What makes a winning award entry?

When it comes to entering awards, here is some simple advice to make your entry stand out from the crowd

The CorpComms Awards have  come a long way from the first one held at the Royal Horticultural Hall in early December 2006, since when at least 4,000 entries have been read, pored over, discussed and debated by several hundred judges with expertise stretching from financial PR to branding to public affairs and internal communications.

Every entry submitted to the CorpComms Awards is judged on one single day – across three or four rooms. There is no pre-judging filtering. All the judges see prior to that fateful day is the 600 word executive summary submitted in each awards entry. And we make it easy for them: each receives a packed A4 ring binder containing printed summaries for each category they will be considering. They arrive early, enthusiastic but heavily laden down, and leave exhausted but exhilarated. It is a tiring day.

As editor, and owner, of CorpComms Magazine, my role on judging day is not to interfere with the process but to moderate any debate (which can be many any heated) so that a particular room of judges reaches consensus on which entry should pick up the trophy.

It’s an important point. In each room of judges, there will always be one or two who do not agree with a particular decision for a category but who are willing to concede that the majority view should prevail.

Allowing such open discussions ensures that no one judge holds too much power in the decision-making process and prevents individual biases or prejudices coming to the fore. The robust debate also ensures that, should any award be challenged, I am confident in the process that led up to the ultimate decision.

There are some points that regularly arise from these debates that should provide valuable guidance for anyone considering entering this year’s awards.

1. STICK TO THE RULES

The CorpComms Awards requires entries of no longer than 600 words over two pages. I can guarantee that within minutes of the judges sitting down, one of them will have highlighted an entry that has stretched over four or more pages. Some judges will automatically disqualify or mark an entry as zero for failing at that first hurdle.

That may sound harsh, but it is unfair on those entries that have adhered to the word count who may otherwise be unfairly impacted by an entry that has used an additional 400 words to highlight its creativity.

The two page rule is important too. Using big font and spreading 600 words over multiple pages, illustrated with images and pull out quotes, irritates the judges.

2. STATE THE OBJECTIVES AT THE OUTSET

I recognise that entering awards is both expensive and time-consuming, that’s why we want every entry to have a fair shot at the top prize. But some fail at the first hurdle. Why? Because it is not clear what the objectives of the campaign ultimately were. If the judges are not certain what it was meant to do, how can they assess whether the campaign achieved its goals?

3. DON’T WAFFLE

We occasionally receive complaints that 600 words is an inadequate amount to explain, in detail, the complexities, creativity and ultimate achievements of a campaign, and yet others seem to manage without any problems. How? They stick to the point. They don’t waffle about unnecessary or frivolous stuff.

Who cares that it took five days to source the balloons? Did the balloons impact the result? Good entries start with a plan: they set out the objectives, explain the challenges, highlight the creativity and demonstrate the results.

But from a practical point of view, the judges have a lot of entries to read in one day. Your entry needs to grab their attention from the outset, and keep it. Quite frankly, 600 words can feel as dense as War and Peace if it is poorly constructed and thought through. You’re communicators: communicate!

4. DON’T BURY YOUR RESULTS

I can remember one occasion where the judges were about to dismiss an entry when one shouted out that, right at the bottom of the supporting materials, he had spotted the proof that the campaign had achieved its ultimate objective – a major policy change. It was the entry that eventually won the category, but it so nearly didn’t.

Some entries highlight in the first sentence or so that they set out to achieve X and actually achieved X+Y: from the outset the judges know that the entry has done what it says on the tin!

5. SHOW YOUR ENTRY TO SOMEBODY ELSE BEFORE PRESSING ‘SEND’

Sometimes people are too close to the work written about in the entry to recognise whether their prose makes sense. I have occasionally heard judges shout out Does anybody know what this entry is all about? Ask an innocent bystander to read through and offer genuine feedback. If they don’t understand it, how can you expect the judges to?

6. CHECK YOUR WORK

Do judges disqualify entries because of typos? No. I don’t believe so. Do typos sway their opinion? Possibly.

Judges are only human. We’ve had entries submitted with the name of other awards schemes on the front, and some where the name of the campaign or client is incorrectly spelled. People notice these things. After reading a few entries that are badly written, judges seem to ‘jump’ on those that are well thought out and clearly constructed.

7. INCLUDE YOUR BUDGET

Okay, so it does say on the entry form that budgets should be included (or, at least, an idea of the scale) but many fail to include them. This can lead judges to draw conclusions or ‘guesstimate’. An all-singing, all-dancing, integrated campaign that attracts a global audience is probably going to cost A LOT! But if guidance is not included then some judges might conclude that the agency or client is ‘embarrassed’ about the cost. Why? Because the results don’t quite match up to the expense.

The judges aren’t fooled. If a campaign costs in excess of £1 million but achieves its ultimate goal (whatever that may be) that’s fine: it’s the £1 million plus budgets that achieve just 200 ‘likes’ on Facebook that the judges don’t reward (unless, of course, those 200 are the top politicians in the world).

8. DON’T LEAVE IT TO THE INTERN

It may surprise you to learn that some organisations have teams dedicated to entering awards. They spend time gathering all the requisite information from those involved before constructing their entry, which usually follows a specific format. They set out the objectives, explain the challenges, highlight the creativity and demonstrate the results.

On occasion, when I have notified an entrant that they were unsuccessful, they have expressed regret that they didn’t personally spend more time on the entry but had instead delegated to a junior person. In doing so, they may have put themselves at an immediate disadvantage to a competitor who has delegated writing the entry to a senior, more experienced person.

9. DON’T TRY TO FOOL THE JUDGES

We choose our judges because of their experience and breadth of knowledge. There is little that they have not seen before. As a result, they have finely tuned bullsh*t alarms that ring out loud when they see a spurious claim in an awards entry.

10. INCLUDE YOUR RESULTS

Here are some actual* ‘results’ from past entries. ‘Everybody had a fabulous time.’ ‘The team loved the new look.’ ‘Feedback from the client’s [sic] has been overwhelmingly positive.’ And, my personal favourite, ‘our work went a long way to establishing X as the leading Y in their field’, which prompted this response from one judge: ‘So bad it made me grind my teeth.

The judges need hard evidence and metrics, not anecdotal insights. The above entries were at an immediate disadvantage to those that included sales figures, employee engagement figures, return-on-investment analysis or actual behavioural change, to name but a few robust measures. If you are comparing one campaign that proved it had worked to reduce teenage pregnancy rates against one where the client ‘was thrilled’, which would you pick as the winner? (Answer: the client is no longer thrilled.)

*Some words have been changed to protect identities.