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.


13 thoughts on “Lifting the lid on industry awards

  • If you cant beat ’em, join ’em, Martin.
    I’m going to set up “Industry Award of the Year”? Just £5,000 to enter.
    I’ll pay you £200 if you’ll be a judge!

    • Great idea. Happy to judge anything in return for £200 and the ‘exposure’.

      On a more serious note though, perhaps there is room for an impartial website comparing industry awards? Consumers could use it to better understand the process winners go through and advisers could use it to decide which awards they could enter and stand a fair chance of winning?

  • Great article Martin. Add to this the issue of conflicts that judges have to face.

    If you are paying to be a judge to get exposure, how likely are you to award a gong to a competitor?

  • PageRussell’s foray into awards was abruptly ended after a couple of clients asked us how much we had had to pay to win!

    Talk about burst your bubble. Especially after working so hard.

    It just goes to show that there are no short cuts in the marketing larks. It’s still all about referrals.

    • Thanks, Tim. I don’t think we’ve ever had that comment directly from a client, but it doesn’t mean that some of them aren’t thinking it!

  • Awards used to be a good mix of the usual suspects and the unexpected new entrants. Along with increasing commercialisation there also seems to be an award for every possible variation of service you can imagine.

    • Thanks, Amanda. The ever growing list of awards makes attending the ceremonies quite challenging as well. One I was invited to recently (I’m not expecting to be invited to others after writing this post!) didn’t start the second part of naming winners until 10pm!

  • Well said Martin. The whole ‘Industry’ thing is corrupt. And, unfortunately, Advisers are just pawns in the Industry game. Harsh, but true.

    That’s why there’s no ‘Industry’ awards at!

    Might be an idea if we STOP using the word ‘Industry’. Better still, anyone saying it should contribute £10 to Nick Cann’s charity raising efforts or some other good cause.
    Come on guys and gals! We are a profession. that occasionally uses products manufactured by the ‘Industry’ (if and when necessary). WE are not the Industry!
    Step out of the GOO folks. Step out of the GOO. Until we do we have no chance of creating a proper financial planning profession.

  • Whilst I’m sure the awards process isn’t as pure as snow I’m not sure it can be described as corrupt. If you look at the recent awards last week then I think in most categories there was a reasonable winner (although the platform award did seem to have a not very shortlist containing most platforms in the UK/room).

    I think the bigger question is what value can be placed on being an award winner of this nature. Will Standard Life secure more business on their platform because of it? Will True Potential get more firms joining them? Will Aspect8 get more clients coming to them for advice?

    See them for being an excuse to drink with a load of peers and if you are stupid enough to pay enough for an award then, as they say with golf, you are only cheating yourself.

  • Martin, the reality is that publishing is very costly, it is paid for by adverts (which some still seem to believe work as they did 30 years ago) and I’m told that the main reason for all the events (award ceremonies) is because thats where the profit is these days… otherwise they (publishers) are just about breaking even… and frankly little wonder if you’ve been to some of their offices, full of staff in central London.

    I’m not in a position to say if the selection and criteria are “corrupt” but to say that some of the winners are surprising is a masterful understatement.

    Any award cerremony is highly subjective – from OSCARS to Heros. We all like to be recognised and nobody seriously thinks that they are “best adviser in Britain” when each publication runs the same category with often rather different results.

    If anything they are a degree of recognition, not to be taken too seriously, but nice to have (come on let’s all be honest) but who is really able to say thay they are the best XYZ in anything. Its twaddle.

    Yet as you know, consumers want reassurance that they are working with “good” people/firms and its just one way to help with the process. This happens in every industry (happy to call it a profession Paul once there is a subscription journal that comprises best practice and research papers, until then we aren’t a profession… anyway the language of “profession” is loaded with social class meaning.. professional road sweep, footballer, sportsperson, lawyer…).

    Being nominated for an award is surely better than putting yourself forward – but what are the criteria? What is annoying is the table cost – but only if you buy the table (you can buy for one), whats more annoying is being short-listed and then finding that many peers (did not enter) get invited by a provider for free…. I’ve been both and recognise the feeling of “unfairness”.

    The worst ones I’ve seen are those where you effectively buy the award having been “nominated” by a publishing company in Burton on Trent that seem to do do this all day long….

    Frankly its not worth worrying about…. I’m more perplexed by New Years honours and Universities giving out Doctorates to famous people making a complete mockery of the efforts of students….something about sychophants…

  • Sad but true.

    This year i was shortlisted at Money marketing Awards and immediately was contacted to book a table. . . I didn’t.

    No surprise then that I didn’t even receive an invite, although I am told that all the judges did. Essentially a profit-making exercise arranged with cynical manoeuvres.

    Truth be told the only genuine guaranteed non-biased award is the original Oscars – Money Management. Others may or may not be genuine but Money Management marks entires with a pin number so the judge/judges do not know whose entry they are reading.

  • Martin, your comments are very true. I attended one awards dinner with Transact. Skandia (who have dreadful customer service) won the most awards and booked the most tables, paying top dollar to sit at the front. I think Transact got one nomination/award so it didn’t look too fudged – they clearly should have won more as they are well run, but they don’t like playing/paying the corruption game. The groans when Skandia collected the awards made the whole thing a farce.

    I would make one caveat and that is the IFP. Their awards appear to be very transparent and I believe are well worth entering. The winners work hard and truly deserve their awards.

  • Some good points here in the article and comments. I hadn’t heard of the awards consultancy but I’m not surprised. They exist because there are a lot more awards out there than people interested in entering them, mostly launched by publishers who need revenue to replace traditional advertising. All it takes is a modicum of effort and many awards are up for the taking simply because there are so few nominees. Also, among those who do enter, submissions are often poor in quality (though I’m sure this wasn’t true in your case Martin). Yes, money is involved somewhere along the line but in any awards worth their salt, winning or being shortlisted will never be made conditional on paying – if it is, steer well clear.


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