on Twitter this morning (and giving me permission to repeat it here) that one industry award recently invited him to judge a category, and then asked him to pay them £300 for the privilege of being a judge, as it would be great ‘exposure’. They ask him to pay to be a judge! He of course told them to take a hike.

What I guess I’m getting to is that we, as a retail financial services sector, need to take care industry awards don’t cross a line. They must not go from recognising excellence and celebrating achievement to squeezing the pips out of small businesses and selecting winners based on willingness and ability to pay for bars of chocolate.

In all of this, it doesn’t actually matter what you or me think about industry awards. What really does matter is consumer perception.

What I would love to see is each industry award publish a code of conduct, to include the use of independent judging panels who have the final say on winners, with no influence from corporate events teams.

I’m happy to be told in the comments below that I’m being Mr Naïve from Cranleigh and, if I want to win awards in the future, I need to take out my cheque book. I’m happy with that, but at the same time, I’m not entirely comfortable with it.