The first experience I ever had of attending an industry awards event was losing. It was the PR Week Awards 2005 and Golden Goose PR was up for Best New Agency, an award that went to Threepipe. For a kitchen table start-up, the whole experience was as much an education as it was an expense.
At Golden Goose in the early days we worked mainly with challenger brands, but our profits were healthy and by creative thinking and relationships, we’d landed positive coverage about our clients all over the media. But did it only count when you worked with a business that the world had already heard about? Would we ever be taken seriously by our industry? Sitting there in prom dresses with a helium-balloon goose, you couldn’t really blame us for questioning it.
You can imagine how I felt five years later when we were shortlisted by the panel at the CIPR Excellence Awards for our controversial campaign for a new dating site, BeautifulPeople.com. A little older and a lot more cautious I sparingly bought two tickets for my team and gave the evening a miss to look after my eight week-old baby. I nearly threw her in the air when I heard we’d won. It felt like a moment of validation from the establishment. And it wasn’t for best low budget campaign or best event, it was Best Global Campaign – the one I cared about the most, because I saw it as a key to unlock the door to global brands.
That year, we won Access Self Storage – which remains a client to this day – and Truprint. We also helped the Brooklyn Brothers win the launch of the Range Rover Evoque. Chinawhite and Woolworths.co.uk were on retainers. Samsung came back for a fourth year of project work. We recruited more staff and it started to feel like we were going to take over the world, except by the end of 2010 my partner and I decided to split the business. Importantly to me, the name, the award and most of the longest standing clients remained mine.
A split at any other time would be testing, but with an 11-month old, working from home while looking for new offices was a challenge. I was quite tempted to take a break, but the shiny, still very new Best Global Campaign Award on my kitchen table kept reminding me how great Golden Goose could be.
What happened soon after could not have been better timed. Jess Stewart, a colleague from the noughties, had been asked to recommend an agency for Sea Containers, the building on the South Bank which was being renovated into a luxury hotel and office space. I met the partners for the first time in February 2012 and by June 5th – the date of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee – my small team (now mainly made up of home-working mums) and I had transformed it into the most famous building in the world.
The idea I’d had in the first meeting was to blow up an iconic photo of the royal family from the 1977 Silver Jubilee and wrap the building in it, revealing it to the world a week before the Queen’s flotilla parade. Logistically, the stadium-sized wrap had to be dropped one panel at a time, so we made that our social media strategy, teasing the campaign from a boat across the river as we revealed one panel each day, ending the week with the Queen’s face. The day the full image was draped across it, Sea Containers was everywhere. Our remit was to get coverage in the UK, US and Europe, but we kept on going – China and India even covered the news.
Our time-lapse film and photography had gone viral. And it pretty much stayed that way throughout the Jubilee celebrations and the Olympics, for which it appeared as a backdrop in the women’s marathon. It was hashtagged and Instagrammed and tweeted countless times and ran as the image on the cover of the last edition of the The Sunday Times Magazine in 2012. Their headline was simply ‘It’s a Wrap’.
I’d always wanted a Cannes Lion and Sea Containers won us a gold for media relations in 2013. It carried on to win countless other awards that year and I spent most of my evenings obsessively filling out entries, fitted around the night feeding routine of my second baby who was born that spring. I’m glad I did it, as when the PR Week Awards came round that year, Matt Peacock, former Global Director of Corporate Affairs at Vodafone was a judge and loved the campaign. Vodafone Group was keen to do more creative digital work and so Matt asked me to start consulting for the business.
Six years later, and there are 25 PR awards that belong to Vodafone Group – specifically to the team I work with – for global strategies that we’ve shaped together. The growth of digital and the ability to work on initiatives with social purpose at Vodafone has been particularly rewarding, as well as life-changing for the people who benefit from the sustainable business and Vodafone Foundation programmes we communicate.
On the awards circuit, where some of the brightest PR talent is sitting in the room or following the outcome on social media, the result is that when you win – especially for meaningful CSR and diversity programmes, great people want to work with you. Plus, you get to hear about all the other outstanding campaigns you can learn from.
What awards have done for me is to open doors that may not have opened so fast – or at all. They have also made me a better strategist and planner. When you’re used to writing and judging entries you know what you need to build into a campaign to make it solid. You have to aim to change behaviour or perceptions among your target audience and prove it thorough evaluation. This is always a valuable exercise even if you don’t want to enter awards, because by doing so, you’ll have a clearer grasp of the effectiveness of your ideas and you’ll know what makes your target market tick.
Of course there will always be the nay-sayers. The people who say it’s all about knowing how to enter them well and polishing your trophy shelf. But does Steven Spielberg make a movie without striving for an Oscar? Does Beyonce put out an album aiming for it to go to number 2? Why should we aim for anything less?
My awards kept me going during the most challenging times of my career and helped me re-build. And by striving to win, I believe I learned how to be the best communications person I could be. For in-house teams, I’ve seen award wins unlocking budgets, giving them the opportunity to communicate even more impactful work.
Both entering and attending awards can become an expensive business, but so is pitching, new business mailing and networking. Awards have helped me tick multiple boxes at once and show we have trusted credentials, especially at the times when my office has had to be my home. Also, entering them is less expensive than attending. The year we won a Cannes Lion I didn’t fly to Nice on the off-chance we’d win or buy tickets to the festival. When I got the good news (in Waitrose!) I had a great night in celebrating with my family, saved thousands and the award arrived in the post.
Awards are like a game. But I like being in this game. I think as PR people whose natural instincts are to champion brands, individuals and businesses we should enjoy these opportunities to excel and win.
Tips to enter awards:
1: Use bullet points to keep each entry short and clear
2: Set out your objectives and ensure your outcomes show each one has been met
3: Explain how you overcame a challenge and/or tackled the brief with creativity
4: Evaluate thoroughly to understand your reach and positive sentiment across broadcast, social, online and print
5: I highly recommend investing in a short post-campaign attitudinal survey with Market Tiers, 3GEM or Opinium. Two questions is all you need to ask
6: Use your data to explain how you’ve influenced a shift in behaviour or thinking among your target market
7: Include short testimonials from clients, stakeholders, beneficiaries or powerful quotes from media/personalities – these could be taken from the campaign, or by asking for feedback
8: If you’re invited to a CIPR Excellence judging panel, it’s a good idea to bring a client or stakeholder who will testify you have done an exceptional job
9: Remember AVE doesn’t count and will get you disqualified
10: If your entry is strong, try putting it forward for multiple categories and use the outcome to judge which categories or awards you put it forward for again. The year I won Best Live Event at the PR Week Awards it was for a campaign I nearly didn’t enter in that category